Flash News: The highest possible quality

[13 May 2015]


Every fortnight, Artprice provides a short round up of art market news.

Last night in New York Christie’s offered 35 exceptional masterpieces covering over a century of art history, from Monet and Impressionism to a small number of very Contemporary painters. Although all the works in the sale were of dazzling quality, the sale was nonetheless a highly perilous exercise given that practically every lot on the rostrum represented a major auction event in itself and that Christie’s was itself deeply implicated in a number of the lots offered.

By the end ‑ after just one hour of bidding ‑ Christie’s Looking Forward to the Past sale had recorded a new all-time auction record for a work of Fine Art and appears to have opened the way for the emergence of a new kind of auction sale focused uniquely on extremely high quality works and generating an extremely low unsold rate.

In effect, Looking Forward to the Past was, without any doubt, the most up-market sale of Fine Art ever organized in the history of public sales. In this article Artprice ‑ world leader in Art Market information ‑ takes a look at the sale’s principal results (most of which already belong to History) and helps you understand its importance.

As of lot no. 5, the sale’s tone clearly expressed. Peter Doig’s Swamped (1990) was acquired for approximately $26 million (including fees). Aged just 56, the Irish painter is experiencing a galloping increase in his auction prices: on February 7, 2002, Swamped was acquired at Sotheby’s in London for $55,500 (including fees).

Soon after, Picasso’s Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) arrived on the rostrum. Veritable star of the evening, the bidding quickly reached $120 million, then faltered, struggling to get past the all-time record set in November 2013 by Francis Bacon’s triptych at $123 million. However, little by little, the bidding returned to a more ambitious pace and the work was finally adjudicated at the historic price of $160 million. So Pablo Picasso’s version of Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’), painted in 1955 (one of 15 variations on the same theme), has become the most expensive artwork ever purchased at a public auction ($179.365 million, including fees).

The rest of the lots were adjudicated at a faster pace, almost always within the estimated range given by Christie’s in its catalog, if not, slightly above. Only one lot ‑ a mobile by the American artist Alexander Calder ‑ failed to sell: one lot out of the 35 gives a success rate that underscores the special care taken by the Christie’s in valuing the lots and in the overall organization of the event.

Nevertheless we need to bear in mind that the auctioneer – owned by François Pinault ‑ had guaranteed the sale of a number of the masterpieces offered and was therefore directly involved in some of the sale’s results. This partly explains why so many artists’ records were upgraded during the evening: Dubuffet ($24.8 million including fees), Soutine ($28.2 million), Cady Noland ($9.8 million) and Diane Arbus ($785,000).

The tension returned to its peak for Alberto Giacometti’s L’homme au doigt (1947), the only work capable of stealing the record just set by Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’). Easily exceeding $123 million, the bidding nevertheless stopped at $141.3 million (incl. fees) ‑ a new record for the sculptor of Italian origin ‑ but too low to challenge the record just set by Picasso.

When the sale finally ended, the British auctioneer announced a total of $705.9 million (incl. fees), the 3rd best-ever sales total in auction history. So… only the third best… but an unprecedented level of prices with an average bill of over $20 million for each of the 34 pieces sold. At its historic sale of November 12, 2014, the average price paid for the 75 lots sold was just $11 million.

All in all, Looking Forward to the Past is likely to be remembered for a long time to come with so many masterpieces from so many different art movements, ultimately sharing little in common other than a fabulous quality – all offered in the same auction room in just one hour.