The sale, a benchmark in the artist’s market, was the result of a prearranged deal between the auction house and a buyer.
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A classic grid painting by Piet Mondrian sold during a Sotheby’s auction on Monday for $51 million, including fees, which topped the previous $50.6 million benchmark for the Dutch artist that was set in 2015.
The record price was prearranged by the auction house with an unnamed Asian buyer through a third-party guarantee — a way of reducing the auction house’s risk of selling below estimate. The auctioneer tried and failed to attract buyers above $51 million so the guarantor won the lot, with a discount on the buyer’s fees, according to a source close to the sale who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Derek Parsons, a Sotheby’s spokesman, declined to comment on the arrangement.
Ahead of the evening, which consisted of nearly 70 works of Modern art, auction executives said they hoped to capitalize on last week’s Paul Allen sale at Christie’s, which became a $1.5 billion spending spree.
“There is incredible momentum coming from the Allen sale,” Brooke Lampley, Sotheby’s chairman and worldwide head of global fine art sales, said, explaining that it signaled “real validation for continued confidence in the art market despite uncertainty in the financial markets.”
But experts said the failure to produce a bidding war over the Mondrian, titled “Composition No. II,” might signal challenges ahead for the art market.
“I thought it would go for more,” said Natasha Degen, chairwoman of art market studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “It is, quite literally, the textbook Mondrian.”
Completed in 1930, the painting epitomizes the primary colors and geometric rigidity of the de Stijl movement that Mondrian helped define. A red square hovering in the upper right corner of the painting became a major selling point because its large size was a rarity in the artist’s practice.
Despite some failures to sell, and low energy from bidders, Sotheby’s still made $391.2 million during the evening, slightly below its high estimate of $405.5 million. Degen described the total as “a respectable but not ecstatic result” because most artworks fell safely in their estimate ranges.
Other highlights included the beginning of a weeklong sale of artworks once owned by the CBS founder William Paley. A 1919 Picasso, “Guitare sur une Table” (“Guitar on a Table”), that once hung in the executive’s bedroom sold for $37 million, well above its $25 million estimate.
Proceeds from that artwork and four others owned by Paley raised $47 million. Among other charitable organizations, the Museum of Modern Art will receive a portion of these proceeds to help start an endowment to expand its digital art programming and acquisitions.