Sotheby’s Gets Stills Christie’s Gets Nil

Clyfford Still paintings to go to Sotheby’s –  Christie’s lobbies Denver to overturn decision

Christie’s is fuming, as arch-rivals Sotheby’s have secured the sale of four works by the seminal Abstract Expressionist painter Clifford Still.  Three date from the late 1940s  and one was painted in the seventies. The proceeds will go towards the Still Museum, which is in an advanced building stage and set to open in November. The Denver based foundation will receive 2,400 works from Still’s estate collection, as well as works from his wife’s estate, she died in 2005. The four works being sold at auction came from Patricia Still’s personal collection, which has fewer deaccession restrictions.

The museum hopes to raise at least $25 million in the sale, proceeds go to the Museum. The three most recent Clyfford Still paintings to go under the hammer realised, “1947-R-No.1” – $21.3 million in 2006 “1955-D, PH-387” sold for $7.9 million in 2007, and “1946 (PH-182)” made $14 million in 2008. Bloomberg recently stated, “Sotheby’s will try to sell the paintings through a private sale, but if they are not sold by September 19, they will be featured at the November 9 contemporary art auction in New York”.

In a press release Christie’s said: “We are concerned that the process of awarding the contract was arbitrary and capricious. The public will not be served by rushing into a binding sale agreement before a full and complete consideration of proposals for sale. Based upon our review of the publicly available documents, we had offered a considerably more favorable bid to the city and its citizens.” This sound liker sour grapes to us! Christie’s have now hired Lobbyist David Cole, and he has asked the city of Denver to turn over documents related to the decision.
Sotheby’s chief executive Bill Ruprecht. in response has stated:“It is disappointing that one of our competitors has now challenged the city’s careful and considered selection process. Having competed for many opportunities, my view has always been that even when we are not chosen, we should wish the client well and hope that their works sell for strong prices,”

The competition between the worlds largest auction houses is like two toddlers throwing a tantrum. The battle between these two major players puts to bed all past reputations that this is a gentleman’s business. It is just another ruthless industry with a deep-routed criminal past.

In 1995, both auction houses decided to take advantage of the art boom. Sotheby’s and Christie’s at the request of their Chairman, Alfred Taubman created a sliding-scale commission which basically said that the more a painting sold for, the more commission the house would receive. When both houses came out with this policy at the same time, it was labeled as a coincidence and not many took notice, except for the US Justice Department. This policy was the corner stone of the price fixing scandal. With a way to boost their profits in place, both companies shared information with each other that included lists of current clients and their salaries. This way no one bidder would be perused too much. Equipped this kind of insider information, the companies were able to set the prices of their paintings higher, raise their revenues and earn more money for the shareholders than ever before. As paintings started to sell at record prices, would there be an end to the fruits of such a scam? Oh yes. In 1999, documents containing incriminating information, such as the source of the colluding in prices and the plan behind it, were brought to the attention of Christie’s Auction Houses’ lawyers. The law firm turned the information over the US Department of Justice, and the scam between the two houses began the crumble. With undisputable evidence and a mound of civil suites brought on, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s paid 256 million dollars in damages to people who claimed to have been ripped off (a small price to pay considering paintings from artists such as van Gogh were selling for over 70 million each, at the time). Taubman, 79, claimed his innocence and ignorance in the matter. He did have to pay half of Sotheby’s 256 million dollar fine and, being the primary share holder, lost quite a bit of money when the company’s stock tumbled from 40 dollars a share to 16 dollars a share after the news of the scandal broke. His personal profits from the price setting scandal were quoted at around 43 million dollars, although that number is not concrete. On April 22, 2002, he was conviced of price fixing and sentenced to a year in jail and another 7.5 million dollars in fines. In reality, one year in jail is a small price to pay when you figure that if Taubman had just robbed a bank and stolen 40 million dollars, he’d probably get life in prison. (1)

Christie’s turned ‘State Evidence’ on Sotheby’s, in this notorious collusion case where they were categorically equal partners in crime. Christie’s wasn’t prosecuted in exchange for the evidence. Christie’s Chairman, Sir Anthony Tennant, who died aged 80 last week, agreed to become chairman of Christie’s International in 1993, his decision made him a fugitive from justice, certain to be arrested if he ever set foot in the US. Christopher Davidge, CEO of Christie’s,who “blew the whistle” on the scheme, earned himself immunity from prosecution. Dede Brooks, CEO of Sotheby’s, admitted guilt and escaped jail, but was sentenced to home detention, probation and community service. Taubman alone went to prison, fairly or unfairly, while Davidge enjoyed the fruits of a multi-million payoff from Christie’s.

Clyfford Still (November 30, 1904 – June 23, 1980) was an American artist, a painter, and one of the leading figures in Abstract Expressionism. Still was one of the foremost “color field” painters – his paintings are non-objective, and largely concerned with arranging a variety of colors in different formations. However, while Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman organized their colors in a relatively simple way (Rothko in the form of nebulous rectangles, Newman in thin lines on vast fields of color), Still’s arrangements are less regular. His jagged flashes of color give the impression that one layer of color has been “torn” off the painting, revealing the colors underneath.

(1). Information courtesy of Oldrich Kyn

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