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New York ignites the Art Market…

[23 May 2017]

New York’s dominance of the global art market largely depends on two short weeks in the calendar – one in May and the other in November – when the auction majors offer a series of ultra-prestigious sales. In 2016, Christie’s generated 19% of its global annual turnover from its New York sales between 9 -14 May.

Last week produced another series of impressive results and provided lots of indicators regarding the health of the art market in spring 2017. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s spectacular new record of $110.5 million was undoubtedly the highlight of the week and it underpinned an overriding conclusion: the market is not only selective in terms of quality and rarity; it is willing to pay a substantial premium for lavish and extremely well-known works.

Turnover totals from the week’s evening sales (2017)

(In $ millions)





Impressionist and Modern





Post-War and Contemporary Art





Primary targets achieved… but some hesitations still remain

On Monday 15 May, Christie’s started the week with a superb evening sale that generated a total of $289 million from 43 lots, the best result for a sale of Impressionist & Modern Art since 2015. The sale’s expectations were handsomely rewarded with Constantin Brancusi’s sculpture, La muse endormie (1913), reaching way past its estimates ($25 – 35 million) to fetch $57.4 million.

Unfortunately, Sotheby’s opening evening sale the following day was marred by the last-minute withdrawal of its star lot, Egon Schiele’s Danae (1909), cutting an estimated $40 million from the final result. But a number of excellent results partly offset the shortfall, including those recorded for four sculptures that far exceeded their estimates:

  • $15.9 million for Max Ernst’s Le roi jouant avec la reine (1944)
  • $7.4 million for Henry Moore’s Seated Woman (1960)
  • $4.8 million for Jean Arp’s Torso des Pyrénées (1962)
  • $3 million for Germaine Richier’s Don Quixote (1950-1951)

That said… the first two evenings did post unusually high unsold rates: 22% at Christie’s and 29% at Sotheby’s, suggesting that the Art Marketis still sufferingfrom persistent uncertainty. While bidders were clearly determined to acquire the very exceptional works, they were more cautious regarding many of the other lots on offer. As a result a number of handsome works by Degas, Munch, Picasso and Van Gogh failed to reach their reserve prices.

Strong demand for Post-War artists and a new high for Basquiat

On Wednesday, Christie’s reassured the market at its Post-War & Contemporary Art evening sale with 68 out of 73 lots finding buyers. The results re-confirmed that the major painters of the second half of the 20th century now enjoy a similar market status to the top signatures in the Modern and Impressionist periods, with Cy Twombly’s Leda and the Swan (1962) and Francis Bacon’s triptych easily crossing the $50 million threshold.

The clear highlight of the sale was of course the $110.5 million result for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (1982). Having fetched $19,000 in 1984, the painting’s value has multiplied 5,800 times in 33 years, setting a new record for the young Bronx-born graffiti artist who used to sign his creations Samo (same old shit). The new record is particularly impressive because it nearly doubles his previous auction record of $57.3 million set last year for another untitled canvas from the same year, and that was much bigger: 238 x 500 cm compared with just 183 x 173 cm (or 94 x 197 inches vs. 72 1/8 x 68 1 / 8 inches).

Basquiat has therefore now joined the tiny elite of artists who have crossed the 100 million dollars threshold at auction. There are now seven: Picasso, Modigliani, Bacon, Giacometti, Munch, Warhol and… Basquiat, the only Contemporary artist in the group. Had he not died aged 27, he would now be just 56.

Other stars of the week…

Born in 1983 in Nigeria, Njideka Akunyili CROSBY is the discovery of the first half of 2017. Making her auction debut in September 2016 – while Victoria Miro was preparing an exhibition of her work in London – the young artist’s auction prices have significantly accelerated in recent months. The three canvases offered last week generated $4.8 million… and none remained unsold.

Several other strong results for artists under 50 suggest a general mood of optimism:

  • $16 million for Untitled (2011) by Mark Grotjahn (1968)
  • $1.2 million for Flattop (2011) by Joe Bradley (1975)
  • $660,500 for Freischwimmer 123 (2004) by Wolfgang Tillmans (1968)

Another interesting development last week was the strong emergence of Phillips into the high-end market. By selling Rosedale (1991) for $28.8 million, Phillips has set a new record for Peter DOIG (1959)(ranked 47th in Artprice’s 2016 ranking of artists by annual auction turnover).

Lastly, Damien HIRST’s The  Void (2000) (from his Cabinet Pills series) has reassured his collectors by fetching $5.85 million. It was the first major work by Contemporary Art’s favorite “Bad Boy” to appear on the auction market since February 2015 when his Lullaby Winter (2002) (another piece from the Cabinet Pills series) fetched just $4.6 million at Christie’s in London. A handsome sum indeed, but one that alerted the market’s attention to a fall in Hirst’s prices; the same work had sold for $7.4 million at Christie’s in New York eight years earlier (May 2007, Lullaby Winter). After last week’s sale (The Void sold within its $5-7 million estimate), collectors of Hirst’s work will feel somewhat reassured. Meanwhile Hirst’s extravagant mega-show entitled Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is in full swing in Venice.

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