Articles in This Issue
In Allan's Intro
Maybe this has become even more evident to me since Sotheby’s acquired AAP, but over the years the perception of the major Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary auctions has been framed principally by the Coke vs. Pepsi competition between the houses, as if the art market is defined by a winner and a loser.
While an auction house lives that fierce competition as a daily fact, vying for property, the art market is far more complex than can be accurately analyzed through the lens of sports-style victors and vanquished.
That complexity became even more evident last week when more than $1.5bn was spent on art at auction in the Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary sales (with Latin auctions still to come). Perhaps what was especially surprising—and at once reassuring and vexing— was the consistent strength demonstrated at every price level (except in the cases of works that failed to attract a single bid, most of these instances attributable to estimates that were out of sync with the market).
What follows is the semi-annual analysis of the auctions by my co-writer Charlotte Burns and I, including highlights of some ups and some bumps. The part of the story that vexes me is what the auctions don’t reveal about the art market. The primary market for new works by living artists is strong at many galleries but, at the same time, a significant number of galleries whose artists are priced in the mid-market (from tens of thousands to low-hundreds of thousands of dollars) are experiencing a substantial—often unsustainable—drop in sales. The life-blood of these galleries is exhibitions and the live engagement of real collectors with real art, and yet more and more sales are occurring (and at the upper ends of mid-market) without buyers seeing the work in person.
On a more positive note, there are very encouraging signs for the work of living artists who have been in that challenged middle-market, some of them for a long time. Some of the strongest displays of greatness in painting are in evidence right now by more than a half dozen exhibitions of artists showing some of the best work of their lives.
And after a dry patch that followed the hyper-speculation on the work of young artists (several of whom were more posture than promise), we saw last week at auction a massive and enthusiastic hunger for some of the most compelling living artists who have, until now, been relatively invisible at auction, including Laura Owens, Philippe Parreno, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and even the young-in-spirit Kerry James Marshall. All of these artists are making work which is complex and rich in content, be it about art, culture or both.
So as the market becomes more efficient, it also flattens enthusiasm. Even the highs are becoming more measured. While so much of the rest of our lives and planet seem to have spiralled, it may be hard to lose control and be really adventurous in art collecting. But creativity thrives where certainty isn’t so certain.
More than ever this season, there was confusion between categories with Christie’s sale of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi (around 1500), Sotheby’s sale of a Formula 1 Ferrari once driven by Michael Schumacher and Phillips inclusion of Modern works into its Contemporary sale. This trend, which is significant and likely to continue, speaks to the desire of the houses to expand their audiences; the power of spectacle; and a reinvigoration of the Modern market, recently presumed to be at death’s door.
But, the trend towards creating theatre around out-of-category material within the dollar-rich Contemporary market doesn’t tell us much about the market for Contemporary art, which is the focus of this analysis. Setting aside those works, different stories emerge. Notably, the effect of challenged supply. It is also clear that the froth that defined the market around 2014 has dissipated, leaving in its place a more stable and, dare we say it, healthier marketplace. Buyers are less heady, focusing with more discretion on what they want and the amounts they are willing to pay. The very low buy-in rates suggest that this is dovetailing nicely with sellers’ understanding of the market.
There is no single art market
Like planets in separate orbits, there is a lot of movement on different planes: from trophy-hunters shooting for the shiniest stars in the constellation (and happily overpaying to lasso them); to connoisseurs (who are seeking out special treasures); to collectors from newer economies (who are now further along in their understanding of the market than was the case a few years ago); to old-school collectors from traditional areas (who continue to do their thing, often just at higher levels); to the trade itself—and the auction houses are hoping to fulfill all of their needs.
In terms of demand, there are signs of shifting taste (or perhaps oversaturation) in certain key areas. And the success of artists whose work was fresh to the block this season points to appetites moving beyond the typical auction alphabet (Albers to Warhol).
New measure of success
There was real consistency in terms of price points. Of the 165 Contemporary lots offered in the evening sales, 147 sold. The bulk of the activity was in the $1m to $5m price band (81 lots in total). For a market briefly accustomed to dizzying numbers, this can seem disappointing (“Ugh, they’re applauding for $5m”, a fellow reporter whispered about the crowd at one of the auctions). But these figures show a solid market—there are typically better margins for the houses at this level and often works that present collectors with opportunities for better value and refreshed curiosity.
