Reflections on the Fall Auction Season (Intro to Round Ups)

It was a jam-packed auction season—the first in two years with in-person audiences—with some standout collections and blue-chip artworks that led to a soaring $2.6 billion in generated revenue for Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips. Due to time, I did not get a chance to cover the Phillips sales, but in the next few blog posts, I summarize some highlights from the modern and contemporary auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. But here, first, an introduction of sorts, with a few over-arching points and themes to touch on:

In a sign of our ever-changing times, it’s worth noting that Sotheby’s has yet again restructured its marquee sales into different categories. You may recall in my December 2020 post, I recounted the confusing structural changes that the auction houses experimented with in the face of the pandemic, including global online “relay” auctions, throwing in some Old Masters (and T-Rexes) into the mix, and generally shaking up the time-honored categories of “Impressionist & Modern” and “Postwar & Contemporary.” And for their 2021 Spring auctions, Christie’s committed to a permanent change away from these categories to respective 20th and 21st century sales, the parameters of which are noted as “flexible.”

This fall, Sotheby’s announced they are restructuring the modern and contemporary evening auctions into 3 sales: “The Modern,” (covering late 19th to early 20th century art), “The Contemporary,” (covering postwar art to the late 20th century) and “The Now” (art of the last two decades). A Sotheby’s representative noted that, like Christie’s’ groupings, these parameters are flexible, because the sales also take into consideration stylistic—rather than strictly chronological—factors.

Sotheby’s’ and Christie’s’ creation of marquee sales just for 21st century art reflects the unprecedented market demand for art by living artists. There is no doubt that the art in these contemporary sales is absolutely fabulous, and when you survey the modern and contemporary sales, the newest work does feel fresh and incredibly satisfying. With waiting lists at galleries for some of the hottest emerging artists—who can only produce so much (good) art in a year—artworks that were painted in 2019, 2020, and 2021 are showing up at auction, and bursting past their estimates at jaw-dropping rates.

The concern of many in the artworld, however, is that emerging artists are missing out on the financial returns. More often than not, it is collectors who are flipping the paintings, after having purchased them at modest “emergent prices” from the artist’s gallery. We are seeing some glimpses where artists are submitting their paintings straight to auction, and reaping the rewards. Until recently, it was considered inappropriate—and even arrogant—for an artist to bypass galleries and sell new work directly to auction. Damien Hirst was one such rare case with his 2008 Sotheby’s auction of new work fresh from his studio, and even as a market veteran, he was called “cocky” by more than one critic for the stunt.

In the NFT market, it is almost exclusively artists who are selling their work at auction (see my post on the Christie’s auction with Beeple’s recent HUMAN ONE, or my general blog post on NFTs, for more on the current NFT trend). But anyways, perhaps with the new trend toward contemporary—and the auction houses’ pivot to serve this market—it’ll be more commonplace to see artists selling directly through auction.

Sotheby’s took another note from the Christie’s playbook, too: they took advantage of the many eyes on the popular modern and contemporary sales to squeeze in an anachronistic but high-profile item: a single lot sale of a copy of the original printed U.S. Constitution, one of only two copies that exists in private hands (out of 13 extant copies total). Wedged between “The Now” and Contemporary evening sale, the Constitution was offered by private collector Dorothy Tapper Goldman, and sold to billionaire collector Kenneth Griffin for $43.2 million.

As always, year on year, as the art market continues to reach dizzying and seemingly endless heights, I reflect on what it says about our culture and society at large. While I love art—which, if you’re reading this blog, I am sure you do too—I am alarmed at the excess of the artworld, especially now, when so many people in the world face financial insecurity in the midst of COVID. The strength of the art market is a symptom—and powerful symbol—of the growing wealth inequality of our times. So until we address wealth inequality in a major way, I don’t think we will see much of a deflation in the art market soon.

There was a lot to cover this year, so I’ve broken up the summaries of the auctions’ offerings into different posts—you can read about Sotheby’s’ sales here, and Christie’s’ sales here. Remember, when I speak of pre-sale estimates it refers to hammer prices, whereas any final selling price I quote includes the buyer’s premium (the buyer’s fees to the auction house).

As always, peace, love and art.

Until 2022.

