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).
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.
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.
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.”
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).
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.
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.
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.
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, Mayfrom 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).
I’ll admit it: I’ve been avoiding writing this blog post. Partly because, frankly, I still don’t 100% understand CryptoArt, and I wasn’t sure I should weigh in on the topic until I had a better grasp of it. But no matter how much I read about it, there are still some head-scratching aspects of this new art/economic frontier. But perhaps the best way to work through my own incomprehension is to talk it out right here.
And I’ll also admit, part of the reason I’ve avoided publicly talking about CryptoArt is that it forces a difficult conversation of what is “good” and “bad” art, or just whatqualifies as art–a meta question that has been debated among philosophers for millenia. While I don’t like openly disparaging certain artists or genres, as an art expert, in this case critique will be unavoidable. I recognize that, to some readers, I will sound curmudgeonly, maybe even snobbish, and technologically short-sighted–I must own it. Only time will tell if this is truly the future of art, or a fad that will go the way of Beanie Babies. Either way, I do apologize in advance for any sensibilities I may offend, and I welcome any comments that may elucidate some of my issues with CryptoArt (keep it respectful, please).
First, let’s just define “NFTs.” For its largely uninitiated audience, Christie’s actually provides a helpful “NFT 101” page where they define NFTs, or non-fungible tokens:
An NFT, or ‘non-fungible token’, is a unique, digital certificate that is stored on a blockchain and provides certain ownership rights in an asset, typically a digital one, such as a digital work of art. NFTs provide a powerful tool to establish and demonstrate ownership rights in the digital asset space where it is often hard to demonstrate such rights given how quickly and easily digital works can be replicated. NFTs are described as ‘non-fungible’ because each one is unique and of different value. This is in contrast to ‘fungible’ assets such as dollars or Bitcoin, which are identical and interchangeable.
Of course, the obvious, immediate benefit of NFT technology, then, is the function of the NFT as a digital “Certificate of Authenticity” and ownership. After decades of exhibiting their art on the unruly and unregulated internet, artists can now “mint” their digital art–ie create an NFT on the blockchain, certifying a unique and protected work. Additionally, artists can attach a stipulation of royalties to the NFT, so they make money on any subsequent resale of it–the absolute best outcome of blockchain technology, in my opinion.
But how unique and protected is the artwork? Herein is my first point of confusion: I took a screenshot of all the NFT works you see in this blog post. In what I thought was a remarkably ironic gesture, Sotheby’s even had a download button so anyone can save an mp4 file of Kevin McCoy’s Op art gif Quantum, which sold in their “Natively Digital”: curated NFT sale for a staggering $1,472,000 (below). Is there, to use Walter Benjamin’s phrase, an “aura of the original” in the metaverse (a crypto neologism I had to add to my vocabulary) if anyone can save an identical digital version online?
I have read some articles which liken the NFT artwork to an original painting, and any non-NFT copies are like posters of that painting that you see in dorm rooms. But this is not an accurate analogy: what differentiates an original painting from reproductions is the medium–the painting is a completely unique oil on canvas. The posters are glossy prints based on a photograph of that painting, churned out by the thousands–and the respective visual experience of the painting and poster is vastly different. With the digital artwork, the medium is pixels on a screen–whether an “original” or a screenshot of it (ie “reproduction”). The visual experience is essentially the same.
In reading more about the NFTs offered at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, I also learned that the digital artworks themselves often do not exist on the blockchain, but rather are hosted on servers “off-chain,” and the NFTs “point” to their offsite location. (This is to say nothing of physical assets, for which some claim NFTs can still be applied for “authentication.” But I think any art appraiser would tell you, that’s as uncertain a claim as a physical piece of paper that says “Certificate of Authenticity.”)
In the case of Kevin McCoy’s Quantum, the condition report noted that “to avoid domain squatting, Namecoin [where he originally minted the NFT in 2014] was designed to include removal of pointers after 36,000 blocks. Accordingly, this specific Namecoin entry was removed from the system after not being renewed, and was effectively burned from the chain.” This concept alone was surprising, as I thought the appeal of blockchain technology was that it was full-proof and lasted forever.
It seems to me, then, that the blockchain doesn’t actually protect the artwork–it protects the certificate of authenticity and ownership (ie the NFT itself). And the utility and relevance of the NFT doesn’t actually come into play until a transaction is required–ie someone wants to sell the artwork. So I can enjoy my download of Kevin McCoy’s Quantum just as much as the guy who paid $1,472,000 for it. I just can’t sell it.