Sotheby’s offered 71 Contemporary lots, of which it sold 68, an impressive sell-through rate of 95.8%. Most (35 lots) sold between $1m and $5m; 18 sold for less than $1m (of these, 13 were works on paper from the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Collection); 10 between $5m and $10m; three between $10m and $15m; two between $20m and $30m. Above this, Warhol’s Mao (1972) sold for $32.4m and Bacon’s Three Studies of George Dyer (1966) for $38.6m.
Christie’s offered 57 Contemporary lots and sold 48, a sell-through rate of 84%. Again, the vast majority (29 lots) sold for between $1m-$5m, which tells us a lot about where the market is now. Five lots sold for less than $1m; six between $5m and $10m; three between $10m and $12m; two between $20m and $28m. Above this; Rothko’s Saffron (1957) sold for $32.4m; Twombly’s beautiful Untitled (2005) from his “Bacchus” series sold for $46.4m; and Warhol’s Sixty Last Suppers (1986) for $60.9m.
Phillips offered 43 lots, selling 40 for a sell-through rate of 93%. Nine of the works were Modern, which we account for in our Impressionist and Modern report here). Of the Contemporary works, 18 sold between $1m and $5m; 10 for less than $1m; three between $5m and $10m; and one, Peter Doig’s Red House (1995-96), for $21.1m.
Overall, the houses made a combined $731.4m on sales of Contemporary art this season. Sotheby’s and Christie’s were closer than they have been since, well, last November. This season Christie’s totaled $335.6m and Sotheby’s $302.7m, (last year, they made $277m and $276.6m respectively).
It is interesting that these totals are in the same ballpark as those we saw either side of two recent major market events: the market recession and recovery between November 2008 and November 2011 (auction totals dipped to a low of $148.5m in May 2009, but climbed quickly thereafter) and the market boom that kicked off in November 2014, lasting until May 2016 (auction totals were regularly $1.2bn). These current totals, lower than the highs of 2014 to 2016, are a reflection not of lowering prices or demand, but of decreased supply of available material at the upper price levels.
(For context, combined auction totals in the years either side: $672.9m in May 2007; $683.2m in November 2007; $752.5m in May 2008; $742m in May 2012; $867.3m in November 2012; and $867.2m in May 2013.)
This suggests that the market is ticking along nicely, evidenced by the low buy-in rates all round. Even so, we would see higher totals if major examples of work by the most desired artists came to auction: supply is really the issue here.
Auction houses and secondary dealers know where these works are: they are just having a hard time convincing their owners to part with them. Yes, the owners would likely make a large chunk of change, but most collectors at this level simply do not need the money. And, where would they put all of that extra cash? Since supply at the top is so tight, it would be difficult to find a work of art as good as what they sold. Until supply loosens up, this remains the market’s conundrum.
Historically, two major movements have driven the American market: Pop and Abstract Expressionism. Several of the top lots this season were works made by two of the artists most closely associated with Pop, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. That’s not unusual. What is different is that, while previous seasons have been defined by a glut of Pop, this season we saw very little—and mostly from periods or bodies of work that have been underdeveloped in the market.
There were four works by Lichtenstein on offer, none of which were from the 1960s, the core years of Pop art. At Christie’s, Entablature #6 (est. $1.5m-$2.5m) failed to find a buyer. Faring better, two works on paper from the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Collection, which sold well at Sotheby’s (The White Tree (Study) (1979)) for $975,000 (est. $450,000-$650,000) and Drawing for Interior with Swimming Pool Painting for $435,000 (est. $300,000-$400,000).
Also at Sotheby’s, Female Head (1977) sold for $24.5m, making it the tenth most expensive Lichtenstein to sell at auction (est. $10m-$15m). It is also the only work from the 1970s in his top ten, substantiating this period as one of his most productive and undervalued.
Of the six on offer, there were only two works by Warhol that sold for more than $10m in the evening sales—both of which did well, albeit without great competition: Mao (1972) sold at Sotheby’s for $32.4m (est. $30m-$40m) while, at Christie’s, Sixty Last Suppers (1986) sold for $60.9m (est. in the region of $50m).