Fall Auction Round Up: Christie’s

Christie’s had one of its most successful weeks in its history–which given the current state of the country and world, is saying something. With just the three auctions discussed below–the 20th and 21st century sales, plus a single-owner auction of Impressionist masterpieces–Christie’s raised nearly $1 billion.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Guilt of Gold Teeth (1982), sold for $40 million. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

Christie’s’ first sale of the week was its 21st century sale (i.e. contemporary art). The biggest ticket item of the sale was a massive Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, The Guilt of Gold Teeth from 1982. Interestingly, there is no lot essay for this work, which is surprising given the pre-sale estimate of $40–60 million. Perhaps this work was a last-minute addition to the sale, which may explain why it ultimately did not meet the house’s expectations, selling with fees at the low estimate of $40 million. Peter Doig’s large Swamped, one of his classic images of a canoe on water, took in almost $40 million as well.

Peter Doig, Swamped (1990), sold for almost $40 million. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

The next big seller was from Beeple, the artist with the record-setting NFT collection EVERYDAYS: The First 5000 Days which earlier this year sold for $69 million. Here, Beeple has created HUMAN ONE, a kinetic sculpture with four video screens of rotating landscapes traversed by a lonely astronaut. As Beeple explains in his own Terms and Conditions issued with the art, the sculpture is the “Physical Element” that displays the digital “Artwork:”

“Although the NFT and Physical Element are sold to the purchaser, the Artwork is licensed and not sold to such purchaser. The Artwork is neither stored nor embedded in the NFT, but is accessible through the NFT. The Physical Element displays a copy of the Artwork.”

Beeple, HUMAN ONE (2021), sold for almost $29 million. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

Of course, given the hype of NFTs, and Beeple’s recent success (which instigated said hype of NFTs), HUMAN ONE achieved almost $29 million. While I think Human One is far better than 5000 Days, in my opinion, Beeple is a better opportunist than an artist. Here’s why:

You don’t need a f*cking NFT to create a digital work of art!! It is strictly a marketing ploy. NFTs are being marketed to sell you the idea that you can’t own or trade unique digital artwork unless it has been minted on the blockchain. But this is completely false.

There are hundreds of artists who create digital artwork. Sometimes, the artist designs a special mechanism or sculpture to display the digital creation. There are also artists who have used A.I. algorithms to create digital art that changes and evolves. All of these works can be created as secure, unique artworks (i.e. one copy) or limited edition works (often in small editions of 2, 3, 5, etc.). This can be all be done without NFTs. Let me repeat: the NFT is completely unnecessary.

You may glean from my tone that I am not a fan of NFTs. You can read my fuller assessment of NFTs here (one point I think I failed to make in my previous blog post on NFTs is that they have an astronomical energy footprint and are thus terrible for the environment. One more reason not to be suckered in to this ridiculous hyped-up scam).

I need some cheering up: let me talk about the art that I liked in the 21st century sale.

The first three lots in the sale were among my favorites: opener Darling by Xinyi Cheng from 2017 sold for $300,000, far outstripping its $30,000–40,000 estimate. And the second lot, Hilary Pecis’s 2019 canvas Upstairs Interior, sold for more than ten times its high estimate of $80,000, bringing $870,000. And while I don’t love all of Nicolas Party’s work, I do like the landscape he submitted to the auction, which roared past its $300,000–500,000 estimate to achieve $3.27 million, with fees. All together, Christie’s 21st century sale raked in $219 million.

Just as Sotheby’s’ season benefitted from the marquee sale of the Macklowe Collection, Christie’s’ fall season was enhanced by a collection of Impressionist masterworks from the Estate of the late Edwin Cox, a Texas oil magnate. The heart-stopping prizes of the night included an absolutely magnificent Vincent van Gogh landscape from 1889. Cabanes de bois parmi les oliviers et cyprés has the classic van Gogh palette, with its aquamarine sky and bushes, contrasting against the bright yellow fields and spindly cypress trees. The show-stopper sold for $71.35 million with fees (estimate was by request).

Vincent van Gogh, Cabanes de bois parmi les oliviers et cyprés (1889), sold for over $71 million. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

Two more van Goghs brought in stunning prices as well: a bright watercolor of peasants harvesting threshes by haystacks (Meules de blé) from 1888. Interestingly, this work was stolen by the Nazis from the famous French banking family the Rothschilds in Paris 1941. Christie’s noted that the sale of the work was pursuant to a settlement between the Cox Estate and the descendants of the Rothschilds, who claim rightful ownership. I think they’ll be satisfied with their settlement: this little work on paper sold for over $35.8 million.

