ARTnewsletter Archive

Spring Art Auctions: $1.4 Billion in Two Weeks

A surge in overall contemporary art sales at this year’s spring auctions, a two-week series that began with Impressionist and modern art, helped propel the season to $1.4 billion, one of the highest totals in recent years, but still below the $1.75 billion peak of the previous market boom reached in fall 2007 (ANL, 11/27/07).

NEW YORK—A surge in overall contemporary art sales at this year’s spring auctions, a two-week series that began with Impressionist and modern art, helped propel the season to $1.4 billion, one of the highest totals in recent years, but still below the $1.75 billion peak of the previous market boom reached in fall 2007 (ANL, 11/27/07).

As ARTnewsletter was published, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury and Company had tallied up $882.7 million in a week of contemporary sales—again, one of the highest totals ever, and a marked increase from the $718 million achieved last spring.

Christie’s total for its evening and day contemporary sales was $465 million, while Sotheby’s posted a total of $330.5 million. Phillips evening sale totaled $86.9 million and set a new $16 million record for Jean-Michel Basquiat. Phillips’s contemporary art day sale on May 11 was expected to add between $10 million/14.4 million to the overall sum.

Christie’s Contemporary Sale: ‘Most Valuable Ever’

After two major lots had been withdrawn, Christie’s contemporary art sale on May 8 was estimated to fetch between $236 million/330 million, its highest for an evening sale in this category since May 2008. The result, however, exceeded their most optimistic forecast with a total of $388.5 million, besting the $384.6 million previous high for a contemporary part one sale at Christie’s in November 2007. Of the 59 lots offered, 56, or 95 percent, found buyers, with 14 record prices claimed. Only 16 lots, most appearing towards the end of the sale when energies were flagging, sold at hammer prices below estimates.

The sale was bolstered by the offering of 13 works from the collection of Philadelphia clothing manufacturer David Pincus, who died last December, and his widow Geraldine, to raise money for the charitable Pincus Family Foundation. The collection surpassed its $89.8 million low estimate to realize $175 million, setting four records in the process.

American Abstract Expressionism was to the fore as Mark Rothko’s Orange, Red Yellow, 1961, sold for $86.9 million, against an estimate of $35 million/45 million. There were three telephone bidders vying for the painting as bidding reached $70 million. The previous record was for the so- called “Rockefeller” Rothko, White Center, 1950, which sold to the Royal Family of Qatar for $72.8 million at Sotheby’s in 2007. The new record for Rothko was also a record for contemporary art at auction, replacing the $86.3 million paid, by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich at Sotheby’s in May 2008, for a Francis Bacon triptych.

Speaking to reporters at the post-sale press conference, specialist and international head of postwar and contemporary art, Brett Gorvy, told reporters how his phone client had paused at $77 million before making one more, half-million-dollar bid, to $77.5 million, where it was hammered down.

“I encouraged him,” said Gorvy. “I told him: “You won’t see a painting like this for another 20 to 25 years.”

Barnett Newman’s “Zip” painting Onement V, 1952, sold for a record $22.5 million, against an estimate of $10 million/15 million, replacing the previous record $3.86 million set in November 2002. Jackson Pollock’s large, drip painting Number 28, 1951, was the largest seen at auction in over 20 years. It sold for a record $23 million, against a $20 million/30 million estimate, beating the previous auction record of $11.6 million set at Christie’s in May 2004. Another from the Pincus collection to hit a record was Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk, 1992, a light box transparency, which sold for $3.7 million, against a $1.5 million/2 million estimate, surpassing the previous $1.2 million set at Sotheby’s London in July 2008.

The price for Willem de Kooning’s Untitled I, 1980, which sold to German dealer Jorg Bertz for $14 million (estimate: $8 million/12 million), was the highest yet for a late de Kooning.

A record was set for a pure geometric abstract when a bidder in the room, a South Korean gallery according to informed sources, paid $2 million (estimate: $800,000/1.2 million) for Josef Albers’s Homage to the Square: Distant Alarm, 1966.

Alexander Calder’s previous record of $6.4 million tumbled twice in the sale. The first time was for a piece from the Eliot Noyes collection, an all-white mobile titled Snow Flurry, 1948, which sold for $10.4 million against an estimate of $3.5 million/4.5 million. The anonymous buyer was bidding through Christie’s former Chinese art specialist Xin Li, who now heads up the Asian art department. That record was then superseded by Calder’s large, standing mobile Lily of Force, 1945, which sold to London and New York dealer Daniella Luxembourg for $18.6 million, against an estimate of $8 million/12 million.

Yves Klein took the top price for a European artist when his rare, large, body and fire painting titled FC1, 1962, sold for a record $36.5 million, against an estimate of $30 million/40 million. Following Klein was Gerhard Richter, who had six works in the sale, all of which sold.

Seestuck, 1969, came close to the record, but still made the top price for a photopainting by Richter. It sold to Luxembourg for $19.3 million, against a $10 million/15 million estimate. But it was the largest Richter abstract, Abstraktes Bild (798–3), 1993, that broke the previous record set last November, by selling for $21.8 million, against a $14 million/18 million estimate.

Among the younger artists, Sherrie Levine’s editioned Fountain, (After Marcel Duchamp), 1991, continued its upward spiral, selling for a record $962,500 (estimate: $250,000/350,000), while a rare Vija Celmins drawing of stars, Untitled #8, 1995–96, sold for $1.1 million (estimate: $700,000/900,000). There have been only six Celmins drawings at auction since the late 1980s, and the previous record, $902,500, was set at Christie’s last November for Sea Drawing with Whale, 1969.

Amid all the high prices, there was still a shadow cast by the excesses of the last boom. Brice Marden’s looping Attendant 5, 1996–99, had been offered by Christie’s with a guarantee in November 2008, just after the market had crashed following the international debt crisis, with an estimate of $10 million/15 million, which was pitched to set a new record. The work was not sold and reappeared at Christie’s this week with a lower $7 million/10 million estimate, but was withdrawn before the sale. Similarly, David Smith’s Circles and Angles, 1959, had been guaranteed by Christie’s with an estimate of $6 million/8 million in November 2008 and did not sell. This time, it was offered with a $3 million/4 million estimate and sold comfortably for $4.6 million.

So what didn’t do well? A 1980s Eric Fischl piece, Xmas Morn, sold for $362,500, half the estimate, and Sam Francis’s Broken Black, 1954, bought at Christie’s in November 2007 for $2.5 million, went unsold against a $2.5 million/3.5 million estimate. The only work by Jeff Koons in the sale, the wood sculpture Cherubs, 1991, which had been acquired at Christie’s in November 2006 for $856,000, was rescued with a bid by Larry Gagosian, who bought it for $722,500 against an estimate of $800,000/1.2 million.

A surprise to many was the announcement, proclaimed midway through the sale, that veteran auctioneer and honorary chair, Christopher Burge, was taking his last sale. With the record-breaking Gerhard Richter on the block, Burge said, “so I might as well have a bit of fun.” At which point he became tough on one particular underbidder who had been making lower-than-standard bid increments, such as $50,000 while other buyers went along with upticks of $100,000. As the same underbidder attempted to make a final bid just after the hammer had come down, Burge said, “No, you’ve been messing me around long enough.” Burge was staying on top as he went out on a high.