Or can I? If anyone can register NFTs, what’s to stop me from creating an NFT for the McCoy file I downloaded from Sotheby’s website? I can claim that undulating octagon as an original Emily Casden, and sell it with an NFT certifying it as my own–like a digital Sherrie Levine. Is there a blockchain police that cross-checks NFT artwork for fakes and forgeries? Sure, I’d be breaking copyright laws, but so far I can’t see how an NFT can prevent copyright laws from being broken.
Now before you think I must truly be some close-minded and conservative old hag, I want to make it clear that I have absolutely nothing against digital art itself. I think every medium of art–whether it is oil on a canvas, notes of a song, or pixels on a screen–can convey powerful meaning. I have seen digital artworks on my laptop that have moved me as much as any painting in a museum. And it’s worth noting that it is possible to sell limited edition digital works, and many galleries have been doing so long before NFTs existed. But, as with painting, or music, or any medium of art, there is a spectrum of quality: the good, the bad, and the stuff that just isn’t art. Which brings me to my next general “issue” with the NFT market…
The first NFT sold at auction–Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days, which sold at Christie’s in March for a jaw-dropping $69.3 million–was admittedly cool in its scope: a digital drawing every day for 5,000 days (from May 2007 to January 2021). The full collection allows one to see his evolution as an artist in a way that has never been documented and collated quite like this. But upon closer inspection, the digital illustrations were, let’s say, underwhelming. On the one hand, given the pressure of his daily output, the mediocrity is understandable; the famously prolific Picasso painted an average of two paintings a day, and certainly not all them are masterpieces. But largely, Beeple’s art is a product and paradigm of the Instagram age: easily digestible, pop culture pictures that have enough cynical wit to make you “like” them in your feed, and then keep on scrolling.
In a wildly over-the-top catalogue essay for Kevin McCoy’s five-second gif video Quantum (above), recently sold in Sotheby’s curated NFT sale “Natively Digital,” the Sotheby’s specialist says that Quantum is as historically significant as the modern masterworks that changed the course of art history. I will quote it at length, because it is so hilariously ridiculous:
In the long timeline of art, there are few works that serve as genesis blocks to their own chain of history. They are seismic forks in direction; forks that usher in new movements that block by block, mint by mint, usher in new art histories. These works close chapters on the art histories that came before, while anchoring a new flowering of human creativity. These prime movers occupy a singular position in art history. They came first...Pulsing with color, a riotously raw beacon to a new era, McCoy minted Quantum – unwittingly placing it within this vaulted pantheon of firsts. Timestamped July 1907, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles ushered in the chain of Cubism. December 1917, Malevich’s Black Square stands as the genesis block of Abstraction. April 1917, Duchamp timestamps the era of the idea [ie birth of Conceptualism]. 2nd May 2014 21:27:34, Quantum stands alone in the precision of its timestamp – immutably, verifiably, trustlessly pure. [Trustlessly?]
Mind you, there is absolutely nothing creatively innovative about Quantum as a work of art: all of its points of reference–Minimalism/Op art, animation art, video art–existed for decades before it was created. So why does the Sotheby’s specialist include McCoy in the pantheon of the creative geniuses Picasso, Malevich and Duchamp? Because Quantum was the first NFT artwork added to the blockchain. Was this a significant technological event? Sure. So was the company that bought the first website domain name in 1985. Do you know who it is? Do you care? Didn’t think so.
Lastly, there’s CryptoPunks, Larva Labs’s digital collection of 10,000 8-bit style “punks” that was minted (ie added to the blockchain) in 2017. It was a smart entrepreneurial endeavor: their pixelated style appeals to a nostalgic generation raised on Atari video games, and the distinguishing attributes of each unique character–men, women, zombies, aliens and apes with various combinations of hats, glasses, cigarettes, facial hair, etc–feed the “collect-them-all” mentality. But I would argue these definitely fall in the collectibles category, not art.
There is certainly nothing wrong with collectibles; they can have legitimate appeal and value. Exchanging coveted assets within a subculture of likeminded fans can be exciting; the hunt to acquire the rarest of your treasures can be a lifelong thrill. But that does not art make. I’ve been staring at these CryptoPunk avatars for several hours, and I’m just not detecting a heartbeat. Art has to have something to say. Are they cool? Yes. Fun? For sure. But these are the digital equivalents of trading cards, dare I say Beanie Babies (which would be bad news for whoever bought CryptoPunk 7523 for $11,754,000 in Sotheby’s “Natively Digital” sale last month).