There was also less Minimalist art on offer than previous seasons—no works by Donald Judd, for example. Meanwhile, works by Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman and Brice Marden all failed to sell.
This does not reflect a shift in tastes. It has been a strong year for Minimalism masterworks on the private market. A Judd stack sold recently for a price thought to be in excess of $15m. There have been value-elevating prices for works by Ryman this year, too, including a sale of a work for around $30m to an East Coast collector and of another for around $20m to a European collector. At Sotheby’s, Meridian (1971) failed to find a buyer, which says less about the work than it does about demand. The market is focused on Ryman’s most painterly paintings with a thickness of texture. The strength of Meridian, a major painting with impeccable provenance, is that which distinguishes it from the more brush-y paintings, but this evaded this market.
The Agnes Martin market has its own rhythm: date, color and composition dependent. Last year, a record was set. This year, there were a few bumps. At Sotheby’s, Untitled #12 (1996) sold for $2.8m (est. $3m-$4m) while Untitled #5 (1981), failed to sell. At Christie’s, Untitled (2003) sold, likely to the irrevocable bidder, for $4.7m (est. $4m-$6m).
Seven of the works in Martin’s top ten are prices set in the past three years, including Orange Grove (1965) which sold for a record $10.7m at Christie’s in May 2016 and Untitled #13 (1980) which sold at Sotheby’s this past May for $8.1m. The strength in the market won’t suddenly reverse; it appears to be briefly on pause.
We are living in a turbulent age and it is often the case that, when times get tough, the market switches focus from splashier art towards more content-driven work. That seems to be a factor in the rise of figurative art—something we have been seeing across the auctions, galleries and art fairs this year.
There was huge demand last week for work by artists working in a deeply figurative vein: Kerry James Marshall’s Still Life with Wedding Portrait (2015), which is one of the most wonderful of these smaller-scale portraits, sparked a bidding war at Christie’s, where it sold for $5m (est. $1m-$1.5m). The Hours Behind You (2011) by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye—an artist whose work has been much sought after since she emerged several years ago, but whose supply on the primary market is carefully monitored— flew past its $250,000 to $350,000 estimate at Sotheby’s to sell for $1.6m.
Elsewhere, there was recognition of artists who have been working seriously for decades. Philippe Parreno’s colorful installation My Room is Another Fish Bowl (2016) was an unexpected inclusion as second lot at Christie’s, where it sold well—$516,500 (est. $250,000-$350,000). This is new work made in 2016 by a very well respected artist who has, until now, barely had an auction presence. His recognition is well deserved.
At Sotheby’s, Laura Owens’ glorious Untitled (2012) was heavily pursued by several bidders and catapulted past its $200,000 to $300,000 estimate to sell for $1.8m. Here is an example of an artist whose work has been long adored by people who love painting but not always understood by the market more broadly, mainly because she works across such a range.
The auction was well-timed: Owens, who is reaching a point of maturity in her market, is the subject of a precisely-curated retrospective at the Whitney Museum which cleanly lays out why she is such a significant artist (“Laura Owens”, until 4 February). Buyers have limited access to her work on the primary market so this large-scale painting, which is from one of her finest recent bodies of work and happens to be extremely colorful and voluptuous in its painting, was an excellent example and so proved to be incredibly in demand.
There was great strength in the day sales. Sotheby’s had its most successful day sale in ten years, offering 359 lots and selling 317 for $103m total, a sell-through rate of 88%. Phillips had its highest total for a day sale in the company’s history, selling 178 of the 199 lots on offer for $20.8m, a sell-through rate of 89%. And Christie’s totaled $104m, selling 293 of its 337 lots, a sell-through rate of 87%.
The majority of the action at Christie’s was in the $100,000 and $500,000 range (146, accounting for $35.4m of its total). They had a similar total from works sold in the $1m-$5m range, $37.3m, from just 19 sold lots.
The next day, the buying at Sotheby’s was fairly evenly split across two price bands: 128 lots sold under $100,000 for a total $5.6m and 130 lots sold in the $100,000-$500,00 range for $32m. Meanwhile, it had almost the exact results as Christie’s the $1m to $5m range— $37.4m total from 20 sold lots.
Phillips sold most of its works in the range up to $100,000: 101 lots for a total $4.3m. Interestingly, 54 lots in the $100,000-$500,000 made a total $11.2m—almost half the number of lots for more-than-two-and-a-half times the revenue.
