Contemporary Art in New York: the star lots

[06 May 2014]


For Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the May sales represent one of the high points of the calendar year. The two market giants generate at least $500 million in two days of sales and usually post increasingly spectacular auction records. In May 2012, their prestige Contemporary Art sales generated $578.3 million from 102 adjudications – a new record at the time – but quickly buried the following year when the two companies’ combined turnover from the same sales reached $691.7 million, with the $435 million spent at Christie’s (May 15, 2013) representing a new record for the firm in the Contemporary art field.

The stakes are high and the works handpicked for the 2014 sales (72 lots at Christie’s on May 13 and 81 lots at Sotheby’s the next day) are carrying estimates ranging from $80,000 to $30 million. The star lots at Christie’s include a major Francis BACON triptych (1969) entitled Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards and Andy WARHOL’s Race Riot (see our Flash News of April 18, 2014: Bacon – Warhol – Ai Weiwei). Christie’s will also be presenting a superb work by Jean-Michel BASQUIAT (Untitled, 172.7 x 261.6 cm) with an estimate of $20 – 30 million (the work has been in a private collection since 1982), and a Jackson POLLOCK entitled Number 5 (Elegant Lady, 1951) estimated at $15 – 20 million. Sotheby’s also has works by the same artists all of which are guaranteed to generate several tens of millions of dollars each. Notably, a monumental Basquiat dated 1983 – whose price estimate has not been disclosed – and a set of six self-portraits by Andy Warhol expected to fetch between $25 and 35 million. In among this selection of masterpieces and “market icons”, Artrpice has identified a few lots that could well generate very handsome gains for their sellers.

Gerhard RICHTER: on May 14, 2013, Sotheby’s signed a new auction record for the German artist when his Domplatz, Mailand [Cathedral Square, Milan] sold for $33 million. A year later, Sotheby’s hopes to take further advantage of Richter’s impressive inflation (+ 257% over the previous 10 years) by offering a 3 x 3 meters abstract work entitled Blau that was acquired by its current owner in 2002 for $2 million and who now hopes to sell it for $25 – 35 million, i.e. approximately 15 times his initial investment. Christie’s is also preparing to profit from the Richter inflation with a large canvas measuring 2.6 x 2 meters, completed in 1950, which already fetched $15.5 million at Sotheby’s on November 13, 2012. It is now expected to fetch between $22 and 28 million implying a potential profit of at least $7 million in two and a half years.

Christopher WOOL…more expensive than Richter: while the price inflation on Richter’s work is impressive, that affecting Christopher Wool’s oeuvre is spectacular. It’s almost as if the ongoing standoff between European and American abstract painting has focused on these two artists, both of whom keep setting new records. While Richter’s price index shows +257% in 10 years, Wool’s reads +821 %! Christie’s is offering three Wool paintings on May 13, including If You, a rude but quirky text painting that expresses an affinity with punk culture and several of the art world’s most notorious “bad boys” like Bruce NAUMAN, Marcel DUCHAMP and Richard PRINCE. If You is estimated at $20 – 30 million, giving an even more optimistic high estimate than that applied to Richter’s work; but the most impressive aspect of this price estimate is that it implies a value increase (at $27.5m) of 100 times in 14 years, since the same canvas sold for $275,000 at Phillips in 2000!

Julie MEHRETU:the Ethiopian artist – incorporated into the Pinault collection and the MoMA – has the wind in her sails and an auction record of $4 million to her credit. That record was set at last year’s May sales of Contemporary Art (May 15, 2013) by a large canvas entitled Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation sold at Christie’s. A year and a day later, the same auction firm is offering Believer’s palace, a very large canvas measuring 3 meters by over 4 meters, estimated $1.5 – 2 million. In 2005, her works were worth only a hundredth of that price.

Yves KLEIN: Yves Klein is the most expensive New Realist and the most popular French artist in the United States. Sotheby’s is offering Relief éponge bleu (RE51) on May 14, a powerful work that belonged to Lucio FONTANA, already sold at Christie’s in 2012 for the equivalent of $10.6m. According to the high estimate, it could fetch around $20 million this month, which would amount to a gain of $10 million in just two years.

What profit will Jeff KOONSshiny train (Jim Beam) generate after fetching $4.9 million in 2004 at Christie’s? (This time its estimate has not been disclosed). Then there is a monumental work by Anselm KIEFER, the largest ever offered at auction, which could well set a new artist’s record even if its current estimate ($ 2-3m) is beneath his 2007 record for Lasst Tausend blumen blühen ! (equivalent to $3.15m on February 8, 2007 at Christie’s in London).
The market will be testing a number of other signatures, including that of Richard Prince, who looks well positioned for a major price recovery. Nurses… Cowboys…, textual canvases… Richard Prince is particularly well represented in these sales and could generate bids beyond $4 million, a level that his Nurse paintings haven’t reached for three years. Elsewhere, there is still considerable curiosity concerning 7 works by Joseph CORNELL, a signature for which Christie’s is apparently expecting a substantial market upgrade. The seven works could yield $16.5 million, including a new record for a work estimated $4 – 6 million (Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall)). CHU Teh-Chun, Cindy SHERMAN, Chris OFILI, Morton Wayne THIEBAUD are also carrying optimistic estimates. Meanwhile the art market’s key players are expressing acquisitive confidence: 65% of respondents to Artprice’s Art Market Confidence Index (AMCI ) are considering buying new works in the “very near future”.