Sotheby’s double-header evening sale in New York yesterday evening (November 16) appeared to cap the market’s prevailing transitional mood with 2021 heading into late spring and more subdued bidding. Still, the results outperformed comparable sales held earlier this year and a year ago.
The night kicked off with the third edition of the auction house’s evening ultra-contemporary art sale, dubbed “The Now”, which saw competitive bidding for nearly every one of the 22 lots – all of which were sold – setting new auction records for five artists total hammer prices. $37.5m ($45.8m including fees), comfortably within Sotheby’s estimate of $29.4m to $42.2m (calculated without estimated fees).
After a break and change of auctioneer, the 38-lot Contemporary Art evening auction saw measured bidding for most lots (two of which failed to sell), with a few original trophy works failing to generate much interest. The total hammer price for this portion of the sale was $231m (including fees of $269m), below the home’s pre-sale estimate range of $239.2m to $301.6m. 12 feet tall by Andy Warhol white disaster [White Car Crash 19 Times] (1963), which lurked above the saleroom in all its macabre splendor, contributed significantly to this total, at a slightly fancier $74m (including fees of $85.3m), well below its asking estimate of at least $80m – no. A victory not a disaster.
Not stopping now
Sotheby’s two previous The Now evening sales have been white-glove affairs, and Wednesday night’s auction extended that streak. Much of the sale felt like a throwback to six or 12 months ago, when collectors could barely put their pedals down, flush with funds from buoyant stock markets and booming crypto exchanges. It was a marked contrast to the timidity Phillips showed the night before at 15 Blocks Southwest, where fresh pieces by art market stars mostly failed to spark a bidding war.
Four of the six opening lots set new auction records for artists, starting with Brooklyn-based painter Louis Fratino. His large-scale domestic scene, logic (2021), bidding on the phone started a contest between the collector and a man in Sotheby’s York Avenue saleroom, with the price quickly surpassing the high estimate of $300,000. The man in the room eventually won with a bid of $580,000 ($730,800 including fees).
Next lot, Salman Tore four friends (2019, est. $300,000-$400,000), which featured prominently in the artist’s 2020-21 solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum, has auctioneer and contemporary art expert Michael Macaulay fielding bids from seemingly numerous places simultaneously. The client, on the phone with London Fergus Duff’s private sales director, eventually won with a bid of $1.25m (including $1.5m in fees). It was one of several large lots that went to bid to collectors from Asia; Collector purchases from the continent account for 50% of the total value of The Now sales.
Two lots later on the tour, artist Nick Relph’s intimately scaled portrait of a fast-sleeping Elizabeth Peyton, Nick with his eyes shut (2003, estimate $1m-$1.5m), setting off a brisk bidding war between several experts and two private bidders. Bem Fierro, Sotheby’s senior vice president in New York, client bidding through March ultimately took the prize with a $2 million bid (including $2.4 million in fees), enough for a new auction record for Peyton. Two lots later, another record fell after steep competition after Jacqueline Humphries sent in an unflattering emoticon painting. Ω 🙂 (2017) to sell for a hammer price of $675,000 (including fees of $850,500) over its $400,000 high estimate.
The sale’s largest lot was also the work with the highest estimate, Yoshitomo Nara’s large-scale, color-glazed portrait of one of his features. Kawaii statistics, Light foggy day / study (2020, about $9m-$12m). It was one of six lots in the sale backed by guarantees; Six more were bid irrevocably before they were sold. The confirmed result did not discourage the bidders, who pushed the price above the low estimate; Finally a client from Asia placed a winning bid of $10.1m (including fees of $11.9m) on the phone with Wendy Lin, Sotheby’s managing director for Taiwan.
The rest of The Now auction was an efficient and largely on-target process. Some works by past season’s men’s market favorites—Nicholas Partey, Jonas Wood, Marc Grotjan and Damien Hirst—sold briefly after one bid. By contrast, paintings by Los Angeles-based artists Lucy Bull and Christina Quarles, and a dazzling mixed-media work by Brooklyn-based Maria Berio, exceeded all expectations, perhaps a testament to the scarcity of their work in the primary market.
The only sculptural work in the sale (after the withdrawal of a giant steel figure by Thomas Schuette), the azure-blue stainless steel assemblage dressing room (2017, est $400,000-$600,000) by respected New York artist Carol Bove, drew interest from half a dozen bidders. A client in Asia came out on top with a winning bid of $625,000 (including fees of $787,500) through David Rothschild, senior specialist in private sales, setting a new record for Bove.