Ultimately, my point is this: I think the mania over NFT technology is hyping up some absolutely mediocre art and collectibles. To be sure, there have been some really interesting digital works that have been minted as NFTs, but they did not need to be minted to be interesting, and could have just as easily been sold as limited editions without blockchain technology. And much of what I am seeing minted and traded as NFTs are just not that interesting. I think M.H. Miller said it well in his recent New York Times piece:
Creating absurd neologisms and claiming that something fairly unremarkable (an NFT artwork generally amounts to a mediocre digital illustration that comes with a certificate of authenticity) is in fact — to borrow a phrase from Sotheby’s, a “complex, groundbreaking technology” — is the way of both the tech and art industries, and this ugly symbiosis is one of the reasons it’s frightening to see the former so successfully manipulate the latter. If this is the future, what a bummer for all of us.
The good news is, I don’t think this is the future for all of us. I do firmly understand and believe that blockchain is a groundbreaking technology that has major implications for our future technological landscape–I think it will inevitably be part of our lives the same way the internet did. But I do not think that art is going to go purely NFT on us. Digital art is merely one of many mediums of expression; we still live and exist in a physical plane, and so does much of our art. And as of now, NFTs really can’t do much for physical artwork.
So, before you jump onto the NFT bandwagon, ask yourself a few questions: first and foremost, do you like the art? Does the price reflect the quality of the art? Or possibly the hype of NFTs? If you’re not sure, do some research (or hire me to help you!) to better contextualize the piece within the artist’s market.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!)
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!
As it did for its other two iterations in Basel, Switzerland and Hong Kong, Art Basel of course had to take its Miami Beach art fair online due to COVID. But apparently the pandemic didn’t stop sales; according to a few media reports, Art Basel Miami Beach’s online version generally sold better than other virtual art fairs this year. Could it be the promise of the vaccine that spurred consumer confidence? The fact that the election is behind us? Or were the offerings just more enticing to buyers at Art Basel Miami Beach? Hard to say.
It turns out that scouring online viewing rooms (OVRs)–which are no different than websites, but they’ve kindly included pricing in a nice and very rare touch of transparency–is just as exhausting as going through these massive art fairs in person. Alas, my eyeballs were sore before I could see every OVR, but I’ve included below a few highlights from what I saw, and, when available, pricing info.
Andrew Edlin Gallery of New York offered some lovely postwar works, including this cosmically explosive 1957 painting by Eugene von Bruenchenhein, Untitled (No. 583, April 30, 1957), for between $50,000 – 75,000 (24 x 24 inches). The American artist (1910-1983) was a private, outsider artists whose art was not discovered until after he died.
This stunning photograph by Kwame Brathwaite (American, b. 1938) at once draws on classic Northern Renaissance portraiture, but also feels incredibly fresh and contemporary. Philip Martin Gallery (Los Angeles) sold the work in the range of $4,000 – 12,000, a great deal if you ask me, especially since the artist has an upcoming retrospective at the Blanton Museum of Art (June – September, 2021).
Pae White‘s intricate, luminous 42 x 42-inch mixed media work Luna (2020), caught my eye—and someone else’s, because it was sold by the time I saw it. White (American, b. 1963) calls these works “Paper Tapestry Paintings,” and her dealer, Kaufmann Repetto Gallery of Milan and New York, notes that the shimmer is achieved with car enamel over paper clay on wood panel. Preeeettty….
Can’t afford Joan Mitchell (whose untitled 1956 painting sold at David Zwirner for $1.2 million), or the other mid-century abstractionists? Try Elizabeth Neel (American, b. 1975), the granddaughter of famed figure painter Alice Neel (whose Estate Zwirner also represents, and sold Neel’s portrait of Aaron Kramer for $750,000). Salon 94 was selling some lovely pieces by the younger Neel at ABMB, including this fantastic acrylic on canvas, Scanning the Meridian Sun (2020, 46 x 76 inches). Sold by the time I saw it, so price unknown, but other abstract works by the artist were in the range of $45,000 – 65,000.
