ARTnewsletter Archive

Contemporary Art Hits New Peaks at Spring Sales

NEW YORK—Dominating the headlines at the recent round of spring auctions was Edvard Munch’s 1895 version of his iconic painting The Scream. Commanding just under $120 million with premium, the painting, which became the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction, accounted for just about one-fifth of the $523 million Impressionist and modern art total

NEW YORK—Dominating the headlines at the recent round of spring auctions was Edvard Munch’s 1895 version of his iconic painting The Scream. Commanding just under $120 million with premium, the painting, which became the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction, accounted for just about one-fifth of the $523 million Impressionist and modern art total at Sotheby’s and Christie’s combined.

However, Postwar and contemporary art was also hitting new peaks, as it had in the previous market boom, outstripping Impressionist and modern art, with overall volume of $893 million, and accounting for more than half of the $1.4 billion total, which was one of the highest in recent years. Christie’s broke the previous $72.8 million record for Mark Rothko, set at Sotheby’s in 2007 (ANL, 5/29/07), when it sold a 1961, glowing orange Rothko for $86.8 million at its May 8 evening sale.

In the seasons leading up to the market peak of 2007 and 2008, the same trend was seen, in which the overall volume of contemporary art frequently began to eclipse Impressionist and modern paintings. Experts said it was caused by the shrinking supply of available masterworks at the same time that younger wealthy buyers, looking for more cutting-edge works, began flooding into the market.

But, when the art market took a sharp downturn for the first time in years, in late 2008 (ANL, 11/25/08), wealthy buyers were suddenly focusing more on blue-chip artists with longer market and auction track records, such as Alexander Calder, Alberto Giacometti and Kazemir Malevich.

Speculative, frenzied buying on contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami, and other younger artists, all but evaporated, and volume plunged sharply. Fall 2008 sales yielded a total of $803.3 million, a 49 percent drop from the $1.6 billion total for the spring 2008 auctions and less than half of the $1.75 billion total of fall 2007.

So, contemporary sales are back on top; what does it say about the current state of the art market?

“There are two, main macro statements,” said private art dealer Neal Meltzer. “The continuation of contemporary masterworks seems to be in large supply.” He added: “Clearly The Scream is the story of the season, but Rothko is certainly a close second. One is a total icon and the other for major trophy hunting.”

Christie’s $388 million achieved at its Postwar and contemporary art sale, held on May 9, was its second-highest total ever for any sale category, posting 21 new records for established Abstract Expressionist masters, including Rothko, Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock, as well as records for Yves Klein, Gerhard Richter and younger artists such as Jeff Wall, whose primary medium is photography.

Sales in both the Impressionist and contemporary sale categories were further boosted by prestigious private collections, including that of the late financier Theodore Forstmann at Sotheby’s, which made well over $100 million, and that of late Philadelphia clothing manufacturer David Pincus, the latter of whose collection made a record $180 million at Christie’s and included the record Rothko.

Brett Gorvy, Christie’s chair and international head of Postwar and contemporary art, called it a “season of icons,” with some of the best works by these major artists “to come to market in many years.” He went on to say that “to see so many major records established in one evening was a tribute to the exceptional works on offer.”

“The pyramid is upside down,” says Meltzer. “There are more buyers for the top-level material than for the mid-market material.” Just as remarkable, he noted, was “the fact that there were between 5 and 7 bidders for works costing $30 million or more.”

Cutting-Edge Art on the Rise at Phillips

Phillips de Pury & Company, which also has seen the volume of its more recent offerings of cutting-edge art rise exponentially in recent years, rounded out the week with a May 10 evening sale that brought $86.9 million, followed by a May 10 day sale that added another $10.6 million to the total. The handful of records that the house achieved ranged from established contemporary names, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, to younger painters whose work is in demand, such as Dana Schutz.

The evening total fell within the $76 million/111 million estimate. In order to get a high-value sale, the company had arranged the most guarantees of any of the major auctioneers. This time, they paid off. Ten works with a low aggregate estimate of $44.8 million all sold for a hammer total (exclusive of buyers’s commissions) of $62.5 million.

These included seven of the ten top-selling lots. Basquiat’s six-foot-tall crucifixion figure, Untitled, 1981—sent for sale by Washington collector Robert Lehrman, who had acquired it from Basquiat’s first show with Annina Nosei in 1982—sold to one of just two phone bidders, who had slugged it out from the outset, for a record $16.3 million, against an estimate of $8 million/12 million. Basquiat’s previous $14.6 million record was set at Sotheby’s back in May 2007.

Willem de Kooning’s Untitled VI, 1975, was one of the better examples offered in the week and sold to a phone bidder against L&M Art’s Robert Mnuchin for $12.4 million, against a $10 million/15 million estimate. The painting had last sold at auction at Sotheby’s in May 2000 for $1.4 million.

Continuing with the guaranteed lots, a medium-sized Andy Warhol, Mao, 1973, which informed sources say was consigned by Mnuchin, sold for $10.4 million, against a $9 million/12 million estimate, to Hugo Nathan of London and New York dealers Dickinson Roundell. A Richard Prince photograph from the Lehrman collection, Untitled (Cowboy), 1980–84 (a rare piece because it predated the series exhibited by Barbara Gladstone), sold for $1.2 million (hammer) to dealer Philippe Ségalot, against a $800,000/1.2 million estimate.

However, a Roy Lichtenstein sculpture, Brushstroke Nude, 1993, estimated at $5 million/7 million, and Maurizio Cattelan’s playful sculpture titled Daddy Daddy, 2008, estimated at $2.5 million/3.5 million, both sold on single bids at hammer prices below estimates, presumably to their guarantors.

Other records reminded the art world that Phillips, under Simon de Pury, had made its reputation in the cutting-edge, younger markets. A polystyrene and rope work by Seth Price, Untitled, 2009, sold for $92,500 against a $50,000/70,000 estimate, and Schutz’s large painting titled Death Comes to Us All, 2003, from the Charles Saatchi collection, sold for $482,500 against a $300,000/400,000 estimate. Schutz’s market has come a long way since those early shows at the Zach Feuer gallery, when the paintings were priced around $10,000 each.

That said, there were paintings by other hot artists in the sale that didn’t sell. These included a Prince “Nurse” painting, Emergency Nurse, 2004, that was estimated at $3 million/5 million; a Gerhard Richter abstract, dated 1987—perhaps a bit early for some, experts said—that was estimated at $3 million/5 million; and Glenn Brown’s early work titled Dead Relatives, 1995, which had passed through several hands in the last few years, and was now estimated at $400,000/600,000.

Still, with 35 or 80 percent of the 44 lots selling, the majority of which were within or above estimates, the sale managed to maintain the momentum of the Sotheby’s sales, if not the exceptional pace of Christie’s opener, underlining the strength and depth of this market.