Canadian businessman Arnold Steinberg and his wife, Blema, a professor at McGill University, were passionate collectors of post-war and contemporary art. Their heirs elected to sell over 100 valuable works from their collection—assembled from the mid-1960s through 2014—at Sotheby’s. Two Rothko paintings on paper from 1969 were up just three lots after the SFMOMA painting; perhaps an underbidder would elect to buy one as a consolation prize.
The larger of the two works, Untitled (Red and Burgundy Over Blue)
, had a pre-sale estimate
between $9 million and $12 million, or $10.5 million and $13.9 million with buyer’s premium. Our artificial intelligence model predicted that lot 15 would sell for $16.6 million, above the top end of the auction estimates, which would make it the second–most expensive Rothko work on paper to sell at auction. The second work, Untitled (Red on Red)
, was smaller, but notable for its bright-red palette. Sotheby’s estimated
it would go for a hammer price between $7 million and $10 million, or $8.2 million and $11.6 million with the buyer’s premium. Given its appealing color scheme, our model predicted that lot 16 would sell for $13.7 million. Unlike the SFMOMA painting, neither of these works were being sold with a guarantee. But given the strong showing on lot 12, the auctioneer and the heirs were probably anticipating great interest in the works, perhaps even a bidding war.
Auctioneers try to hide their machinations, but it soon became clear that most of the bidders interested in lot 15 were of the imaginary type. The auctioneer took chandelier bids up to one bidding increment below the reserve price, which is where he must stop so that legitimate bidders can buy the work at the reserve. After a very pregnant pause, a lone phone bidder emerged with a $9 million bid (or $10.5 million including buyer’s premium). The auctioneer’s job was now clear: Don’t panic, but wait for it to sink into the minds of other potential bidders that the painting could sell very shortly for that amount unless they jumped in.
The auctioneer soon turned his attention to someone sitting in the very front of the room: Marc Glimcher, president and CEO of Pace
, the gallery that represents the Rothko estate. The auctioneer tried repeatedly to cajole him to bid, but Glimcher declined. Perhaps he had other works on paper by the artist back at his gallery that he preferred to sell instead of investing capital in another. When it became clear the auctioneer’s gambit was not working, and that no one else was interested in bidding, he brought the sale to a close.
Lot 16 followed the same dance with chandelier bids into a quiet auction room. The awkward space was finally pierced when a phone bidder came in at $7 million ($8.2 million with buyer’s premium), the low end of the auction estimate. Knowing it was the end of the game, the auctioneer quickly pronounced the lot “sold.”
How did the model do? Very poorly. The AI estimates were about 60% higher than what the works sold for. The model was expecting much stronger demand, which did not materialize that night. Having the works appear after the SFMOMA painting as a consolation prize was smart positioning by Sotheby’s. But with the sale occurring at the end of a packed week of auctions, plus after the successful Frieze and TEFAF art fairs
earlier in the month, maybe collectors considering the Steinberg Rothkos had already bought other things. Being late in the sales calendar can disadvantage consignors.