The other van Gogh took everyone by a surprise: a portrait of a boy with a blue flower in his mouth, painted one month before the artist’s untimely death in July of 1890. The boy’s red hair is wild; his cheeks ruddy from his antics in the sun; his lips chapped; and he has a rather goofy expression. Given the admittedly less appealing palette and subject, Christie’s had put a more modest estimate of $5–7 million on the painting, but bidding far surpassed expectations, bringing this small portrait (16 x 12 in.) to more than $46.7 million.

Gustave Caillebotte, Jeune homme àsa fenétre (1876), sold for $53 million. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

And finally, a record was set for the evening for Gustave Caillebotte’s Jeune homme àsa fenétre, from 1876. This museum-quality work went, in fact, to a museum: the Getty in Los Angeles acquired it, shelling out $53 million, more than double the artist’s previous record of $22 million.

Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1982), sold for over $40 million. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

All in, the Cox collection grossed over $332 million, serving as a highly satisfying appetizer to the evening’s main entrée: the new 20th century sale. The fresh catch (to continue the food analogy) of the night was Andy Warhol’s portrait of fellow art market superstar Jean-Michel Basquiat. Dated from 1982, the painting incorporates a brief experimental phase of Warhol’s, in which he coated paintings with a copper metallic pigment and urinated on them, creating an oxidized effect over time. The portrait sold for just over $40 million, making it the highest selling work of the night.

Lee Bontecou, Untitled (1960), sold for $9.2 million. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

Another notable sale of the evening was Lee Bontecou’s classic sculptural painting Untitled from 1960. With an estimate of $2–3 million, it sold for more than double the high estimate, bringing $9.2 million and breaking the artist’s previous record of $1.9 million (set over 10 years ago). Cy Twombly also has had a good auction season, with a few works offered at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s; in this sale, a large untitled painting from 1961 brought $32 million.

Some additional personal favorites from the sale: Light, a still life by Alice Neel. More reminiscent of Jane Freilicher than the portraiture for which Neel has become so well-known, this still life was recently featured in Neel’s retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting brought over $2.3 million against a $900,000–1,200,000 estimate. David Hockney’s bright study of a Woldgate Tree, May from 2006 sold over its $3–5 million estimate to bring $6.27 million. And Kazuo Shiraga’s dynamic abstraction Chiken-sei kendoskin (1961) sold for $3.33 million, against a $2.5–3.5 million pre-sale estimate.

In total, the 20th century took in $419.8 million, which, when taken together with the Cox collection sale that preceded it, Christie’s had a $752 million dollar evening—one of its most successful nights ever.

Fall Auction Round Up: Sotheby’s

It was a very successful season for Sotheby’s. The big highlight of the week was the sale of divorced mega-collectors Harry and Linda Macklowe.

After nearly six decades of marriage (and art-collecting), the couple went through a bitter divorce. There were 65 artworks for which the divorcees could not agree on a value or settlement, so in 2018 a judge ordered them to sell these works and split the revenue.

Sotheby’s won the bid for the collection, on the promise that they would guarantee at least $600 million to the Macklowes. Well, they delivered: of the 35 lots offered in this single-owner sale, a whopping 20 sold over $10 million, with the final tally coming to a staggering $676 million dollars with fees.

Alberto Giacometti, Le Nez, 1947-49 (cast in 1965), sold for over $78 million. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The biggest ticket items included Alberto Giacometti’s Le Nez (conceived in 1947-49, cast in 1965) which took home $78,396,000; No. 7, a warm Mark Rothko canvas (1951), which achieved $82,468,500; Warhol’s Nine Marilyns in silver from 1962, which took $47,373,000; and a Jackson Pollock which soared past its $25–35 million estimate to sell for $61,161,000 (Number 17, 1951).

My favorite of the sale: Franz Kline’s Crosstown (1955), which brought $12,0401,250 (surprisingly just inside its low estimate of $12–18 million).

Franz Kline, Crosstown, 1955, sold for just over $12 million. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Next, let’s touch on the “The Now” auction. Sotheby’s scheduled this 23-lot auction of ultra-contemporary art as a kind of opening act for its main contemporary evening sale, hoping to generate buzz and interest. It paid off: several artists records, and a 100% sell-through rate that generated $71.8 million, well over its collective presale estimate of $36.6–53.2 million. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was the opening lot: Lisa Brice’s No Bare Back, after Embah (2017), which exploded past its estimate of $200,000–300,000 to bring over $3.1 million, crushing the artist’s previous auction record of $34,500.