Where’s the party? Nicholas Party is blowing up right now: his 2014 StillLife of pears set his auction record at Christie’s this month, bringing about $1.35 million (10,450,000 HKD), and at Art Basel, artnet reports at least three works of his selling, including this arresting pastel on linen Portrait with Red Flowers (2020) from Hauser & Wirth for $300,000.
I do love me some American regionalist art. Hirschl & Adler‘s “Of the People” online exhibition featured figurative artists who “have grappled with the human condition in all its multi-faceted depth and complexity.” Among the lovely collection of 20th century works was this impressive 1953 canvas by Jules Kirschenbaum (American, 1930-2000), titled Without the Hope of Dreams (86 x 39 inches), available for $135,000. (Image courtesy of Hirschl & Adler, New York.)
I wish I could cover more, but alas, there’s just too much good art. I’ll leave you with this numinous and mesmerizing video work from Shahzia Sikander (Pakistani, b. 1969), Reckoning (2020; ed. of 7 + 2 APs). Available from Sean Kelly Gallery for $75,000. I have admired Sikander’s mosaic works, but this is the first video work I’ve seen. I dig it. The artist has a traveling show opening at The Morgan Library in New York in June 2021.
There’s a lot of good art at the Armory Show—too much to be able to write about everything I liked. So, forgive the brief format, but I will just post pictures and descriptions for a selection of the art that I enjoyed, with the exception of a fantastic show of work by the artist Cassils—the highlight of the whole fair, which deserves a few words, in my opinion.
There has been an admirable and long overdue uptick in transgender representation in the last ten years or so, both in popular culture and fine arts. Unfortunately, in tandem with this increase in transgender visibility has been an uptick in fatal hate crimes against the trans and queer community. In a layered body of work at Ronald Feldman Gallery’s booth at the Armory, the artist Cassils (b. 1975) memorialized the victims of such violence, whilst also celebrating the resilience and beauty of the transgender body.
In a live performance called Becoming an Image, which has been performed several times since 2012, the artist beats up a 2,000 pound slab of clay in complete pitch darkness. No one in the audience can see the artist–who is nearly or completely naked–including the photographer documenting the event; they can only hear Cassils’ grunts, moans, punches and slaps against the clay. When the photographer snaps a photo, it creates a brief flash of illumination for all to see what’s happening. Cassils’ act of aggression on the clay is an act of cathartic anger, even revenge, in response to the invisibility of and violence against the LGBTQ community. But simultaneously, the performance is a fierce and true celebration of the trans body that is still largely invisible in our culture: in the dramatically lit photographs from the performances, Cassils’ naked rippling body is powerful and beautiful.
The artist did not perform Becoming an Image at the Armory Show, but their representing gallery, Ronald Feldman Gallery, presented a wonderful selection of the stills from a 2018 performance. Also on view was a 2016 bronze cast of the brutalized slab of clay called The Resilience of the 20%, referring to the 20% increase in murders of trans people worldwide since 2012. What a beautiful and affective installation.
Enjoy these other works by some top notch artists as well! The images are linked to the artists’ websites, or their representing galleries.
Gorgeous watercolors by Guo Hongwei, presented by Chambers Fine Art:
It is strange and unsettling times we’re living in, but I will keep on posting to share good art. Because Art is Love, and Love is Healing!
Spring/Break this year was huge, and I am sorry to say I ran out of steam and could not see everything, so note that my highlights may be missing some real winners. The theme of “in excess” was interpreted in a myriad of ways, although many artists took it to its more literal iteration of decadent neo-Pop (think Takashi Murakami, with more bedazzling). I get the message—it’s hard not to, it really hits you over the head—but I admit, I can only take so much of that aesthetic before I get queasy. Candylands aside, there was some really lovely works that I enjoyed:
Christopher Chan’s installation As Long as I’ve Got My Health, and My Millions of Dollars, and My Gold (room 1011) was great. It had the right amount of bedazzling in the form of the glittery, shimmery wallpaper. The real stars of the show are the painted wood dolls of stylish, urban characters. Chan, who, unsurprisingly, is also a commercial designer, activated the dolls in a stop motion animation called “Honorroller, Champion Edition” on display in a retro arcade game nearby, the paneling replaced with marbled plastic. Outside the installation, the artist created a bed in a retro-looking racecar. When I tried searching the web for more on As Long as I’ve Got My Health, and My Millions of Dollars, and My Gold, the only hit that return was a reference to an episode of the Simpsons.
