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.