Lisa Brice, No Bare Back, after Embah, 2017, sold for $3.1 million, over ten times its high estimate. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, now ever-present in contemporary art auctions, also set a new record with Through Line, which took $2.2 million for the evening. This beats Odutola’s record of $832,700 that was set at Sotheby’s Hong Kong this past April.

Yoshitomo Nara, Nice to See You Again (1996), sold for over $15 million. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Undoubtedly the starlet of “The Now” auction was Yoshitomo Nara’s 1996 painting Nice to See You Again. This menacing little tyke had a presale estimate of $8–12 million, ultimately earning $15.4 with fees. Other favorites included Matthew Wong’s exquisite Night Crossing from 2018, which tore past its $1–1.5 million estimate to earn $4.86 million; Hernan Bas’s Night Flight or Midnight Migration, or My Merry Way (2008), which took $746,000 against an estimate of $150,000–200,000; and Mickalene Thomas’s Portrait of Maya #10, which sold for $528,200.

In a first, during the “The Now” sale, Sotheby’s allowed live bidding in cryptocurrency on two works by Banksy (Trolley Hunters and Love is in the Air). While the live bidding was conducted in Ether, the winning bidder can settle their tab in crypto or USD, so frankly I’m not sure what the point was. Alternating the currency during bidding seems arbitrary, and in this case a stunt to pump up interest in cryptocurrency. (Not to mention I think that bidding in crypto is incredibly messy, because crypto’s market is still so volatile and unstable. But perhaps that’s another blog entry…)

Sotheby’s fall season also got a nice boost from the collection of the late Douglas S. Cramer, a TV producer who died in June. Works from his collection will be sold throughout November and December, but the Contemporary auction in particular benefited from some standout works of his, including the biggest prize of the night: Roy Lichtenstein’s Two Paintings: Craig… (1983). The artist gifted the work to Cramer in 1992, and it was a gift that kept giving many times over, earning almost $20.4 million, surpassing its $12–18 million estimate.

Cecily Brown, Spree (1999), sold for $6.6 million. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Two Cecily Brown works from Cramer’s collection—Spree (1999) and Bend Sinister (2002)—each exceeded their pre-sale expectations, with the former earning almost $6.6 million (the second highest record for Brown), and the latter over $6.3 million (a third Cecily Brown, Untitled (Trapeze) unfortunately under-performed, bringing only $806,500 against a $1.5–2 million estimate).

My personal favorites from the contemporary auction include two wonderful collages by Romare Bearden which bookended the sale: The Street (1975) and The Cardplayers (1982), with the former setting a new record for the artist when it pushed past its $500,000–700,000 estimate to achieve just over $1.1 million. (Personally, I think it’s insane that a national treasure like Romare Bearden doesn’t have a market even close to the stratosphere of some of today’s popular yet completely mediocre and overrated contemporary art. But what can you do…)

I also loved Charles White’s large charcoal and crayon work Nobody Knows My Name #2 (1965), which exceeded its $400,000–600,000 estimate to bring $867,000; Piero Manzoni’s Achrome (1959), which scored $6.2 million against an estimate of $5.5–6.5 million; and Robert Indiana’s athletic 5 (1964), which broke through its $250,000–350,000 estimate to achieve $528,200.

The total revenue for Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale came to $119.2 million.

Frida Kahlo, Diego y Yo, 1949, sold for almost $35 million. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Finally, the modern sale. The real show-stopper was a double-portrait by Frida Kahlo, with Diego Rivera painted onto her mind’s eye in a self-portrait. Executed in 1949, the tears on her cheeks refer to Rivera’s infamous infidelity. The portrait sold for almost $34.9 million, not only shattering Kahlo’s previous auction record ($8 million) but also breaking the record for any artwork sold by a Latin American artist—a distinction previously held by none other than her husband, Diego Rivera. Sweet revenge for Frida!

Pierre Soulages, Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 4 août 1961 (1961), sold for over $20 million. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Another record was broken that fateful night: Pierre Soulages, one of my favorite artists, is perhaps best known for his monochromatic black paintings, but in this case it was a black-and-red 1961 canvas that set his new record at $20.1 million, crushing the painting’s $8–12 million estimate and Soulage’s previous record of $10.6 million (set in 2018).