Geoffrey Owen Miller’s spectral, shimmering woodland scene, reflected in the black glass of the upside down, was beautiful and quietly unsettling. On the gallery website for this work, the artist quotes Jorge Luis Borges’s book Book of Imaginary Beings: “Deep in the mirror we will perceive a very faint line and the color of this line will be like no other color. Later on, other shapes will begin to stir. Little by little they will differ from us; little by little they will not imitate us. They will break through the barriers of glass or metal and this time will not be defeated.”
On the walls surrounding Miller’s installation were abstractions rendered intensely in graphite; the artist’s dexterity with the pencil creates an array of texture and dimensionality (unfortunately, I cannot locate the artist’s name for the graphite drawings). Both were presented by 5-50 Gallery in Long Island City (room 1035).
“Fragments of Luxury,” a group show presented by the New York Artists Equity Association (room 1044), was a selection of lovely works. I particularly enjoyed Pablo Garcia Lopez’s molded silk tableaus, recreating the decadent baroque compositions of Old Master religious scenes, like the Ascension (the artists calls the works “Silk bassreliefs” [sic]). Krista LaBella’s Pearl Necklace polaroids, in which pearl necklaces, food, flowers and other objects are tossed across the artist’s ample bosom, were a compelling commentary on decadence, sex, femininity, and various cultural associations we have for the female body as a site of consumption, and the objects themselves. Christopher Scott Marshall’s sculpture Life I Might Of (2019) is not the most arresting of the works that one can peruse on his website, but is still nice. And lastly, Aaron Miller’s coal dusted works pay homage to the coal mining heritage of his hometown in Wyoming, merged with more classical portraiture or genre scenes.
Philadelphia-based artist Lyn Godley’s light pieces Currents blew my mind a little: these colorful scenes, reminiscent of auroras or mystical landscapes, are not in fact videos, as they seem, but an arrangement of films (Mylar, dichroic, mirrored, etc.) bending and reflecting an LED lightshow within the artwork. That’s all to say that these moving, shimmering works are happening live, and can change with adjustments to the LED light loop or the position of the film. Gorgeous.
My favorite installation of the fair was Melissa Spitz’s You Have Nothing to Fucking Worry About, curated by Ben Tollefson (room 1102). I had a nice conversation with Ben about this deeply personal artwork: the artist’s mother has struggled for years with addiction, and the Spitz began documenting it a few years ago. Interestingly, her mother supports the project, participating to the point of “directing” and collaborating with her daughter. The resulting photographs—some staged, some candid—are an intimate and complex portrait of a woman and her struggle to find herself. Especially effective is the pile of 4 x 6 photos on the table in the center of the room, for visitors to rummage through, as if dumped out of a shoe box in the closet.
Despite the postponements and cancellations of upcoming public events, art-related or otherwise, I’m happy to say that the coronavirus didn’t seem to thwart the art fairs this late winter/early spring. Travel prevented me from catching all of them, but let’s do a quick overview of what I was able to see!
I was out of town for the Winter Show at the Park Avenue Armory, but instead visited Photo LA, my first time attending an LA art fair. While there has been much talk of LA’s growing art scene (bummed my timing didn’t work out to see the second annual Felix Art Fair), overall Photo LA did not knock my socks off. Many of the offerings seemed to me to lean more decorative or amateurish, but there were some nice diamonds in the rough. Here were a few highlights:
Tom Blachford’s midnight photographs are emotive and striking: with a true technical grasp of his medium, Blachford shoots retro architectural sites around the world at night, using nothing but ambient light and moonlight to light the scene. The resulting images have the beautiful eeriness of a Gregory Crewdson without all the gimmicks or theatrics. Blachford shows with Toth Gallery in New York.
A few years back, French photographer Chantal Stoman visited a suburb of Tokyo called Ōme, a small hamlet frozen in time with paintings of classic movie posters all over town. Ōme was once a cinephile’s dream, with several theaters showing national and international movies. Decades after its decline as a movie mecca, the town decided to honors its cinematic past and one of its citizens, an artist by the name of Bankan Kubo, who painted reproductions of the movie posters. As a child, Kubo could not afford to attend the movies, so he satisfied himself with the movie posters; after a show closed, he would take the poster home and copy it. His passion led him to change his name from Noboru to Bankan, a reversal of the word kanban, or poster. Stoman’s photographic series, Ōmecittà (merging the Italian cinecittà with Ōme) “is based on absence, absence that creates our imagination and helps to transform it…Photographing the city of Ōme is like searching for lost time.” Stoman’s work was presented by Galerie Sit Down of Paris.