*This article is part of our special auction report, which you can find here
$4.1m, George Condo, Compression IV (2017), est. $800,000-$1.2m at Sotheby’s Contemporary Day Sale
$3.6m, Morris Louis, Gothic (1958), est. $1m-$1.5m at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Day Sale
$975,000, Pat Steir, Smaller Yellow on Blue Waterfall (1992), est. $600,000-$800,000 at Sotheby’s Contemporary Day Sale
$855,000, Jack Whitten, The Ghost of Joseph Beuys (1986), est. $200,000-$300,000 at Sotheby’s Contemporary Day Sale
$795,000, Albert Aublet, L’Heure du bain au Tréport (1885), est. $600,000-$800,000 at Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Day Sale
$480,500, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Flock (12 Standing Figures) (1990), est. $200,000-$300,000 at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Day Sale
$447,000, Henry Moore, Draped Seated Figure against Curved Wall (1956), est. $200,000-$300,000 at Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Day Sale (record for this sculpture by the artist)
$337,500, Laurence Jenkell, Bonbon Aluminum Polimiroir (2013), est. $180,000-$250,000 at Sotheby’s Contemporary Day Sale
$312,000, David Wojnarowicz, Mexico Crucifix (1987-88), est. $80,000-$120,000 at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Day Sale
$250,000, Karin Mamma Andersson, About a Girl (1962), est. $100,000-$150,000 at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Day Sale
$250,000, Luis Tomasello, Atmosphère Chromoplastique no. 404 (1976), est. $100,000-$150,000 at Sotheby’s Contemporary Day Sale
$212,400, Tom Otterness, Bear (1988), est. $18,000-$25,000 at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Day Sale
$162,000, Martin Wong, The Flood (1984), est. $50,000-$70,000 at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Day Sale
$100,000, Pietro Roccasalva, Il Traviatore (2011), est. $50,000-$70,000 at Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Day Sale
$85,000, Shara Hughes, Sailing (2006), est. $10,000-$15,000 at Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Day Sale
$75,000 Donald Roller Wilson, The Second Visit of the Queen (1979), est. $25,000-$35,000 at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Day Sale
$56,250, Kon Trubkovich, Out of the black and into the white (2012), est. $25-000-$35,000 at Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Day Sale
$43,750, Simone Leigh, Overburdened with Significance (2011), est. $20,000-$30,000 at Sotheby’s Contemporary Day Sale
$40,000, Titus Kaphar, Tina Vesper (2009), est. $10,000-$15,000 at Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Day Sale
$32,500, Sanya Kantarovsky, Untitled (2011), est. $10,000-$15,000 at Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Day Sale
$18,750, Sari Dienes, Shard Straps (c.1950-55), est. $15,000-$20,000 at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Day Sale
$11,250, Albert Goguet Mantelet, Élégante au bord de l’eau (c.1899), est. $5,000-$7,000 at Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Day Sale
$70.1m, Fernand Léger, Contraste de formes (1913), est. in the region of $65m at Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Evening Sale
$28.5m, Marc Chagall, Les Amoureux (1928), est. $12m-$18m at Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Evening Sale
$20.6m, René Magritte, L’empire des lumières (1949), est. $14m-$18m at Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Evening Sale
$17.8m, Edouard Vuillard, Misia et Vallotton à Villeneuve (1899), est. $7m-$10m at Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Evening Sale
$14.7m, Louise Bourgeois, Spider IV (1996), est. $10m-$15m at Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Sale (record for wall-mounted spider by the artist)
$11m, Mark Rothko, Untitled (1969), est. $10m-$15m at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale (record for oil on paper laid down on canvas by the artist)
$8.9m, Hans Hofmann, Lava (1960), est. $4m-$6m at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale
$6.2m, Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior with Woman at Piano, Strandgade 30 (1901), est. $2.5m-$3.5m at Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Evening Sale
$5.5m, Lee Krasner, Shattered Light (1954), est. $1.8m-$2.5m at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale
$5.3m, Emil Nolde, Indische Tänzerin (1917), est. $2.5m-$2.3m at Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Evening Sale
$5m, Kerry James Marshall, Still Life with Wedding Portrait (2015), est. $1m-$1.5m at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale
