Sotheby’s sale of Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by Aeschylus’ Oresteia for $84.6 million was a big deal in the art world in June 2020.
Pandemic lockdowns had only just begun to be lifted, but the state of the art market remained uncertain. Sotheby’s first-ever livestream auction – a masterful cinematic production seen by thousands of people – sent a clear message.
“Tonight we pushed the boundaries of what is possible,” said Oliver Barker, the event’s auctioneer. The night’s top lot, The Bacon, was key to its success, accounting for nearly a quarter of total sales. It was the subject of a 10-minute “dramatic” bidding war between a “determined” phone customer of Gregoire Billault and an online bidder from China, Sotheby’s said at the time.
As Artnet News reported last year, the winner was none other than Sotheby’s billionaire Patrick Drahi. Sotheby’s declined to comment at the time.
Any ambiguity surrounding this sale came to rest after the last week art newspaper revealed it was part of Drahi’s $750 million art collection based on a cache of leaked documents that emerged as a result of a hacking incident. The Sotheby’s owner collected more than 200 works of art at least 25 of them bought in the meantime in the auction house 2015 and 2022. (Drahi paid $3.7 billion for Sotheby’s in 2019 and took it private.)
Another significant work in his collection is Alberto Giacometti’s 9 foot high bronze, Grand femme I (1960), which was sold to Sotheby’s in 2020 by billionaire Ron Perelman for a private sale. Estimated at US$90 million, it was offered through a sealed bid process, with submitted bids being reviewed by Sotheby’s General Counsel and an external auditor.
“This is the bespoke sale of a very special work by one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, designed to both cover the wide potential area of interest and maintain the privacy that people desire,” Brooke Lampley, then vice-chair of Sotheby’s global visuals Art, said back then.
The news of the hack swept through the art market like fire. One market participant compared the situation to being caught dancing naked in the middle of Art Basel Miami Beach. Another said: “It was like eating popcorn at the movies.”
Corresponding TANthe french site Reflets published 10 articles in September based on the leaked documents, detailing Drahi’s collections and maneuvers to pay lower taxes on purchases. The hackers demanded a ransom of 5 million euros from Drahi in order not to lose at least 140 GB of data. TAN said. Drahi sued the publication, according to the newspaper.
“Mr. Drahi and his family have always paid all taxes due in relation to any related regulation,” Altice France CEO Arthur Dreyfuss told Artnet News in a statement criminal theft in public and we are working closely with the authorities on this matter.”
Aside from the curiosity and the gawks — and the cringe at hacking and blackmailing — the revelation prompted a question. Is buying in your own store at publicly inflated prices tantamount to market manipulation?
“No one should be shocked by this,” said Todd Levin, an art consultant in New York. “If you own a sandbox, you can play in it however you want.”
A. Alfred Taubman notoriously bought from Sotheby’s when he owned it privately and later when he became the controlling shareholder of the public company. This was evident when his estate was sold at Sotheby’s in 2015, with works by Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore and many others previously purchased at the house.
Christie’s owner Francois Pinault is known for guaranteeing art at Christie’s, whether to build his collection or to shore up a quality work of art that may not have other buyers. One of them is said to be that of Roy Lichtenstein nurse, which fetched $95 million in 2015 and remains the pop artist’s auction record to this day. Phillips’ Russian owners have done the same, according to people familiar with the company.
“To me, an auction house owner buying anonymously from his auction house can be market manipulation as he creates this Looks more market appetite than there actually is,” said Natasha Degen, Chair of Art Market Studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “But it’s not so dissimilar to guarantees. Both help to support the awards and project success for external audiences, mainly the public and media.”
Not everyone agrees.
“We don’t see anything wrong with auction house owners collecting art, on the contrary, we applaud it!” Josh Baer wrote in the Baer Faxt newsletter on November 14: “They walk the path and don’t just talk about collecting art. As we’ve guessed for years, though, we think if If it is made at auction (or with hidden bids like the Giacometti), he should immediately identify himself as the buyer.”
Baer said that “the transparency would both help show the true market of the artists they are buying and be more honest about the real working ability of the auction houses.”
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