Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Sale Awash With Excitement

Margaret Carrigan of The Art Newspaper reports on the Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Sale from the New York November Sales. The sales strong sell-through rate of 97% and total of $362.6 million (with fees) – directly in the middle of its pre-sale estimates of $278.4 million to $375.9 million – was an impressive performance. The sale was also notable for championing market underdogs, with all of the night’s four records being achieved by women or by artists of colour.

It is not only the figures which point to the success of the sale, Morgan Long recounts how bidders were kept on their toes. “I haven’t seen a sale with that much activity in ages, both in the room and on the phones—but especially in the room,” says Morgan. “We’ve gotten used to auctions which play out almost exclusively on the phones while the audience just sits there. This was much more exciting than usual, despite no huge trophy sales!”
The first lot got the ball rolling with a new auction record for the US artist Dana Schutz for her painting Vivid Arms (2003) with nine bidders competing, and in under a minute the work sold for $650,000 (hammer).

Continuing the welcome market shift felt in May (a result of Kerry James Marshall’s beautiful Past Times selling at Sotheby’s for $21 million), African American artists swept the sale. Jack Whitten’s Ancient Mentor I (1985) more than doubled the artist’s previous auction record of $855,000 selling for $1.85 million. Henry Taylor’s I’ll Put a Spell on You (2004) also achieved an auction record for the artist, quadrupling its low estimate of $200,000 to reach $800,000. Four Jean-Michel Basquiat’s also recorded prices well within their range or just over, bringing in a total of $41.1 million. “It’s great to see undervalued and underappreciated artists really hit the international scene,” says Morgan.

Carrigan highlights that the night was not without some disappointment, namely the sale of two works by Georgia O’Keefe that were deaccessioned by the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in New Mexico. Both pieces (Calla Lillies on Red and A Street) failed to meet their low estimates and neither were guaranteed. Morgan observes that although the works carried museum provenance ‘Sotheby’s estimates were just a bit steep, so they had to slightly adjust down,” and adds that she believes it was in fact Christie’s O’Keefe’s, which were stronger.

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