Big names drive contemporary sales
While rising stars helped the sale to its strong results, just seven works by four blue-chip artists—Warhol, Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon and Jean-Michel Basquiat—accounted for more than two-thirds ($167.1m). The total hammer price of contemporary art sales was $231m. More than half of the lots (21 out of 38) were backed by guarantees and exactly half came with irrevocable bids, ensuring a respectable result despite reduced competition. This proved to be the case in most cases, with about a dozen works selling after only one bid, and two failing to sell at all – a magnificent Robert Irwin wall installation (est. $3m-$4m) and a large-scale canvas by Tom Wesselmann (est. $1.8m -$2.5m).
Outside of the massive Warhol, the biggest catch in the sale was a trio of de Kooning paintings consigned by the artist’s family and representing three different phases of the Abstract Expressionist’s career. Three paintings – dating from 1969, 1979 and 1987 – fetched $30m ($34.8m) after a bid at or near their low estimate, the middle canvas, an untitled, undulating blue composition (est. $30m-$40m). In all, the three paintings brought a total hammer price of $50m ($58.1m including fees).
The Bacon Triptych Three Studies for Portraits of Lucian Freud (1964) short of its $30m low estimate, New York Grégoire Bilalt’s contemporary art through the chairman of Sotheby’s fetched a UK buyer $28m ($30m including fees), good enough for the third-highest price at auction.
Basquiat’s large, characteristically noisy canvases saxophone (1986) hit a shade above its low estimate, for the sale’s fourth-highest result of $12.1m (including $13.6m in fees). Somewhat later, a large, monochrome, untitled Basquiat silkscreen on canvas from 1983 (est. $2.5m-$3.5m), quickly fetched $3m (including fees of $3.6m) from the private collection of influential New York dealer Tony Shafrazi.
The biggest lots in the sale were surprisingly small, but there were some low- and mid-range works on offer. First lot, Barbara Krueger Untitled (My Face Is Your Luck) (1982, est. $600,000-$800,000)—a photo juxtaposing text and a splash image, all within a luscious red frame—surpassed its high estimate to eventually fetch $1.25m (including $1.5m fee), setting a new auction record for the artist’s essential image generation. Work. A suspended, acrylic-on-leather work by minor legend Betty Sarr, Rainbow Mojo (1972, est. $200,000-$300,000), a three-way bidding war ensued that ended when the client bid the high estimate on the phone with Sotheby’s Mexico City-based chairman Lulu Creel. The sum, which came to $378,000 including fees, set a new auction record for Sarr’s work.
After strong results for Bove’s steel construction in previous sales, another giant sculpture turned heads during the contemporary auction: Isamu Noguchi’s 6-foot-tall carved basalt colossus. Stone-abiding (1981, about $2m-$3m). It sold for a hammer price of $3.5m ($4.2m) after a four-way bidding war, a strong result for the beloved American sculptor and just $700,000 short of his current auction record.
Another materially and symbolically large work delivered the night’s final record-breaking result, albeit one that fell short of expectations. Alighiero Boetti’s massive embroidery Mappa (1989–91, est $8m to $12m)—featured prominently in the 2011–12 Boetti retrospective that traveled from the Reina Sofia to the Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art in New York—was given the star treatment inside both Sotheby’s. Galleries and building exteriors. The auction house has replaced the national flags that normally fly above its main entrance with rows of flags printed with Boetti’s colorful world flags. Nevertheless, it quickly sold to a client in line with the head of Milan’s contemporary art house—“our queen of Italian art,” in the words of auctioneer Oliver Barker—for a hammer price of $7.4m ($8.8m including fees), a new secondary-market record for the artist. good enough for After Boetti, the rest of the sale wrapped up expediently, motoring through as much energy as Barker and the participants left the room.
Contemporary sales of $231m ($269m including fees) brought the combined hammer price for Sotheby’s evening auction to $268.6m ($314.9m including fees), a solid result compared to the $234.2m total (including fees) for the same sale last year—a US Constitution It got a $43.2m boost from copy sales—and $241.6m ($283.4m) from the May 2022 equivalent evening. Encouragement for ultra-contemporary works at Now auctions seems to compensate for limited competition for blue-chip works in contemporary sales. And despite relatively restrained bidding, the final result marked an improvement over past seasons, suggesting that gripes about the global recession are not yet stopping Sotheby’s client base from grabbing their paddles—or collectors in Asia from grabbing their phones.
“You always have people who are cautious when things get weird,” New York art consultant Lisa Schiff said before Wednesday night’s sale. “And you always have people who know how to look for deals and be aggressive when everyone else backs off. There aren’t too many of those people, but the truth is we don’t need that many.”
Christie’s caps are off this week with its own two-part auction of 20th- and 21st-century art—after last night’s contemporary sale at Sotheby’s and mixed house results from its modern art double-header on Monday.