At Christie’s, the Show Goes On, Despite a Hack

The salesroom at Christie’s was packed on Tuesday evening, as spectators rubbernecked to see if buyers would compete for multimillion-dollar artworks at an auction house still hobbled by a cyberattack.

But the audience’s chatter about hackers soon dissipated, as the auctioneer Georgina Hilton entered the spotlight. Could she succeed despite the headwinds of a slumping market and concerns about whether a cyberattack might have compromised the financial data of Christie’s clientele?

The atmosphere of the evening’s two auctions — one from the estate of the Cuban American collector Rosa de la Cruz, who died in February, and the other being Christie’s seasonal 21st-century evening art sale — indicated that the answer was yes. There were only four withdrawals ahead of the evening sales, as Christie’s salespeople worked hard to assure buyers and sellers that business would continue without a glitch.

But the numbers painted a more complicated picture.

There was a depth of bidding not seen the night before at the contemporary art sales at Sotheby’s, where out of its 52 lots, most sold on just a few bids. Still, Sotheby’s managed to outdo its rival with a total of $267 million on Monday — more than double Christie’s final result of $115 million, from a total of 57 lots, offered on Tuesday.

What happened at Christie’s was the result of hasty withdrawals in the hours before the sale; the auction house withdrew four artworks, including a Brice Marden painting with a high estimate of $50 million. The seller had a guarantee from Christie’s for a minimum price. The auction house declined to comment on the withdrawal, but experts said that the move sometimes signals cold feet on the part of a buyer when there is a perceived lack of interest from potential bidders.

The withdrawals across both sales left their mark. The Rosa de la Cruz collection made $34.4 million, with premium fees and near its high estimate of $37 million. The 21st-century evening sale achieved $80 million, far below its estimate between $104 million to $155 million.

Despite the cyberattack on the company, which took its website offline, some registered bidders were able to participate through a secure link that allowed them to access the auction house’s digital platform, Christie’s LIVE.

“Even with one hand tied behind their back in terms of technological challenges, Christie’s managed to pull off a really respectable sale in a difficult environment,” said Thomas C. Danziger, a lawyer who represented clients participating in the evening sales.

Of 57 artworks spread between the auctions, two artworks did not sell. But the auction house worked hard in advance to secure guaranteed bids from collectors and investors. The company also provided its own financial guarantees in order to secure consignments. Together, these negotiations assured that all the works in the de la Cruz collection would sell, even if nobody were to place a bid.

“We are making good progress in the resolution of the technology security incident,” Guillaume Cerutti, the chief executive of Christie’s, told The New York Times halfway through the auctions on Tuesday evening. “Delivering the sales today in Geneva and in New York, with good participation not only in the room and on the phone but also through secure online bidding, is very positive,” he added.

Two highlights of the evening sales at Christie’s included works by Ana Mendieta and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Mendieta, the Cuban American artist who died in 1985, saw her auction benchmark broken twice within less than an hour, culminating with the sale of “Untitled (Sandwoman Series)” for $567,025.

The audience also oohed and aahed when the auction house dramatically lowered the salesroom lights to present a string of 42 lightbulbs by Gonzalez-Torres. That work, “Untitled (America #3),” which he created in 1992, sold for $13.6 million, above its $12 million high estimate, a new high for the artist who died in 1996 at the age of 38. The artwork was bought by the Pola Museum of Art in Hakone, Japan.

“She was a great and significant collector of her generation,” the art adviser Allan Schwartzman said of de la Cruz. The family quietly sold a number of works from the collection before her death. Some of the artists whom de la Cruz favored — including Rudolf Stingel, Christopher Wool and Dan Colen — have seen their sales stumble in recent years. But Meredith Darrow, who advised de la Cruz and her husband, Carlos, on their acquisitions between 2010 and 2019, noted ahead of the sale that “they bought these works very early and absolutely stand to be successful financially.”

Earlier Tuesday evening, Phillips had its own sale of modern and contemporary art, generating $86 million and delivering the star of the auction houses’ three sales: “Untitled (ELMAR),” a 1982 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, which fetched $46.5 million with fees. It was sold by a trust affiliated with the anthropologist and art collector Francesco Pellizzi, who died last year.

The work, which carried a financial guarantee, exceeded the low end of the expected $40 million to $60 million range.

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