One particularly intriguing gem at Photo LA was a collection of male physique photo collages from, as the accompanying text noted, the “Golden Age of Physique Photography, 1945–1970.” Crediting World War II with a new liberation and celebration of the male body, male physique took on new visibility in the arts and popular culture, and the physique photographic genre blossomed in Southern California (particularly LA). Exhibited by Photosique, these homoerotic images are a fascinating historical display of masculine identity, sexuality, and objectification at a time most of us associate with the classic female “pin up.” (Apologies for the glare in the photos.)
Last but not least, one installation that moved me to tears was Danziger Gallery’s installation of Paul Fusco’s series The RFK Funeral Train. Fusco, who, with other journalists, road on the New York to Washington train that hot summer day in June of 1968, captured the throngs of people who came to the tracks to pay their respects to the fallen politician. Perhaps it is our current political atmosphere that is taking its emotional toll, but I found the diverse array of mourners very poignant.
This year’s Fall modern and contemporary auctions in New York were once again a mixed bag: there were no real headline-grabbers, and there even a handful of flops. But there were also some bright spots; several records were set, and as blue-chip artists become more and more out of reach for most collectors, more buyers are purchasing younger contemporary artists’ work at auction, especially those artists for whom there’s a waiting list on the gallery circuit.
Ahead of the sales there was cautious speculation of how global turmoil—Brexit, protests in Hong Kong, and the Trump impeachment inquiry—could impact the art market. Once again, there’s mixed data on this; while there is generally some soft market contraction, there was spirited bidding this season from Asia, including Yoshitomo Nara’s smashing new auction record of $25 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, despite its political upheaval. And although the fall New York auctions were more subdued than the last few years, sell-through rates were still strong, and every auction sold within its pre-sale estimate range. Ultimately, despite some soft contraction, the art industry survived 2019 with few scratches. Let’s recap some of the auction highlights, starting with the Impressionist and Modern sales, and move our way up to contemporary.
Generally, the Impressionist and Modern category slowly continues to downshift in value; Christie’s and Sotheby’s Imp & Mod evening sales this fall were down 52% and 40% respectively from the equivalent sales in May. But it is important to remember that there were some blockbuster artworks offered in May: Monet’s Mueles (1890) set a record at Sotheby’s for any Impressionist work at $110.7 million, and works from the esteemed S.I. Newhouse collection gave Christie’s Imp & Mod sale a $100 million boost.
Christie’s took in $191.9 million (with buyer’s premium) against a pre-sale estimate of $138–203 million; this was a 31% drop from the equivalent sale last November of $279.3 million. Only sixteen of the 58 lots had in-house or third-party guarantors, which accounted for about $53.3 million of the total sale. One of the great highlights of the sale was Umberto Boccioni’s Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio (Unique Forms of Continuity in Space), the artist’s undisputed masterpiece. Boccioni was one of the founding members of Italian Futurism, and just as his work was maturing, he tragically died in 1916 during a training exercise in World War I, at the age of 33. With a curtailed body of work, Christie’s specialists noted that this was a difficult lot to price; it is only the second time in a century that one of Boccioni’s sculptures has been offered at auction. The auction house conservatively estimated the work at $3.8–4.5 million, but the bronze busted past its high estimate to sell for a record $16.2 million, with fees.
Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern evening sale outperformed Christie’s, raking in $209 million; unfortunately, this was still far below the equivalent sale from May ($349.8 million) or last November ($315.4 million). One of the gems of the evening was Gustave Caillebotte’s Richard Gallo et son chien Dick, au Petit-Gennevilliers (1894), a large, richly-painted portrait of his friend walking along the Seine. But the painting generated less interest than Sotheby’s anticipated, selling just inside its low estimate at $19.7 million, with fees. A happier outcome occurred for Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka’s La Tunique Rose of 1927, depicting a solidly-built, reclining woman in a red slip. The lovely modernist painting surpassed its high estimate of $8 million, as well as the artist’s previous auction record of $9.1 million, selling for $13.4 million with fees.
