Inside a Topsy Turvy Auction Week in New York
The collectors selling their works at auction this month made their fortunes in different ways. There are the descendants of William Cordia, a Dutch shipping magnate who was called the Onassis of Rotterdam—they’ve got some Nabis and cubist masterpieces, and the haul sold for just under $70 million at Phillips, or $84.7 million with fees. The veteran art dealer John Cheim decided to off-load some works to make way for more wall space—an exceptional Joan Mitchell, a record-breaking Lynda Benglis, and some very personal and special works on paper by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Christie’s handled works owned by the Mexico City-and-Aspen-based collectors Ramiro and Gabriela Garza, whose wealth comes from the Mexican oil company Grupo R. Activist investor Dan Loeb, a few years removed from his relentless campaign to take Sotheby’s private, chose to sell a Jonas Wood through that house, and a Gerhard Richter at Phillips. Christie’s had the estate of A&M Records cofounder Jerry Moss.
But only one consignor to the auctions this season made his fortune from helming the likes of Meatballs, Kindergarten Cop, and Ghostbusters: the director Ivan Reitman, who died in 2022 at age 75.
“His art collection is built off of the ticket sales and people’s lives he made better,” said his son Jason Reitman, a film director himself, as we walked through the galleries at Christie’s admiring his dad’s collection. “My father’s thirst in making movies was: He wanted people to walk out of the movie theater better, happier, more hopeful than when they walked in.”
Joining us was Jason’s sister, actor Catherine Reitman, and the three of us walked in front of a Willem de Kooning, then a Brice Marden, then an Agnes Martin, as Jason started wheeling around, recalling how they’d appeared in the various houses in which he and his siblings grew up. The artworks had been present for intimate family moments and gatherings with visiting Hollywood dignitaries. Decades before Los Angeles became an art-obsessed town full of industry folk with museum-quality stuff on their walls, Ivan Reitman struck up a friendship with Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher and started buying trophy after trophy.
“I think Arne Glimcher wanted to learn to direct movies, my father wanted to learn about art, and they traded lessons,” Jason said.
“Can you imagine the confidence to make a trade like that in your career right now?” said Catherine. “That’s just a different swagger than I’m used to.”
“Each film led to a painting, right?” said Jason. “If a film did well, it was permission to buy a painting. You can kind of look at the year it was purchased, connect it to the movie, and go, ‘Oh, Twins did well, Kindergarten Cop did well, Dave did well, Ghostbusters did well.’”
The display was splashy, with a red carpet laid out beside framed posters of Reitman senior’s biggest movie hits. There was even an original slimer model from Ghostbusters, on the chance that might seal the deal with a potential buyer. Jason wound his way in front of the collection’s crown jewel, a Picasso that Glimcher sold his dad from the collection of Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, who inherited it from his grandfather.
“So the moment that he’s able to bring home a Picasso and look in his home and see this on the wall, when you think about the amount of art that was taken from Jews during the war and that our family were survivors, and that he can then put a Picasso on the wall in his home…” Jason trailed off. “It’s going from, ‘You have to leave everything you know behind,’ to that sense of permanence that comes with standing in front of this painting.”
Indeed it’s auction season in New York in case you hadn’t gathered, that time of year when families part with loved ones’ estates and collectors who need to get a little liquid might do some off-loading. As of this writing, Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips have combined to sell at least 2 billion worth of works at auction, with a night and afternoon of sales still to come. It’s true that the high-wattage presentations still get very important butts in seats—even if the collectors don’t buy the art themselves (at least most of the time), their advisers and dealers make the trek to sit through a bidding bonanza nearly every evening during this most free-spending fortnight.
But it’s also, at present, a tough global moment to be selling anything, let alone seven- and eight-figure paintings. There are two headline-dominating wars, spiking interest rates, and the sales are sandwiched on the calendar between the buying sprees at the Art Basel fairs in Paris and Miami Beach. So the houses manage these things to the extent they can. Despite all the pomp and circumstance of something like the Reitman sale, many of the works in such displays are often pre-sold—either to an outside bidder who made a deal to place an early bid in exchange for a cut on the premium, or to the auction house itself that put up money to guarantee the work.
In addition to the auctions, there’s a robust dance card of galas, gallery dinners, and massive shows at the Chelsea mega-spaces. Sometimes the auctions clash directly with the ancillary events, such as when a work by Rashid Johnson sold at Christie’s for $1.7 million at the same time that Johnson was at the restaurant Crown Shy giving a toast on behalf of the publication of his new Phaidon monograph. Some attendees secretly had the auction live on the Christie’s app while sitting at the dinner table, but no one interrupted Johhson—how gauche! The next night was the historic sale of Emily Fisher Landau’s collection at York Avenue, but it was also the Creative Time gala at Essex Crossing and a benefit for the nonprofit Blank Forms—not to mention an intimate dinner for Alex Katz on the occasion of his new show at Gladstone Gallery, attended by non-auction-goers such as artists Laurie Simmons, Carroll Dunham, David Salle, and Interview editor in chief Mel Ottenberg. On Thursday, there were dinners at The Odeon for Gagosian and The Standard for Hauser & Wirth, but Christie’s was also busy selling more than $640 million worth of art up at Rockefeller Center. Queue up the app again. (Also present for at least some time at Christie’s this week: Lisa Schiff, the adviser facing two civil lawsuits and claims from several other customers alleging that she ripped them off to the tune of millions.)
And those expecting the apocalypse were instead greeted by the market affecting a shrug—a little dinged up by the global events but not necessarily as deflated as one would fear.
“The art world is not impervious to the ebbs and flows of the financial markets, and it would be naïve to think that what is happening globally will not reflect the mindsets of collectors, dealers, and gallerists in the international art market,” said Lock Kresler, a former Christie’s rainmaker who now works with the Nahmad family in London. “That said, the auctions in New York over the past two weeks illustrated more robust results than I would have predicted. We saw auction records for blue chip artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, Joan Mitchell, Agnes Martin, Arshile Gorky, and Mark Tansey, where in many cases, they doubled the previous auction record.”