Twenty-four hours after Monet’s “Grainstack” soared to $81.4 million at Christie’s, New York’s jittery postelection art market received another boost when 25 works from the collection of the late Steven Ames and his wife, Ann, sold for $122.8 million with fees on Thursday night at Sotheby’s contemporary sale.
As the prize consignment of the week — in a period of uncertainty, when trophies have been hard to come by — the Ames cache had been estimated to sell for at least $93 million.
Over all, Sotheby’s contemporary art sale of 64 lots grossed $276.6 million against a low estimate of $208 million. And 94 percent of the lots sold. “Whether there are just two bidders or five, it gets it done,” the art adviser Nancy Whyte said afterward, referring generally to Sotheby’s performance.
Still, the decline in inventory because of hesitance on the part of consignors made for a smaller auction, despite Sotheby’s numerous guarantees of minimum prices to sellers. The equivalent auction last year, in an already cooling market, raised $294.85 million from 54 works.
Thirty-five — more than half — of the evening’s 64 lots were backed by guarantees, 25 of which were certain to sell through external, or third-party, bidders.
Sotheby’s found external bidders to back all but nine of the Ames lots, leaving them with some $16 million of house guarantees — and assuring the auction house that most of the collection would sell.
On a night of mixed results, Sotheby’s bottom line was dented by the auction house’s having to buy in a 1966 double-portrait photo painting by Gerhard Richter, “Familie Hötzel,” which failed to sell at its low estimate of $3 million.
Sotheby’s was able to limit the damage by reopening the bidding on a 1981 work by Anselm Kiefer that failed to sell. (The low estimate was $2 million.) The second time around, it sold for $2.1 million.
“It feels like more controlled selling and thoughtful bidding,” the collector Larry Warsh said.
The Ames collection contained the bankable names that are catnip for today’s more cautious collectors — George Condo, Willem de Kooning, Kiefer, Franz Kline, and Richter. The group was always going to sell — 55 additional Ames lots are to be offered on Friday — as Sotheby’s had guaranteed the estate a minimum price of at least $100 million. “The collection contained some exceptional works,” said David Nisinson, a private dealer in New York.
In general, art experts deemed the evening solid. “When the election happened we didn’t know what to expect,” said Heinrich zu Hohenlohe, director of the Berlin branch of the art dealer Dickinson. “But the week has ended on a high with the Monet and Phillips moving up a level and now this. There is still a market.”
A RICHTER GLUT? Despite concerns about a surfeit of Richters up for auction this week — no fewer than 18 — two 1980s abstracts by the artist, each with a low estimate of $20 million, were the star lots of the Ames collection. The fiery, red-dominated “A.B. Still” was acquired by the Ameses at Sotheby’s in 1991, for $264,000. On Thursday night, 25 years later, it attracted two determined telephone bidders before selling for $34 million. The much darker “A.B. St. James,” acquired in 1989, sold for $22.7 million to the dealer Dominique Levy. These prices exceeded the $22.1 million paid at Christie’s on Tuesday night for a large-scale 1994 “Abstraktes Bild” by Mr. Richter that was owned by the musician Eric Clapton. “Can the market handle all those Richters?” Ms. Whyte asked. “Well, they sold.”
WOULD “DROWN” FLOAT? Sotheby’s started the evening’s other 38 lots with the 2012 painting “Drown,” by the young Nigerian-born figurative painter Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who earlier this year was the subject of a one-woman show at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla. Her tender and technically innovative acrylic- and transfer-on-paper scene of embracing lovers sold for $1.1 million after competition among about six bidders, a high for the artist at auction and more than three times the high estimate of $300,000. The Victoria Miro Gallery in London, which represents Ms. Crosby, has a list of museums waiting to buy her limited output. The primary market prices are less than $100,000.
WARHOL REMAINS WOBBLY Once a dominant staple of the New York contemporary auctions, high-value works by Andy Warhol have been in short supply this week and those that have sold have seen underwhelming prices. Sotheby’s was hoping to score big with an imposing 80-inch, black-and-white 1986 “Fright Wig” silk-screen self-portrait, which was expected to sell for as much as $30 million. Instead, after brief competition among three bidders, it sold for $24.4 million.
THE LAST WORD “The sale went well with some hiccups,” said Thaddaeus Ropac, a dealer with galleries in Salzburg, Paris and London. “This is the sort of soft landing we wished for. There’s nothing frothy about the market. It’s serious and measured. It’s better like this.”