One of the other big attractions of the night was Claude Monet’s Coin du basin aux nymphéas, a classic late work from the artist’s famous garden at Giverny. This 1918 canvas’s gorgeous abstract composition feels decidedly modern, and sold for $50.8 million (the pre-sale estimate was not published). A few more Monet’s were included in the sale that are more squarely 19th century Impressionist works, but seemed to make the cut for the modern evening sale.

Other favorites of mine from the sale include a stunning and tame Symbolist landscape by Edvard Munch ($5.32 million) and a classic German Expressionist work by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (I’m a sucker for Kirchner), which sold for $2.9 million. In total, Sotheby’s modern auction took in $282.8 million, against a pre-sale estimate of $192.2–266.9 million (remember pre-sale estimates are hammer prices, the final total includes buyer’s premiums to the auction house).

Spring Auction Round Up: Back to “Normal”

In case you missed it: the Art Basel /UBS Global Art Market Report came out in March, and noted that global sales for art and antiques in 2020 were down 22% from 2019 ($50.1 billion). But if the spring 2021 auction season is any indication–with several 8-figure lots and many broken records for artists–we’ll be returning to a pre-pandemic market in no time.

Before diving into the sales themselves, I’d like to say a few words about a few words–literally. There have been some interesting category changes in auctions that signal the power of words to reflect the changing landscape of art collecting. As I reported in my December 2020 blog post, last year Christie’s and Sotheby’s used the occasion of the pandemic to experiment with format, offering a confusing array of day sales, evening sales, and global relay sales.

This season, Christie’s announced that it would be doing away with its “Impressionist & Modern” and “Postwar & Contemporary” designations all together, and instead offered a “20th Century” evening sale, and a “21st Century” evening sale. These adjustments are semantic rather than literal, however, as the 20th century sale still includes works dating back to the 1880s (ie Impressionist/Post Impressionist), while works dating back to the 1980s are included in the 21st century sale. BUT, to still make things confusing, the “Impressionist & Modern” and “Postwar & Contemporary” titles still apply to the day sales (insert shrug emoji).

Pablo Picasso’s Femme assise prés d’une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse) from 1932 was the top seller at Christie’s new “20th Century” evening sale, bringing $103,410,000. (Image courtesy of Christie’s).

Sotheby’s has also jumped on the rebranding bandwagon, dropping “Postwar” from its auction headline, so it just reads “Contemporary Art evening sale,” even though the sale does still include postwar art. In another notable case of wordsmithing, Sotheby’s has also taken “Old” out of their “Old Masters” sales, so the auction instead is simply called “Master Paintings.” I must say, this is one rebranding strategy I can understand: the word “Old” certainly has more negative connotations than, say, the word “Impressionist.” And it can’t hurt the struggling Old Masters–excuse me, the Masters–market. It completely worked on me as clickbait.

Now, on to the sales themselves. As always, I focus only on New York because, frankly, it would be overwhelming to cover sales in Europe and Asia too. (NOTE: I have addressed this season’s NFT works and auctions in a separate post). Christie’s 20th and 21st Century evening sales together grossed over $691 million; in the 20th century sale, 98% of the lots sold above their low estimate–many surpassed their high estimates. And some standout pieces helped push the sales past the half a billion mark.

The top seller of the whole week was Picasso’s 1932 painting Femme assise prés d’une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse), which took home $103,410,000 (illustrated above). The 20th Century sale also included some lovely eight-figure Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works (if I’m allowed to still call them that): Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, effet de brouillard sold for $48,450,000, and Vincent Van Gogh’s Le pont de Trinquetaille (1888), also a waterfront scene, brought $39,290,000 (each illustrated above). And a lovely study for Georges Seurat’s masterpiece Un dimanche d’été à l’Île de La Grande Jatte sold well over its $8 million high estimate, achieving $13,184,000.

Barbara Hepworth, Parent II (1971), set a new record at $7,110,000 at Christie’s 20th Century sale. (Image courtesy of Christie’s).

A few artists also had new auction records in the 20th Century sale: Alice Neel, no doubt buoyed by her current retrospective at the Met, set a new record when her 1966 canvas Dr. Finger’s Waiting Room sold for over $3 million, nearly 4 times its high estimate of $800,000 and doubling her previous record. She was followed in the next lot by Barbara Hepworth’s Parent II sculpture (1971), which burst past its high estimate of $3.5 million to sell fora record $7,110,000. New auction records were also set for Grace Hartigan and Alighiero Boetti.

