'Vermeer' Sale to Eli Broad Enlivens Sotheby's Auction


With a wave of a numbered paddle, Los Angeles housing executive, financier and art collector Eli Broad injected life and much needed cash into a lackluster auction Wednesday night at Sotheby's New York.

Twenty-one of the 61 works offered at the closely watched auction of contemporary art failed to find buyers. When the final gavel fell, Sotheby's had toted up only $12.32 million in sales--well below the estimated total of $17.61 million to $23.25 million.

But Broad's purchase of Malcolm Morley's 1968 painting "Vermeer, Portrait of the Artist in His Studio" for $627,000 brought a flash of excitement to the sale. During a round of brisk bidding, the price escalated past the pre-sale estimate of $350,000 to $400,000 and set a record for the artist. "Vermeer," a literal re-creation of a poster of an Old Master painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, commanded the third highest price in the auction.

Broad was also the underbidder on the auction's top item, an untitled painting by Cy Twombly, which was sold for $1.65 million to New York dealer Larry Gagosian. The 1969 work from Twombly's "Bolsena" series had been valued at $1.75 million to $2.25 million.

"The Dylan Karina Painting," a Minimalist diptych by Brice Marden, brought the second highest price of $632,500. An unidentified American dealer purchased the Marden, which Sotheby's had estimated at $600,000 to $800,000.

The Morley and the Twombly were among 21 works consigned by British advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, who bought contemporary art in bulk in the 1980s and has sold much of it in the last few years. Saatchi appears to be unloading his collection to offset high losses in his business, but auction-house officials contend that he is merely restructuring his collection to focus on young British artists.

Broad and his wife, Edye, have been admirers of Morley's work for several years, he said in a telephone interview. They already own a Morley drawing and his painting "First Aid Center Vietnam," Broad said, noting that the sale offered an opportunity to beef up their holdings. The Santa Monica-based Broad family collection generally follows selected artists' work in depth rather than surveying the field of contemporary art.

"When we saw 'Vermeer,' we fell in love with it," Broad said. But his shopping did not stop with that piece. He also bought Morley's 1976 painting "Age of Catastrophe" at the auction for $308,000--just above the low pre-sale estimate of $300,000.

Broad said the auction's rather disappointing results were due in part to the mixed quality of the work and to overly high expectations, despite Sotheby's attempt to fashion a sale that would appeal to recession-conscious collectors.

"The market has returned to passionate collectors who want to buy art at a fair price. The correction has been a long time in coming," Broad said. "I don't think the market has turned upward, but it has probably bottomed out. We will probably see a new reality in estimates in November," he added, referring to the next big round of contemporary art sales in the fall.

Next week New York's auction subject will change to Impressionist and modern art. Christie's will lead on Monday night with a sale from the William A. McCarty-Cooper collection, followed by a Tuesday night sale of works consigned by various owners. Sotheby's big spring auction of Impressionist and modern art is scheduled for Wednesday night.

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