Sotheby's Shares Plunge as Auction Comes Up Short

Sotheby's shares lost a third of their value a day after the international auction house painted a lacklustre performance at its Impressionist and modern art auction.

"The Fields (Wheat Fields)," by Vincent van Gogh
"The Fields (Wheat Fields)," by Vincent van Gogh

Shares of the company sank to an intraday low of $31.20, before pulling back some of the losses to trade down a little more than 30 percent on the New York Stock Exchange.

A Vincent van Gogh landscape, painted just before the artist's death, went unsold and top works by Gauguin and Picasso all came up short at a Sotheby's auction.

With a total take of just under $270 million, Sotheby's Impressionist and modern art auction fell far short of even its low pre-sale estimate of $355 million.

Of the 76 lots on offer, 20 failed to find buyers, including Van Gogh's highly anticipated "Wheat Fields," an 1890 landscape painted only days before his suicide in a town outside Paris.

However, Gauguin's vibrant Tahitian work "Te Poipoi (The Morning)" did sell and was the evening's top lot. But the $39,241,000 price, including commission, fell short of its low estimate of $40 million. It was bought by Hong Kong collector Joseph Lau, Sotheby's said.

Sotheby's officials said the results were more a reflection that estimates for the value of the works had been too high rather than a sign of trouble in the art market.

"I'm not ready to read this at all as a correction to the market, which I think, despite tonight, is strong," said David Norman, Sotheby's chairman of Impressionist and modern art.

"I know the sale was really difficult, but I see it more as resistance to the aggressive estimates and not so much that the market has turned," he told Reuters. "Our estimates were obviously not accepted by the market, which made people cautious."

Norman noted Sotheby's executives had had a rush of interest in the Van Gogh, which was estimated at $28 million to $35 million, in the moments after the sale.

Sotheby's had guaranteed the seller an undisclosed minimum price for the work and as a result now owns it because no bidder raised the price above that minimum.

Experts had predicted the work would sell within its estimated range, or higher. But Norman said the "onslaught of interest" in the work made him confident that "with patience we'll get our price for it in the near future."

Nanne Dekking, vice president at Wildenstein and a specialist in Impressionist art, said this week that if the Van Gogh did not sell "that would certainly say something about the market."

The auction's lone bright spot was the sale of Picasso's "Woman's head (Dora Maar)" bronze, which fetched $29.16 million smashing the previous record for a sculpture by the artist of $6.7 million.

Several other Picassos, however, failed to sell. Another major casualty was Georges Braque's "Echo," which had been expected to sell for as much as $20 million.