What went wrong with the Christie’s Fineberg auction, the auction that almost drove the art market to despair? A bunch of.

Let’s talk about the sale that nearly crashed the art market.

I have covered many auctions in my career as a reporter. Most are a blur. Some of them are remembered for taking the market to unexpected highs or dropping it to unexpected lows.

The evening sale of the Gerald Feinberg collection was a textbook example of a reboot taking place in real time before our very eyes. The bidders seemed to be stunned and inactive as lot after lot was being sold at one or two rates at huge discounts from their presale estimates. Richter, Krasner, de Kooning, Wool, Fontana, Liechtenstein – all at bargain prices. Grotyan, Rosenquist, Bourgeois, Kippenberger – not sold.

The next day, shock turned to delight: “Deals!” People started buying less expensive art, looking for discounts, like Walmart customers on Black Friday.

Christie’s Global President Jussi Pylkkanen is selling Barkley L. Hendrix’s Stanley (1971) for a record $6.1 million. Photo courtesy of Christie’s.

As a result, most of the 214 lots found buyers. Christie’s total was $159.8 million (excluding buyer’s premium), well below the presale estimate of $198–286 million (although records were set for artists including Barkley L. Hendrix and Alma Thomas). There are still many, many lots left for sale. According to Christie’s, some of them will be listed at upcoming auctions in Hong Kong in late May, at the New York Design Sale in June, and other events not yet announced.

Questions remain about how the sale was organized and what its long-term consequences might be. John Silberman, an attorney representing the estate, did not return calls or emails asking for comment. Christie’s executives said they have advised the Fineberg estate to lower reserves to adjust to changing market conditions.

“This is not the best result either for the owners or for the market,” said the auction head of a competing company.

One thing we do know is that the heirs had very optimistic expectations from the auction and decided not to accept the guarantee (which I heard was north of $200 million). Instead, they insisted on—and won—an aggressive deal with a heavy-duty hammer, thereby sharing most of Christie’s buyer’s premium (which is about $37.4 million so far). Looking back, they left the money on the table.

Christopher Wool, Untitled (2000).  © Christie's Images Ltd, 2023.

Christopher Wool, Untitled (2000). © Christie’s Images Ltd, 2023.

In fairness, the same can be said about Mo Austin’s estate at Sotheby’s, market participants say. Austin’s heirs would also be better off getting a guarantee (although that estate did accept four irrevocable offers at the 11th hour; Feinberg’s heirs refused all such offers).

With market reality recalibrating, one moral of the story is clear. “If someone is willing to give you a guarantee for a painting, sometimes it’s better to take it than to walk around naked,” said one major art dealer.

And one more note to sellers: do not be greedy! Let the auction house also work.

Why? The Fineberg sale seemed to have had a demotivating effect on Christie’s, several people said, where the people running the business may not have been financially interested in going all out for the collection.

“There is a point where deals don’t make sense due to the amount of time and effort,” the auction director said. “There are hundreds of items that need to be packaged, shipped, unpacked, installed, uninstalled, insured – all cost money. Theoretically, working for 2 percent is not that interesting.”

Gerhard Richter, Badende (1967). Courtesy of Christie’s.

Fineberg exhibits were installed in a salon-style hallway during the first week of the auction, while other first-class galleries featured the same-owner collections from media billionaire C.I. Newhouse and Chicago-based Alan and Dorothy Press. By the time the group became more centralized, many of the European buyers who had come for previews had already returned home.

Days after the sale, the valuations, which were set in January, are suddenly at odds with the sobering reality of debt ceiling negotiations and the volatile banking sector. (It’s an old game: competing auction houses are forced to bid high to win stuff.) The estate agreed to cut reserves, but still refused to accept third-party guarantees. Time ticked.

Ultimately, all the unfunny comedy of errors could come down to the quality and quantity of the material.

Christie’s built its narrative around the vision and passion of the Boston billionaire who died in December, highlighting his “curatorial thinking and spanning the collection from Man Ray’s 1923 portrait of his beloved and muse Kiki de Montparnasse to cutting-edge works created a century later.

“They were trying to make it look like the Mona Lisa is up for sale,” a major art buyer said of Christie’s efforts. “The market is not stupid.”

Lee Krasner, Twelve Hour Crossing, March 21st (c. 1971–1981). Courtesy of Christie’s.

But those who knew Feinberg’s collection pointed out that it actually reflected the view of longtime adviser, behind-the-scenes collector-hijacker-dealer Michael Black, who was not listed in the catalog.

“I’m blown away by the storytelling that has emerged,” said the New York-based art consultant. “Literally a lot of these works he bought in the last three or four years from Michael Black.”

Others in the know saw Feinberg as more of a merchant than a visionary.

“Jerry was a hondler,” said the dealer who sold Feinberg many works. “You offered him a great item for the price and an average item for a discount, and he always took the discounted one.”

As it happens, black has played an important role in shaping the collection over the past two decades.

“We had a lot of fun,” Black told me this week. “Buying art for him kept him alive. It gave him something to do.”

A few years ago, Black gave Feinberg a book, The Women of Ninth Street, about Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, and Joan Mitchell. “These women are good,” Black said. Soon their paintings ended up in the Feinberg collection.

Some of them sold incredibly well in Christie’s Day Sale. Bought in 2019, Hartigan’s On Orchard Street (1957) sold for $1.2 million, 12 times the low estimate of $100,000. An untitled 1975 oil-on-paper painting by Krasner, also acquired in 2019, sold for $1.2 million, more than double the low estimate of $500,000.

Lynn Drexler, Summer Blossom (1962).  Courtesy of Christie's Images, Ltd.

Lynn Drexler, Summer Blossom (1962). Courtesy of Christie’s Images, Ltd.

One of Feinberg’s most recent purchases was Lynn Drexler’s Summer Bloom, which sold in Christie’s Day Sale for $1.4 million, down from a low estimate of $150,000. It was the second-highest price of the day’s sale. “I bought it for him when he was dying,” Black said. “I wanted something pretty that he could look at when he went to the bathroom.”

So, the Fineberg collection did not fail in the market. And for some, the key takeaway was the sustainability of art as an asset class.

“It was an incredible opportunity,” said a major art buyer. “That’s what smart people do. They buy when things are going badly and they sell when things are going well.”

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