New York: high-end Contemporary results explode

[21 May 2013]


Like last year, New York’s Contemporary sales have generated larger figures than the Impressionist & Modern sales in the same month. However, this year, the totals are very substantially higher: in 2012 Sotheby’s and Christie’s generated a combined revenue of $578.3 million from 102 Contemporary lots (a record for their Contemporary Art sales). This year, their combined result amounts to $691.7 million, which includes a new record for a Christie’s Contemporary art sale at $435 million (15 May 2013).

The two auctioneers’ combined total from their Impressionist & Modern sales on 7 and 8 May 2013 amounted to $388.5 million (including buyer’s premium) with Sotheby’s ($230 million) beating its rival ($158.5 million) like last year (when it set a new world auction record for a work of art with Edvard MUNCHLe Cri). This year, Sotheby’s targets included at least $60 million from two paintings, one by Paul CÉZANNE, and another by Amedeo MODIGLIANI, and the target was met after Cézanne’s Les Pommes (1889, 38.5 cm x 46 cm) fetched a superb score of $37 million ($41.6 million incl. buyer’s premium) against an estimate of $25 million – $35 million, and Modigliani’s Amazone sold for a more modest result of $23million ($25.9 million incl. buyer’s premium).

At the Contemporary sales which are traditionally scheduled just behind the Modern Art sessions the star lots of the 2013 vintage fully confirmed the trend seen last year, i.e. that demand is very high for American and European works created between the 1940s and the late 1960s. In 2012, the big names in Contemporary art auctions already set substantially higher new auction records with Yves KLEIN adding $11 million, Gerhard RICHTER adding close to $12 million, Mark ROTHKO up $12.5 million and Jackson POLLOCK up a staggering $25.6 million.

This price surge was further confirmed this year with Sotheby’s generating a new record of $22.005 million (incl. buyer’s premium) for a three-dimensional work by Yves KLEIN ( Sculpture Eponge Bleue Sans Titre ) on 14 May 2013 and confirming Gerhard RICHTER status as the world’s most expensive living artist by adding $2.6 million to his previous record when Domplatz, Mailand an oil on canvas painted in 1968 fetched $33 million ($37.1 million incl. buyer’s premium). Richter’s previous record was generated by a 1994 work entitled Abstraktes Bild which fetched $34.16 million (incl. buyer’s premium) in October 2012 at Sotheby’s in London.

On 15 May, a remarkable sale at Christie’s demonstrated the extent to which globalized demand at the high end of the market is constantly pushing up the limits. The figures are impressive: 94% of the 70 lots offered sold (only 6% failed to sell) and nine works fetched more than $10 million, with new records notably for Roy LICHTENSTEIN, Roy LICHTENSTEIN and Jean-Michel BASQUIAT. These three artists already set new multi-million records last year and we expect their inflation to continue: indeed, Roy Lichtenstein is catching up with Andy Warhol’s (his Pop art “rival”) top scores. His Woman with Flowered Hat, fetched $56.1 million including buyer’s premium ($11 million more than Sleeping Figure which set Lichtenstein’s previous record of $40 million ($44.8 million incl. buyer’s premium)).

Meanwhile, Jean-Michel BASQUIAT has made a huge jump up the market ladder: his canvas Dustheads will be paid $48.8 million by its new owner, substantially beyond the estimate of $25 million – $35 million and adding almost $22 million to his previous record of $26.4 million including buyer’s premium ($23.5 million for his 1981 Untitled on 14 November 2012).

New records for American Abstract Expressionists

The other strong trend observed this year is that the good performance of the Contemporary art sales relied heavily on American Abstract Expressionists. On May 14, half of Sotheby’s high-end offer (works priced over $10 million) were signed by Barnett NEWMAN, Clyfford STILL and Jackson POLLOCK. Indeed, the sale’s best result was generated by Newman, a champion of Abstract Expressionism, whose Onement VI, a monumental work in vibrant blue (the colour of meditation par excellence, described by Sotheby’s as “a gateway to the sublime”) fetched no less than $43.8 million (incl. buyer’s premium; hammer price $39 million). This result added some $19 million to his previous record of $20 million (excl. buyer’s premium ) in May 2012 for Onement V (8 May, Christie’s).

Soaring Abstract Expressionist prices continued the following night at Christie’s with a Jackson Pollock dripping, Number 19, 1948 fetching no less than $58.4 million including buyer’s premium. The work demolished its high estimate of $35 million setting a new personal record for the artist. His previous auction record was only six months old and now looks like a good deal at $18 million less (Number 4 fetched $40.4 million including buyer’s premium, hammer price: $36 million on 13 November 2011, Sotheby’s).

Along with the records, auctions – even prestige auctions – also generate disappointments. The Impressionist & Modern sale at Christie’s glowed in its early stage with a record result for Chaim Soutine’s Petit Pâtissier, but it was marred by the failure of André DERAIN’s portrait of MMadame Matisse au kimono, painted in 1905 and estimated between $15 million and $20 million.
As for the Contemporary sales, some works carrying 8-digit estimates failed to sell including a painting by Francis BACON (Study for Portrait of P.L. estimated between $30 million and $40 million at Sotheby’s) and two works by Jeff KOONS (estimated between $6 million and $15 million).