The May New York sales were a tremendous event last week, as artworks unmatched anywhere on the market found buyers amongst the world’s most ambitious collectors. This season has been particularly remarkable for Post-War and Contemporary Art, this due, in part, to the accessibility of high-end works on the secondary market. New York’s May sales have dominated the art market for some years now, and though it is only halfway through, it seems 2017 will be no exception.
Christie’s, New York, Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale
A great night for Modern, a slow night for Impressionism. Christie’s led the way for a week of auctions featuring some of the highest end works of art to have come on the market in recent years. Christie’s included many of its top lots in Monday’s sale, notably works by Brancusi, Picasso, Chagall and Georges Braque. The auction totalled $251,500,000 hammer, ($289,178,500 including BP), comfortably settling at mid estimate, having been measured to achieve between $202,400,000 – $302,100,000. 54% of the works sold either above high or mid-estimate, 22% of the works, however remained unsold, most of which were Impressionist pictures. Works by Cassatt, Renoir, Degas and Pissarro failed to sell, and four works by Monet, though they found buyers, were sold either below or at low estimate.
In the Modern department, however, significant artworks were met with high value and competitive bidding. Two works by Picasso sold extremely well; the first, Femme Assise dans un Fauteuil, valued at $20,000,000 – $30,000,000 sold above mid-estimate for $27,000,000 hammer. The second work by Picasso, Femme Assise, Robe Bleue, was again bid up to mid estimate reaching $40,000,000, $5 million above its estimated low value. These sales will have made for happy guarantors, as both lots carried irrevocable bids from third parties.
The indisputable sale of the night, however, was Constantin Brancusi’s La Muse Endormie, which soared far and away above its estimates of $20,000,000 – $30,000,000, reaching a phenomenal $51,000,000 hammer. The work was eventually hard won by ex-Sotheby’s guru and now private dealer Tobias Meyer after over ten minutes of fierce back and forth between Meyer and another important New York private dealer Nancy Whyte, and further bidders on the phone.
Christie’s, New York, Post-War and Contemporary Evening Sale
This was undoubtedly the most successful sale in terms of highest monetary results of the week, despite the withdrawal of one of the top lots, Willem de Kooning’s Untitled II. The sale saw a 95% sell through rate and achieved an extremely high sale total of $391,280,000 hammer, $448,000,000 including Buyer’s Premium, with 80% of lots selling for above high or at mid estimate. Despite these impressive figures, the sale was still only 14% above its low total estimate: $343,200,000 – $466,800,000 and the room did not brim with excitement for any specific lot, as it had, for instance, when Brancusi’s La Muse Endormie came to the block two nights earlier.
However, a flurry of excitability did enliven the room early on as lot 6, Cy Twombly’s Leda and the Swan far outstripped its low estimate of $35,000,000 and reached $47,000,000 hammer. Following straight on from this were 25 lots from the Emily and Jerry Spiegel collection, almost all of which carried third party guarantees allegedly from New York gallery Levy Gorvy. They will have been made extremely happy with the results, as all but two of the works were sold onto keen buyers and several for well above their high estimates. Notably, Man Ray’s Portrait of a Tearful Woman, which sold 300% above estimate for $1,800,000, Andy Warhol’s Last Supper diptych reached $16,500,000, more than double its high estimate and Agnes Martin’s Untitled II sold for $4,200,000, 168% above its low estimate of $2,500,000.
One prominent disappointment of the night was when the evening’s highly anticipated Francis Bacon triptych Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer which was expected to make up to $70,000,000 stalled at $46,000,000 after only a few bids, well under the reported low estimate of $50,000,000.
The evening ended on a surprisingly high note as two sculptures by Japanese artist Isamu Noguchi more than doubled their high estimates. Leaving the evening on a surge of last minute success reflects the consistency of the evening’s impressive sale.
Sotheby’s, New York, Post War and Contemporary Evening Sale
Coming up last in a long week of competitive and far-reaching auctions that were difficult acts to follow, Sotheby’s Post-War and Contemporary art sale did not disappoint and boasted the highest price paid for any lot during the entire week’s proceedings. The work in question was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled painting of a black skull that carried an irrevocable bid, by what many considered to be a very optimistic guarantor. The work fetched $98,000,000 hammer and, unlike most high-profile buyers, the bidder was not above declaring his hand. Japanese billionaire and art-lover Yusaku Maezawa bought the piece as part of a long-running, very public buying spree to promote the art museum he is building in his hometown of Chiba. Last May, his purchases included another untitled 1982 Basquiat painting that sold for $57.3 million, a record breaking price for the artist at the time. He also purchased works by Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, Alexander Calder and Bruce Nauman.
The sale was an overall success, not to be eclipsed by the one lot, totalling $319.2 million including Buyer’s Premium, with 96% of lots sold. This put it at the high end of its estimates of $243,900,000 – $320,500,000. Though Sotheby’s has fallen short of Christie’s this season in terms of totals, they won the season in terms of press and theatricality with the sale of the Basquiat. The stakes are now set high for the London sales in June, with competitive guarantors closing in to drive the market results higher.
Phillips, New York, 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale
Proportional to the amount of lots featured in each sale, Phillip’s 20th Century and Contemporary Art could be considered the most successful sale of the week. All 37 lots that came to block found buyers, making what is commonly known as a “white glove” sale. Despite initial doubts in the room as it was announced that the top lot of the evening, Abstraktes Bild by Gerhard Richter had been withdrawn from the sale, the atmosphere was swiftly changed, in particular by two works that fetched impressive and, in one case, record breaking prices.
The uncontested top lot of the sale was Peter Doig’s Rosedale that fetched the highest price achieved for a work by the artist, reaching $25,500,000 hammer, one bid above the reported third party guarantee. Other important works included Lichtenstein’s paired statues of Woman: Sunlight & Moonlight that drew in an impressive $9,000,000 hammer after competitive bids from various bidders on the telephone and in the room.
The auction totalled $110,200,000 just shy of its high pre-sale estimate of $110,300,000 coming in at double what Phillips’ equivalent sale made in May 2016. One can trace this enhanced performance to Ed Dolman’s appointment as CEO in 2014 and his innovative rebrand of the company has made Phillip’s a more niche and focussed alternative for buyers and dealers to work with as an alternative to the larger two auction houses. It should be noted that Dolman hired away a number of very good sales staff from both Christie’s and Sotheby’s, including the company’s new Chairman, Cheyenne Westphal.
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