Moving on to the Contemporary market: Christie’s topped the evening sales with $325.3 million, which was squarely in the middle of its $270.3–397.8 million estimates. This is a 9% downturn from the same sale in November 2018, but it is worth noting last year’s $357.6 million sale was augmented by David Hockney’s $90.3 million Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures). 24 of the 54 lots offered this year had third-party guarantees. Despite promoting the “fresh to market” appeal of the works (all but three of the 54 lots had not been offered in at least ten years), 43% of lots hammered below their low estimate. But this contraction in the market was countered by a few bright spots.
The standout of the evening was Ed Ruscha’s Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964), a great, early example of Ruscha’s more conceptual approach to Pop, which achieved $52.5 million with fees. Another lovely offering was a rediscovered Hockey painting called Sur la Terrasse of 1971, which hasn’t been shown publicly since 1973. Encouraged by last year’s record Hockney sale, the Christie’s specialists estimated Sur la Terrasse to reach $25–45 million. Unfortunately, this proved to be ambitious; the painting hammered under estimate, and only reached $29.5 million with fees.
Sotheby’s Postwar & Contemporary evening sale brought in $270.5 million with an 89% sell-through rate, which was down 25% from November’s 2018 sale ($362.6 million). Artnet reports that the top bidders of the night seemed to be hailing from Asia: Sotheby’s head of contemporary art for Asia bid on behalf of one client who spent $54.4 million, or 20% of the value of the total sale. This buyer purchased the top lot of the evening, Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XXII(1977) for $30.1 million, as well as Clyfford Still’s PH-399(1946) for $24.3 million, well over its $18 million high estimate. But other lots did not fare as well: one high-profile work was a Francis Bacon Pope painting deaccessioned from the Brooklyn Museum, which sold for $6.6 million against an estimate of $6-8 million. And works by Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell and David Hockney all passed unsold.
Willem de Kooning, Untitled XXII (1977)
Clyfford Still, PH-399 (1946)
The market for artists of color and women artists continue to rise, with records set and re-set for several artists this season. On the heels of a retrospective exhibition at Mnuchin Gallery, Alma Thomas set a new record when her 1970 painting Fantastic Sunset sold at Christie’s for $2.7 million with fees. Also riding the success of his retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art, Charles White set a new auction record, only to have it broken the next day: his painting Banner for Willie J (1976) sold at Christie’s for $1.2 million, followed by his work on paper Ye Shall Inherit the Earth (1953), which sold for $1.8 million at Sotheby’s. Also at Sotheby’s, Norman Lewis’s Ritual (1962) sold for $2.8 million, trumping his previous record of $956,000; and Kerry James Marshall had another eight-figure sale when his painting Vignette 19 sold for $18.5 million, just a few million shy of his $21.1 million record for Past Times, sold to P. Diddy a few years ago.
As the .001% continues to push prices at the top of the market beyond the reach of collectors, more buyers are taking the risk to purchase art by emerging artists at auction, paying incredible amounts for some artists who are not quite “market tested.” Reviewing the day sales, rather than evening sales, is very eye-opening in this regard: Michael Armitage’s The Conservationists (2015), was estimated at $50,000–70,000 when offered at Sotheby’s contemporary day sale; the painting soared to $1.52 million, over twenty-one times its high estimate. Tschabalala Self’s Star, also from 2015, sold at Phillips for $350,000, nearly triple its high estimate of $120,000. Based on retail data, artnet speculates that Star probably only cost $10,000 when it was first offered in a gallery in 2015. Noah Davis, who died tragically in 2015 from cancer, had his first artwork offered at auction this year in May, selling for $47,500, well-past its $10,000–15,000 estimate. At Phillips this fall, his painting Single Mother with Father out of the Picture sold for $168,750, far outperforming its $40,000–60,000 estimate. Notably, all these young artists are also artists of color, yet again underscoring the craze for collecting artists that have, in previous generations, been marginalized.
With the presidential election on the horizon in 2020, the market will likely contract a little more, as it did during the 2016 election cycle. As has been the case the past few years, there will be some standout works that will tantalize the market, such as the likely forthcoming sale of the famous (or infamous) Macklowe Collection. In my honest opinion, it would not be the end of the world if the market contracted a little bit; to quote one of my favorite artists, Gerhard Richter, “It’s not good when [my art] is the value of a house.” Even with a slight softening, the art market will likely continue to be quite healthy; that is, Richter’s work will always be the cost of a house. A very nice, very big house. In the Hamptons. With a helipad.