As for Christie’s 21st Century evening sale (ie Postwar and Contemporary sale), the masterpiece that drove the sale was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s In This Case (1983), which inspired competitive bidding all the way up to $93,105,000–the second highest auction price for the artist (illustrated below).

A whopping ten artists–six of whom are people of color–had sales records broken in this 21st Century sale, continuing the collecting trend for black contemporary artists. Jordan Casteel, who exhibited a lovely show of portraits at the New Museum last year, set a new record with his portrait Jiréh from 2013 when it sold for $687,500. Nina Chanel Abney’s 2015 canvas Untitled (XXXXXX), painted in the aftermath of the shootings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown (which spawned the Black Lives Matter movement), catapulted beyond its pre-sale estimate of $200,000 – 300,000 to sell for just under $1 million (illustrated below). And (white guy) Jonas Wood also set a record when his colorful still life Two Tables with Floral Pattern (2013) achieved over $6.5 million, more than 50% over the high estimate of $4 million (illustrated below).

Jean-Michel Basquait’s In This Case (1983) was the top seller in Christie’s 21st Century sale, bringing $93,105,000. (Image courtesy of Christie’s).
Nina Chanel Abney, Untitled (XXXXXX), 2015, set a record for the young artist, selling for $990,000 in Christie’s 21st Century sale. (Image courtesy of Christie’s).
Jonas Wood, Two Tables with Floral Pattern, 2013. The painting set a new record for the artist in Christie’s 21st Century sale, bringing $6,510,000. (Image courtesy of Christie’s).

Now, on to Sotheby’s evenings sales! While Sotheby’s had a few standout works, their auctions were decidedly less robust than Christie’s: together the Impressionist & Modern and (Postwar) & Contemporary sales brought $439,639,200, more than a $250 million less than Christie’s equivalent sales. In the Impressionist & Modern category, the big ticket item was Claude Monet’s Le Bassin aux nymphéas, a classic late water lily canvas (1917-19), which brought $70,353,000.

Claude Monet, Le Bassin aux nymphéas, 1917-19, was the highlight of Sotheby’s sale, bringing over $70 million. (Image courtesy of Sotheby’s).

A few other works that sold well include Leonor Fini’s delightful self-portrait with a scorpion (Autoportrait au scorpion) from 1938, which soared to three times past its high estimate ($800,000) to sell for $2,319,000; and Diego Rivera’s exquisitely elegant Retrato de Columba Domínguez de Fernández (1950), sold more than 2.5 times its high estimate to bring $7,445,250 (each illustrated below).

Several other works in the Sotheby’s sale, however, sold around their low estimate or, in some cases, below it. Paul Cézanne’s fruit still lifes are usually top sellers, but the Nature morte: pommes et poires that was in Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern auction sold for $19,969,350, a far, far cry from its $25 – 35 million estimate (illustrated below). Fritz Glarner’s Relational Painting Tondo No. 65 (1965) also sold well below its $600,000 – 800,000 estimate to bring $403,200 (illustrated below). And Les Coteaux de Thierceville, temps gris, a typical landscape by Camille Pissarro, sold for $1.472 million, just under its $1.5 – 2 million estimate.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Versus Medici, 1982, sold for just over $50 million. (Image courtesy of Sotheby’s).

Sotheby’s Contemporary evening sale generally fared better than its Impressionist & Modern evening sale, although overall the offerings did not excite bidders as much as the equivalent Christie’s sale did. The big ticket item was Basquiat’s Versus Medici (1982), which just about sold at the high end of its $35 – 50 million pre-sale estimate ($50,820,000)–not quite as impressive as the $93 million Basquiat at Christie’s, but the highest grosser of the night for Sotheby’s.

There were some impressive sales, however: newcomer Salman Toor has had an explosive few years, capped with his recent wonderful, intimate solo show at the Whitney Museum, which included The Arrival, the third lot in Sotheby’s sale. With a modest pre-estimate of $60 – 80,000, the 18 x 14-inch painting sold for a whopping 10 times its high estimate, finally bringing $867,000. This was the auction record for the young artist until Girl with Driver sold a few weeks later for almost $890,000 at Phillips in Hong Kong. (Mind you, Girl with Driver is 60 x 78 inches, so, inch for inch, tiny little The Arrival takes the cake!)

