One billion dollars of Contemporary Art in two evenings

[20 May 2014]


New York’s prestige sales of Post-War & Contemporary Art on May 13 and 14 generated more than a billion dollars. Christie’s largely overshot its estimates with remarkably strong results. Against an estimated total high of $500 million, the British multinational auction company recorded a sales total of $745 million with a 95% sold rate. Sotheby’s sale the following day generated $346 million with an 85% sold rate.

Billionaires from more than 30 countries drove bidding to stratospheric levels and, according to Christie’s, the Asian bidders were particularly determined. A number of lots beat their estimates and/or previous artist’s records by several million dollars. Among these, Jean-Michel BASQUIAT’s monumental Untitled (1981) fetched a million over its high estimate with a final bid of $31m ($34.88m including fees), and Jeff KOONS’ 2-meter highPopeye was acquired by Steve Wynn for $28.16m including fees. Gerhard RICHTER’s Abstraktes Bild (712) sold within its estimated range at $26m ($29.28m including fees). The most impressive result of the two sales was undoubtedly the $72m ($80.8m including fees) paid for a rare Francis BACON triptych entitled Studies for a portrait of John Edwards (1964). Roughly fifteen years ago, the triptych was apparently acquired for approximately $15m at a Sotheby’s private sale, which means that its buyer has just made $57m from the buy/sell operation. Remember that between the early 2000s and today, Bacon became the world’s most expensive artist at auction after the $127m paid for another triptych (Three Studies of Lucian Freud) at Christie’s New York on 12 November 2013 (more than $142m including fees). This major work consisted of three canvases each measuring 198 x 147.5 cm. A complete set at auction is especially rare since only 28 triptychs by Bacon are known to exist, of which 12 are in museums and only 4 have ever been offered at auction.

Continued inflation on American Expressionists
Opportunities to bid for a major painting by Barnett NEWMAN are indeed rare and with Newman considered a major figure of 20th century art and his Abstract Expressionist peers like Pollock and Rothko having already opened up an extremely high-end market with works that can fetch around $100 million in public or private sales, they are not to be missed. On May 13, Christie’s generated $150.3m from just two works: a superb colorfield by Mark ROTHKO (dated 1952) which fetched $66.2m, and, above all, a Barnett Newman painting titled Black Fire I that was hotly pursued until a final bid of $84.1m (including fees), i.e. some 41 million dollars more than the artist’s previous auction record of $39m ($43.84m including fees) for Ornement VI at Sotheby’s, May 14, 2013. In fact, Newman’s price index has just caught up with Rothko’s, after the latter became the auction star of American Expressionism in 2007 (he still holds the auction record for the movement: $77.5m [$86.8m including fees] on May 8, 2012 for Orange, Red, Yellow at Christie’s).

Three major Warhols generate $134 millionA frequent, if not omnipresent, star of these prestige sales, Andy WARHOL was represented by a number of major works: White Marilyn and Race Riot at Christie’s, and a superb six-in-one self-portrait at Sotheby’s. Including fees, these three works generated $134m. The first under the hammer was Race riot, a 1964 work based on a press photo of racial violence in Birmingham Alabama. From a collector’s point of view, the work had a number of attractions: a) a much sought-after Warhol subject, b) a goodly size (152.4 x 167.6 cm), c) a repetition in different colors and d) an important provenance: the Mapplethorpe collection. The screen-print on canvas, which fetched $570,000 in 1992 (Christie’s New York, November 18, 1992), went under the hammer for $56m (62.88m including fees) on May 13 last, Warhol’s fourth best-ever auction result.
A few minutes later, Christie’s presented its second Warhol treasure: a “White Marilyn” with an estimate of $12 – 18 million. One of twelve portraits of the Hollywood star, each with a different color background, the work is “historical” not just because it was created soon after Marilyn’s death, but also because it marks a turning point in Warhol’s career, being his first series on silk. This “emblem of Pop Art” (in Christie’s words), was bid all the way to $36.5m, twice its high estimate. So, despite its modest dimensions (50.8 x 40.6 cm), the work generated $41.04m including fees.
The third Warhol lot was presented the following evening at Sotheby’s. The piece is a self-portrait with his face screen-printed in six different colors. Six Self Portraits was apparently acquired for $57,000 in a London gallery in 1986. Estimated by Sotheby’s at between $25 and 35 million, it finally sold for over $30.12 million including fees.

The Contemporary Art “rush” is also focusing on the youngest stars of the market. Joe BRADLEY, Dan COLEN and Wade GUYTON(amongst others) all set new auction records during the same week in New York. Contemporary art is in fact continuing to outstrip forecasts this year and is posting a higher level of dynamism than the art market’s other segments.