$5m, Isamu Noguchi, Olmec & Muse (1985), est. $600,000-$800,000 at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale
$4.4m, Georgia O’Keeffe, Yellow Sweet Peas (1925), est. $2.5m-$3.5m at Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Evening Sale (record for a work on paper by the artist)
$4.2m, Vija Celmins, Lead See #2 (1969), est. $1.5m-$2.5m at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale
$4.2m, Jasper Johns, Numbers (2006) and Usuyki (1995), est. $1.5m-$3.5m at Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Sale (tied record for work on paper by the artist)
$3.6m, Robert Indiana, The Great American Love (Love Wall) (1972), est. $3.5m-$5m (record for painting by the artist) at Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Sale
$3.4m, Alexander Calder, Seven Black, Red and Blue (1947), est. $900,000-$1.2m at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale (record for oil on canvas by the artist)
$3.4m, Jean Dubuffet, Rue Saint-Lazare (La gratouille) (1962), est. $1m-$1.5m at Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Sale (record for a work on paper by the artist)
$3.3m, Man Ray, Catherine Barometer (1920), est. $2m-$4m at Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Evening Sale (record for a sculpture by the artist)
$2.2m, Richard Serra, Carver (2009), est. $800,000-$1.2m at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale (record for artist in paintstick on handmade paper)
$1.8m, Suzanne Duchamp, Radiation de deux seuls éloignés (1916-20), est. $700,000-$1.5m at Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Evening Sale
$1.8m, Laura Owens, Untitled (2012), est. $200,000-$300,000 at Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Sale
$1.6m, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, The Hours Behind You (2011) at Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Sale
$1.5m, Julian Schnabel, Ethnic Type #14 (1984), est. $500,000-$700,000 at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale
$1.3m, William Baziotes, Phantasm (1951), est. $800,000-$1.2m at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale
$1.3m, Jean Dubuffet, Tétonette (1954), est. $1.2m-$1.8m at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale (record for artist in sponge and stone)
$1.2m, Carmen Herrera, Untitled (Orange and Black) (1956), est. $700,000-$1m at Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Evening Sale
$1m, Jean Crotti, Les forces mécaniques de l’amour en mouvement, (1916), est. $700,000-$1.5m at Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Evening Sale
$615,000, Hélio Oiticica, P31 Parangolé, capa 24, Escrerbuto (1972), est. $600,000-$800,000 at Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Evening Sale
$516,000, Philippe Moreno, My Room is Another Fish Bowl (2016), est. $250,000-$350,000 at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale
$225,000, Adam Pendelton, Black Dada (K) (2012), est. $40,000-$60,000 at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale
More money was spent during last week’s Impressionist and Modern evening sales than ever before. A combined total of $748.9m was spent at Sotheby’s and Christie’s—a figure that rises to $769.7m if the $20.8m spent on Modern art during Phillips hybrid sale is included. Until now, the sector’s previous auction peak was the $727.5m spent in November 2006.
It may feel like a million years ago, but has in fact been just a decade since Impressionist and Modern art was the engine driving the market. In the intervening years, the perception has been that it is a shrinking market—a belief largely based on the overwhelming rise in value of Contemporary art.
The switch in market dominance began in May 2007 when Contemporary edged ahead in the evening sales (compare the combined total of $672.9m for Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips in Contemporary with the $515m total for Impressionist and Modern at Christie’s and Sotheby’s). By May 2008, Contemporary was clearly in pole position ($752.4m vs. $513.8m).
Interestingly, the trend quickly reversed as the effects of the global recession took hold. While both markets took a hit, the Impressionist and Modern was stronger than Contemporary for four consecutive sales seasons from November 2008 to May 2010, during which years its combined totals were higher.
By November 2010, the art market was not only recovering, but also heading into a new boom—one in which Contemporary thoroughly asserted its dominance. Consider 2014: the Impressionist and Modern totals were around half the Contemporary results ($504.9m in May and $587.7m in November, compared with $1.2bn totals for both Contemporary seasons).