Salman Toor, The Arrival, 2019. This 18 x 14-inch painting sold for $867,000 in Sotheby’s Contemporary evening sale. (Image courtesy of Sotheby’s).

A few other highlights of the sale include Robert Colescott’s George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook (1975), which reached $15,315,900, surpassing its $9 – 12 million estimate. Charles White’s The Ingram Case (1949), depicting the incarcerated Ingram family (whose murder trial of a white neighbor underscored the institutionalized racism of the time), is as timely and evocative now as ever. The powerful drawing achieved $1,472,000, more than double its high estimate ($500,000 – 700,000). As with Christie’s contemporary auction, the high prices achieved by these few artists reflect the continued strong interest in artists of color.

Last but not least, another noteworthy highlight is Banksy’s famous Love is in the Air (2005), depicting a masked protester throwing a bouquet of roses (rather than the expected molotov cocktail). With a pre-sale estimate of $3 – 5 million, the canvas ultimately brought nearly $13 million. It was the only lot in the sale that accepted cryptocurrency as a form of payment.

And speaking of cryptocurrency, I bet you’re all wondering why I haven’t addressed this season’s auctioned NFTs yet. I have written a separate post regarding the NFT craze here. Enjoy!

Banksy’s Love is in the Air (2005) sold for nearly $13 million in Sotheby’s Contemporary art evening auction.

The new “hybrid” auction: is it worth it?

A rather odd experiment has come out of the COVID pandemic—although it’s unclear if it really has anything to do with the pandemic—and that’s the merging of departments to create a sale of mixed 19th, 20th and 21st century works. With a few rare exceptions—da Vinci’s Salvatore Mundi and a T-Rex fossil were both recently sold in contemporary art sales—the decades-long modus operandi of the auction world has been to host sales in the category of Impressionist and Modern art separately from Postwar and Contemporary art. This year amidst COVID, Christie’s started a trend of doing a global “relay” sale, which starts in Asia in the evening, and seamlessly continues in New York the same morning. Now, this December, Sotheby’s offered its first Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art sale, based in New York.

Sanyu, Goldfish, 1930s-1940s, sold for almost $22 million in its own auction at Christie’s in Hong Kong. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

But, to make it more confusing, Sotheby’s also still offered its normal day and evening sales in New York in the separate categories of Impressionist and Modern, and Postwar and Contemporary (October 28th). Christie’s also still offered daytime sales in both categories in New York (December 3rd and 4th), and a few hours before the global relay sale on December 2nd, Christie’s also held a Modern and Contemporary Art Evening sale in Hong Kong, with offerings from an international but largely Asian-leaning roster of artists. Then there was a “separate” auction at 8 pm for a single work of art: Sanyu’s fantastic Goldfish (1930s-40s) which sold for about $21,950,000 (170,170,000 HKD). Then the relay auction—”20th Century: Hong Kong to New York”—finally officially began at 8:30 PM.

What was the point of these mixed sale experiments? There is undoubtedly a utility to separating art by category, so that a collector of, say, Cubism, knows to follow the Impressionist & Modern sales. But, given that the “connoisseur” collector seems to be a dying breed, perhaps the auction houses think it makes more sense to separate buyers by price point, and organize their sales not by date/style, but by quality. This is, in fact, how other auction departments can function—a jewelry or furniture department will separate out its “exquisite” from its “fine” property, for example (and technically, the house’s daytime and evening sales already do this separation of “fine” and “exquisite”). But will this condensing of 150 years of art really make a difference for the art market? Or does this model only further commodify art, and further stratify collectors: the ultra-wealthy collectors and everyone else? All I know is, it’s been highly confusing trying to track these sales, and I’ll go crazy trying to recap all of this, so we’re going to focus on these hybrid sales to see how they did.

Dana Schutz, Elevator, 2017, set a record for the artist at $6.5 million. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

At Christie’s in Hong Kong, where daily reported cases remain low, the auction house hosted a hybrid format of live auction—with dealers and collectors in the audience—and remote bidding via phones and online. With New York’s infection rate tipping towards 5%, bidding remained remote. The sale started off fairly strong in Hong Kong, with a handful of world records set for artists: Dana Schutz’s 2017 Elevator—which was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial with her controversial painting of Emmett Till—sold for more than 2.5 times its high estimate to bring about $6.5 million (50,050,000 HKD), shattering her previous record of $2.4 million set last year.

