The art world is truly the Teflon market—destabilizing economies and weakening currencies just seem to slide off art, as the art market continues to break records each season.
This is true too of the ultra-contemporary art market, where works made in the last few years by young artists are selling for wild figures. While this is technically great news for the artist’s reputation and market, most artists do not benefit from the resale of their work—the only people who reap the benefits of the artists’ popularity are the collectors and auction houses. More on that below. (There was too much to cover, so I’ve selected only a few sales and selected highlights to address.)
First, the big hoopla of the 2022 fall auction season was the sale of art from the Estate of Paul Allen at Christie’s. I admire the late Microsoft cofounder’s taste: while the collection certainly leans towards modern and contemporary, he also collected art from “dustier” periods of history, which is a testament to his sincere interest in the vision of artists throughout time. Thanks to some rare and marquee works, over two nights the collection grossed a stunning $1.62 billion, making it the most expensive single-owner sale in history. That value is 40% of Christie’s total auction turnover from 2021! And some silver lining: the Estate will use the proceeds to fund philanthropy.
Here are some of my favorites from the marquee sale:
I’m a sucker for Gustav Klimt. His exquisite 1903 painting Birch Forest sold for over $104 million, beating his previous record for one of his famous portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer, which Oprah bought for $87.9 million in 2006 at Christie’s. (She recently sold it for $150 million. It appreciated well!)
While this work sold on the low end of its pre-sale estimate of $45–65 million ($52 million), the tight cropping of Edouard Manet’s Le Grand Canal à Venise (1874) is a testament to the burgeoning influence of photography on mid-19th century art. This little vignette would not exist without photography.
Christie’s lengthy essay on Lucian Freud’s Large Interior, WII (after Watteau) says the painting “stands among the defining achievements of Lucian Freud’s oeuvre.” I love it because I think it asks as many questions as it answers. The masterpiece took in a cool $86 million.
By some accounts there are only 5 Botticellis left in private hands, which makes it remarkable that Allen’s fabulous Madonna the Magnificat only sold for $48.5 million. But that’s the art market for you: everyone wants Postwar and Contemporary art!
Last highlight from the Allen sale: Georges Seurat’s, Les Poseuses, Ensemble, from 1888. This small 15 x 20 in. painting is a miniature study (or possibly later version) of a larger canvas in the collection of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. The painting was a response to criticism of his breakout (and still probably most famous) work, Un dimanche d’été à l’Île de La Grande Jatte, seen in the background of this work from 1886. Given its importance in the critical narrative of Seurat’s work (and who doesn’t love a painting within a painting?), this little painting achieved over $149 million. It was the highest bid of the night and year, and the new auction record for the artist. Whew!
Christie’s other Modern and Contemporary sales—the 20th and 21st century sales, respectively—grossed almost $422 million in one day for just 100 lots. As noted above, one thing that concerns me with the ultra-contemporary sales is whether the artists are getting compensated for the resale of their art at auction. Some of these works, such as a Anna Weyant’s 2020 work Loose Screw, are being flipped a few years after creation for many times what the buyer paid for it. At just 27 years old, Weyant’s painting sold for $1.5 million, or three times the high estimate for her. But who knows what she pocketed in the initial private sale…
Some of these hot artists have gotten hip to the game, and due to their high demand, are going directly to auction to sell their work: Salmon Toor, in conjunction with his gallery Luhring Augustine, put up his 2019 painting Four Guests for auction. It achieved $856,000, five times its high estimate of $180,000—at least he benefited from the sale!
If you read my blog post on NFTs, you know I’ve never been a fan (and predicted their market instability and downfall), but one possibly positive use of blockchain technology in our industry is for the creation of smart contracts that enable artists to reap royalties on the resale of their work. I still think we just need to implement some federal law that ensures artists get resale rights, but for now blockchain could be a viable solution (if only it wasn’t soooo bad for the planet…sigh…).
In other news, Sotheby’s had a decent fall season too: across six sales of Modern and Contemporary art, Sotheby’s grossed $856 million, with the Contemporary evening sale taking in $269 million, and the Modern evening sale grossing $253 million. The marquee pieces that drove the Contemporary sale was Andy Warhol’s White Disaster (White Car Crash 19 Times), which brought $85.3 million, and Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Portrait of Lucian Freud, which took $30 million.
But notably several works in the sale, including the Bacon triptych, sold on the low end of—or below—their presale estimates, indicating the Sotheby’s specialists were a little too optimistic with their forecasts.
One of the most disappointing results was for Robert Gober’s Untitled installation (1993-94). The photo doesn’t do the art much justice, and even in person, it takes a moment to realize what you’re looking at: it’s a storm drain with real water trickling in it. As you pay closer attention, you see a man’s chest is the drain, complete with real human hair. The installation had a pre-sale estimate of $6–8 million, but sold well under at $3.68 million. Perhaps the practicality of installing a work that is a storm drain/fountain was just too much of a headache for collectors…
Some other favorites of mine from the Sotheby’s Contemporary sale:
Ed Clark’s Blue Splash of 1967, sold for $882, 000 against an estimate of $200,000 – 300,000.
As lovely as Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Saxophone (1986) is, it sadly was one of the works over-estimated by the Sotheby’s specialists: it sold for $13.67 million, against a pre-sale estimate of $12 – 18 million.
Always love me some Joan Mitchell. Her classic 1956 Untitled had a pre-sale estimate of $1.5 – 2 million, and sold for $3.2 million.
Lastly, Kenneth Noland’s Sounds in the Summer Night (1962), sold for $3.2 million against a $2 – 3 million estimate. Love the palette.
Well for now (er, as always?) the art market remains alive and well. Until next time, peace love and art. ❤️