Shaped by supply
Demand has never been the issue: this sector is shaped by supply. Individual instances of extraordinary spending throughout the past decade point to a strong, underlying appreciation for top-tier Impressionist and Modern works, whether records set at public auction (such as the $119.9m sale of Munch’s 1895 pastel The Scream at Sotheby’s in 2012 to US financier Leon Black) or rumored sales on the private market (such as Cézanne’s The Card Players (1890-92), which is believed to have sold in 2011 for around $250m to Qatar, which is also thought to have bought Gauguin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?) (1892) for $210m in 2014).
Demand for Impressionist and Modern art has also shifted, consolidating around certain kinds of work by a handful of key names. This is borne out by the combined auction totals, which, season by season, have depended on how many of these immediately appealing trophy lots each house can secure.
While the top lots help define the totals, there is more to the market than that. This season showed that there are distinct appetites beneath this level, borne out by the impressive sell-through rates: 92% at Sotheby’s and 88% at Christie’s. In other words, the market is healthy: while the totals are driven by the masterpieces, there is active buying at various price levels. It was interesting this season, for example, to see the success of some important work by less obvious artists, such as Picabia and Vuillard.
Today’s auction market is being crafted around the interests of newer buyers: the houses are working hard to bring to the block the kind of art that will appeal to these important clients. Take collectors from Asia, who began to enter the Impressionist and Modern market in around 2010, and who want works by the biggest names — Picasso, Monet, Cézanne, Giacometti and van Gogh.
Last week, more than half of the top ten works sold during Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern auction last week went to bidders from across Asia, including Mainland China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Taiwan. One single collector from the region bought several top lots, including two paintings by Monet (Les Glacons, Bennecourt (1893) for $23.4m (est. $18m-$25m), and Les Arceaux des Roses, Giverney (1913) for $19.4m (est. $18m-$25m) as well as Marc Chagall’s Le Grand Cirque (1956) for $16m (est. $10m-$15m).
Beyond the big lots, it is worth noting that Asian collectors were active at every level during the sale—underbidding on and purchasing lots in the low millions and under $1m.
At Christie’s, an Asian client bought Vincent van Gogh’s Laboureur dans un champ (1889) for $81.3m (est. in excess of $50m) while Pablo Picasso’s Femme accroupie (Jacqueline) (1954) sold for $36.9m (est. $20m-$30m) to the company’s Jakarta-based rep on the phones.
Meanwhile, Russian collectors—assumed dormant for the past several years—are still active. The bidding war for Chagall’s Les Amoureux (1928) at Sotheby’s was between clients from Asia and Russia. The latter was victorious, buying the work for $28.5m (est. $12m-$18m).
Bridge to Contemporary?
There is increasing interest in art that wouldn’t look out of place within a Contemporary collection. The houses are moving certain works by specific artists from their traditional categories. Transitioning an artist from a more regional category into a broader one like Impressionist and Modern opens them up to a deeper pool of buyers.
Examples include Vilhelm Hammershøi. an artist whose work is typically found in 19th-century sales, but was last week placed in the Impressionist and Modern auction. His beautiful Interior with Woman at Piano, Strandgade 30 (1901) flew past its $2.5m to $3.5m estimate, selling for $6.2m at Sotheby’s.
Henry Moore is an artist whose work is sometimes included in the Modern British auctions but also often placed in Impressionist and Modern. Reclining Figure (1982) had most recently sold at auction in London in 2010 for £3.6m ($5.8m), a price nearly doubled last week when it sold at Christie’s for $11m (est. $7m-$10m).
Meanwhile Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the artists typically classified as American whose work can truly be considered international. Her Yellow Sweet Peas (1925) sold for $4.4m at Sotheby’s from the collection of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (est $2.5m-$3.5m).
Expansion of Surrealism
Another area of the market to benefit from the lack of supply for the kind of Impressionist works that traditionally formed the backbone of the sector is Surrealism, which has been strong and building since around 2010.
Interest is concentrated particularly around early works by Dalí and Delvaux, while Magritte is sought across periods. New records were set for his work last week: L’empire des lumières (1949), became the most expensive work by the artist to sell at auction when it totalled $20.6m at Christie’s (est $14m-$18m). Meanwhile, Le banquet (1955-57) became the third most expensive work, selling for $13.6m (est. $12m-$18m) at Sotheby’s, which placed La voix du Sang (1947) as its first lot, selling for $1.2m (est $600,000-$900,000).