Amoako Boafo, Baba Diop, 2019, set a new record for the artist at $1.14 million. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

Baba Diop (2019), a portrait by the new art world darling Amoako Boafo, sold for $1.14 million (8,890,000 HKD), shattering the record his painting The Lemon Bathing Suit (2019) set in February earlier this year at Phillips in London $880,900 (675,000 GPB). Like many emerging artists, Boafo has expressed displeasure that collectors are flipping his works for such steep profits. And the very much under-appreciated French postwar artist Georges Mathieu set a new record for his explosive Souvenir de la maison d’Autriche (Remembering the House of Austria) from 1978, which brought $2.23 million (17,290,000 HKD).

Georges Mathieu, Souvenir de la maison d’Autriche (Remembering the House of Austria), 1978, set a record for the artist at $2.23 million. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

The New York leg of the auction was a more muted affair, with several works hammering at or below their pre-sale estimates, including Andy Warhol’s Small Campbell’s Soup Can (1962; $6 million with fees), Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Baigneuse au bracelet, Andrée (c. 1917; $2.19 million with fees), and Robert Rauschenberg’s Drawing for Dante’s 700th Birthday (1965), which, even with the buyer’s premium, didn’t break its low estimate of $1.2 million (it sold for $1.014 million). Is it possible that the lack of live audience made for less energetic bidding than the Hong Kong side of the sale? Possibly.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Baigneuse au bracelet, Andrée, c. 1917, did not perform very well, selling for $2.19 million. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

The real winner and standout piece of New York’s offerings in the relay sale was Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s stunning painting of his favorite model, Carmen Gaudin, called Pierruse from 1889. The painting came from the collection of automotive mogul Henry Ford II, and had never been offered at auction before. The provenance no doubt helped the painting burst past its estimate of $3–5 million, selling for just over $9 million with fees.

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierruse, 1889, sold very well at $9 million. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

Sotheby’s hybrid sale, spanning 150 years of art, had a healthy total hammer value of $52.9 million against a cumulative pre-sale estimate of $40.1–58.6 million. The sale started off with a bang with Barkley L. Hendrick’s excellent Mr. Johnson (Sammy from Miami), 1972, which broke through its pre-sale estimate of $2–3 million to sell for just over $4 million with fees—a new record for the late artist.

Barkley L. Hendricks, Mr. Johnson (Sammy from Miami), 1972, set the artist’s new record at $4 million. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The next headline grabber was Alexander Calder’s fabulous mobile, Mariposa (1951). This piece came from the corporate collection of Neiman Marcus, which is selling off its holdings since filing for bankruptcy. The mobile sold for more than double its high estimate, or $18 million with fees.

Alexander Calder, Mariposa, 1951, sold for over $18 million. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The other big surprise of the evening came with Matthew Wong’s Pink Wave, a 48 x 60-inch oil on canvas dated to 2017. Tragically, the artist committed suicide in 2019 just as his career was taking off. But, as one might expect, the death of the artist makes for a finite inventory, which has accelerated his market: Pink Wave exploded past its pre-sale estimate of $300,000 – 400,000 to sell for $2.35 million with fees. Believe it or not, that makes it only the third highest auction result for the late artist.

Matthew Wong, Pink Wave, 2017, sold for $2.35 million. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Despite these marquee prices, the success of Sotheby’s hybrid sale is misleading: one might be confused by the mention of Milton Avery and Edvard Munch works in the press release, neither of which was included in the sale. Artnet reports that nearly twenty-percent of the entire sale was withdrawn prior to the auction, ostensibly because tepid pre-sale interest augured poor results. No bueno.

Are these hybrid sales worth it? I’m not yet convinced, but obviously it’s a new experiment that needs further testing.

2020 was a challenging year for the art world—galleries and art fairs certainly reported lower sales, and many arts professionals find themselves under- or unemployed. But, as we have seen with the ever-widening wealth gap in this country, the ultra-wealthy have been doing just fine. Sure, some have tightened their purchases and prioritized other investments in this economic downturn, and the market reflects some of that conservatism. But with artist records still being broken, and many millions still spent on blue chip artists, the .01% are still keen to buy art. Unfortunately, only .01% of galleries and artists are benefitting from this patronage. I may be one of the few art advisors you’ll hear say this, but here it is: we need the market to continue to contract before the art world implodes.