Christie’s Contests Sotheby’s Sale of Stills


Given the sticky subjects of wills and museum deaccessions, it seemed unlikely that the sale of four Clyfford Still works from the estate of his widow, Patricia, would go smoothly. No sooner had the city of Denver announced (late yesterday) that it would put those works up for sale at Sotheby’s in New York than a new controversy erupted. Rival auction house Christie’s, which competed to win the consignment, is challenging the selection. It is attempting to intervene before Monday, when the contract begins the review process in the city council. A vote finalizing the contract could come as early as a week from Monday, Aug. 29.

In 2004, one year before she died, Still’s widow designated Denver as the city that would receive his estate, which comprises 2,400 paintings, or 94 percent of his output, as well as his archives.

The city received court approval on Mar. 24 to sell the four works before ownership of Patricia Still’s estate was transferred to the museum, which raised eyebrows. The move essentially allows the museum to bypass the artist’s mandate that nothing from his museum be sold.

According to the contract, the sale is expected to bring at least $25 million for the city and county of Denver. It’s a lowball estimate considering that two Still canvases fetched $21.3 million and $14 million at Christie’s in 2006 and ’08. The funds will be used to create an endowment for the museum.

The Sotheby’s proposal was selected after review by a nine-member committee comprising art, business and legal professionals. The auction house has agreed to hold a private sale by Sept. 19, and is required to make “a good faith effort . . . to offer the property for sale to a select group of viable institutional candidates . . . .” If a private sale is unsuccessful, the canvases will be included in Sotheby’s contemporary auction sales in November, the same month the museum opens, on Nov. 18, in its new facility, designed by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture.

According to the agreement, Sotheby’s would get the lesser of a 5 percent commission or $7.5 million if the works are sold privately, or at most a $15 million commission if the works are put on the block in a public sale.

Christie’s responded to Art in America‘s request for information with the following e-mail: “Christie’s made a clear, detailed and timely offer to the Clyfford Still Museum and City of Denver and want to be sure that it is given due consideration.” But it earlier told the Denver Post that its proposal was considerably more favorable and that “we are concerned that the process of awarding of the contract was arbitrary and capricious.”

Jan Brennan, director of cultural programs for Denver’s Office of Cultural Affairs who also served on the selection committee, told Art in America that, while financial terms were the significant factor, the committee looked at “qualifications of the auction house, expertise of the staff, the sale strategy and the staff’s experience in selling fine art and working with municipal entities.”