Sales of Magritte’s works have been taking place privately at the $15m to $25m level for several years now. Buyers are especially interested in the later works (which tend to be less darker and more pretty than earlier work) and works that feature recognizable motifs: the man with the bowler hat, versions of The Empire of Light, Eagle-Mountain or works featuring an egg or bird, as well as those containing sky-scenes or the moon.
Meanwhile, an exhibition at MoMA in 2013-14 (“Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary”) and an upcoming show at SFMoMA (“René Magritte: The Fifth Season, 19 May-28 October 2018) add to a broader understanding to the artist.
Christie’s totaled $50.9m, selling 294 of its 379 lots, a sell-through rate of 78%. Sotheby’s offered 303 lots of which it sold 233 for $41.4m total, a sell-through rate of 77%. Phillips included 13 Impressionist and Modern works in its day auction, selling 12 of them for $1.8m (92%).
At Christie’s, the vast majority of sales took place below $100,000 (176 lots for $7.3m). The bulk of the value, however, was in the $100,000 to $500,000 range (89 lots for $21.7m). Between $500,000 and $1m, Christie’s sold 22 lots for $15.1m and, between $1m and $5m, they sold six lots for a total $6.7m.
There was a similar story at Sotheby’s: the majority of the lots were below $100,000 (121 for a total of $5.3m) and a further 93 lots priced between $100,000 to $500,000 sold for a total $22m. Between $500,000 and $1m, Sotheby’s sold 16 lots for $10.3m and, between $1m and $5m, they sold three lots for a total $3.8m.
Nauman’s work changed the game, but has been far less present on the auction market in recent decades. The unique bronze Fox Wheel (1990) is an extremely appealing sculpture from one of his most sought-after bodies of work and made on a domestic scale (by an artist who tends to work on an institutional scale). And yet, it sold for the relatively modest price of $1.3m (est. $1.2m-$1.8m).
Later this year, a major retrospective, “Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts”, will consider more than 50 years of Nauman’s output at the Schaulager in Basel (17 March-26 August 2018) and then at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (21 October 2018-17 March 2019), an event which should create context for a new generation of collectors who have simply not seen enough of his work.
There was a new record set for a work by Vija Celmins with Lead Sea #2 (1969), which sold for $4.2m (est. $1.5m-$2.5m) at Christie’s. This was a big price for her work and a jump from the previous record of $3.4m for Burning Plane (1965), which was set at Sotheby’s in 2014.
There is a growing awareness of this artist’s importance: all of the top ten prices for the artist have been set in the past five years. Lead Sea #2 comes from her most coveted series of drawings (those of the sea), drawing having been her principle medium for decades. While diminutive in scale, these powerful and meditative works go toe-to-toe in importance and impact with work by the major Minimalists such as Judd and Serra.
One of the most important artists of his generation, Ruscha has nonetheless had a spotty auction market. His work is included in most evening sales but often finds mixed reception. He is one of those artists whose work is clearly undervalued: we are waiting for that moment when the market will begin to acknowledge that.
This season was, in part, a step in the right direction. Works from the 1990s have not tended to perform well at auction but, last week, there were clear signs of renewed attention being paid. At Sotheby’s, Brave Man’s Porch (1996) became the third most expensive work by the artist to sell at auction for $6.6m (est. $4m-$6m).
High-five for connoisseurship
Drawing is a medium that has not attracted much attention from newer buyers, but the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Collection of true masterworks performed extremely well, with multiple bidders on most of the 24 lots on offer in the Contemporary evening sale, all of which sold.
A new record was set when Shattered Light (1954) sold at Christie’s for $5.5m (est. $1.8m-$2.5m). More people have recently been paying attention to this highly significant artist who has nonetheless been somewhat invisible on the market. This Krasner dates from 1954: a Pollock of equivalent size and quality would sell for north of $75m.
Two similarly scaled Bourgeois bronze sculptures of spiders came to auction last week, with identical estimates of $10m to $15m. Spider II (1995) sold at the low end of its estimate for $11.6m at Christie’s.
The following evening, Spider IV (conceived in 1996 and cast in 1997) sold for $14.7m to a bidder from Asia. Spider IV has a strong sculptural presence and shows real style in how the legs cling to the wall. In a famous portrait of the artist, which was also used as the cover of a major book, Louise stands below Spider IV with her arms flung upwards in exhilaration.
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