Fall 2018 Auction Round Up: Algorithms, Women and Artists of Color Set New Records

The fall auctions—the barometer of art market strength—closed the 2018 year with a generally healthy showing: the major houses of Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips racked up $2.1 billion in their New York Impressionist & Modern, and Postwar & Contemporary sales. This is stronger than the 2018 spring sales ($1.9 billion), but less than the 2017 fall auctions, in which cumulative sales soared to $2.3 billion, led by the astronomical $450 million selling price for Salvator Mundi, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.

Guarantees continue to be a rising trend that props up the high-end of the art market: according to ArtTactic, the value on guarantees for Impressionist, Modern Postwar & Contemporary art rose from a cumulative $554.2 million in the November 2017 auctions to $795.37 million for this season’s sales. For those who need an education, an auction “guarantee” is when third parties—or the auction houses themselves—put in an “irrevocable bid,” to use Sotheby’s terminology, guaranteeing that the work of art will sell, at a minimum, for the guaranteed price. If the third party is the high bidder, they win the work; if the bidding exceeds the bid, the third party will still make a percentage of the overage to their guaranteed bid. There is still much debate as to whether third-party guarantees help or hurt the art market (see these recent articles for and against the practice), but regardless of where your feelings lie on the spectrum, guarantees will likely continue to be common practice.

Van Gogh - jardin avec papillons
Vincent van Gogh’s 1887 Coin de Jardin Avec Papillons did not attract any buyers.

The Impressionist & Modern art market was a mixed bag this fall: according to ArtTactic, New York’s Impressionist & Modern evening sales were short of their cumulative low presale estimate by about $70 million, and were down 21.2% from the 2017 fall sales. It appears that the auction houses were aggressive in their estimates, as evidenced by a few high-profile flops: Coin de Jardin Avec Papillons by Vincent van Gogh (1887), and Pre-War Pageant, a 1913 colorful, abstract painting by Marsden Hartley, both failed to get a single bid. On the positive side, American modernist Edward Hopper set a personal record of $91.9 million for his 1929 Chop Suey in Christie’s sale of the collection of Barney Ebsworth (although as an American-made painting, this would not officially be counted towards the Impressionist & Modern statistics).

Hockney - Pool with Two Figures
David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972, set the auction record for a living artist.

The hottest market continues to be contemporary art, which accounted for more than half of the $2.1 billion sold in New York this fall (with sixty percent of the overall sales backed by a third-party guarantor). The biggest highlight was David Hockney’s 1972 Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), which fetched $90.3 million, making it the most expensive work of art by a living artist sold at auction (shattering Jeff Koons’ $58.4 million record for Balloon Dog at Christie’s New York in 2013). Notably, the seller—British billionaire Joe Lewis— was so confident in the market strength of the work that he rejected some competitive third-party guarantees, and even offered the painting without a reserve (minimum acceptable bid). Although less of a household name, Jack Whitten, a recently deceased African-American artist, also set a personal record this fall, when his fantastic painting Ancient Mentor I (1985) sold for $2.2 million at Sotheby’s ($1 million beyond it’s high estimate). And Henry Taylor’s I’ll Put a Spell on You (2004) set a new record for the artist when it hammered at $800,000, four times its high estimate.

Whitten - Ancient Mentor I
Jack Whitten, Ancient Mentor I, 1985 set a new record for the artist.

These are just a few of the record-setting sales for African-American artists this year (see also my spring auction round up), and is part of a rising trend in the art world: the overdue reckoning of white men’s hegemonic stronghold on art to create a new cultural narrative that reflects a panoply of perspectives and voices. Museums are making a concerted effort to diversify their collections (and, in some cases, actively divesting themselves of all the extra “white guy” works), and collectors are paying top dollar for works by women and artists of color. In addition to the attention-grabbing shredded Banksy that sold at Sotheby’s London this fall (see footnote), British artist Jenny Saville set the record for the highest auction value for a living female artist when her self-portrait Propped fetched over 9.5 million GBP ($12.4 million) at Sotheby’s London. Although impressive, at about a tenth of the value of Hockney’s new record for a living artist, this made but a crack in the proverbial glass ceiling.

Saville - Propped
Jenny Saville, Propped (Self-Portrait), 1992, set the auction record for a living female artist.

And in other record-setting news: for those of you who subscribe to my e-blasts, you’ll recall that I previewed Portrait of Edmond Belamy as a lot to watch at the fall auctions. The first publicly auctioned, AI-generated work of art appeared in Christie’s October Prints and Multiples sale, exploding past its high estimate of $10,000 to sell for a whopping $432,000, perhaps heralding what could be a completely new collecting category. The sale raises interesting philosophical questions of authorship, and the nature of human creation. But the portrait is now at the center of a legal debate of its origin, as a 19-year-old Stanford student claims the creators (a French art collective called Obvious), stole his algorithm to create the portrait. Escándalo! Read more about it here.

Edmond Belamy
Portrait of Edmond Belamy, 2018, an AI-generated work of art.


Until next time, I wish you and yours a happy holiday season and New Year!

Footnote: I had a ton of people ask my opinion on whether Sotheby’s was “in” on this, so here it is: Sotheby’s would surely have performed an inspection of the piece, and there is no way they would not have noticed the shredding mechanism in the frame. Second, the work was installed above the phone bank in a rather awkward corner of the room, rather than center stage with the auctioneer, safely clamped down (which would have obstructed the shredding). This, compounded with the fact that it was conspicuously the last lot in the sale (and would thus not disrupt the whole auction if/when the event happened), suggests that Sotheby’s created the circumstances for the shredding to occur. I don’t believe that the auction house colluded with Banksy. As others have pointed out, it wouldn’t be Banksy’s style to collaborate with an institution; as a street artist, his whole MO is anti-institutional (exhibit A: the shredding was an anti-commodification performance!). But I think Sotheby’s suspected something might happen, and they knew that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Unfortunately, Banksy’s anarchic message was dampened by the fact that the shredder malfunctioned, leaving a half-shredded, but still satisfying, new composition. Moreover, the sensationalism of the event itself had the opposite effect of Banksy’s intention: the work is absolutely worth more following the stunt. But did Banksy really “lose”? This certainly helped his market. He could have disavowed the work under VARA (Visual Artists’ Rights Act), but he instead “authenticated” the work by christening it with a new name: Love is in the Bin. Everybody wins.

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