The New York evening auctions wrapped tonight with a solid if imperfect postwar and contemporary evening sale at Sotheby’s, the house’s $310.2 million haul falling squarely between its low estimate of $250.4 million and its high estimate of $343.4 million. The sell-through rate was an impressive 95.8 percent, with only three works failing to sell throughout the long sale of 72 lots.
The night’s biggest lot was Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of George Dyer (1966), one of his coveted triptychs, which sold for $36.8 million, over its low estimate of $35 million. That was followed by another eight-figure juggernaut, Andy Warhol’s Mao (1972), which went for $32.4 million, over a low estimate of $30 million. (All sales prices include buyer’s premium, unless otherwise noted.)
While neither work had ever before been offered at auction, they both failed to capture the interest of the salesroom. Each earned just one bid—in both instances, the bidder was on the phone with the house’s contemporary art head for Europe, Alex Branczik. Both were subject to third-party guarantees.
Nothing here could match the era-defining events of Wednesday night’s sale at Christie’s, when Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500) sold for a record $450 million—considerably more than tonight’s entire sale. But during the press conference at Sotheby’s after the action, auctioneer Oliver Barker noted that, setting aside the Leonardo, the two sales were fairly comparable. If you compare contemporary to contemporary and remove the $450 million from the total, Christie’s totaled $338.6 million, just a bit higher than the total at arch-rival Sotheby’s tonight.
“Taking aside a certain Old Master that sold last night, in terms of the actual contemporary market, it was really quite level,” Barker said.
Gregoire Billault, the house’s contemporary art head, also obliquely mentioned the Salvator Mundi as he recapped tonight’s auction, saying, “This has been an historic week in the art market and this is one more step in the right direction.”
What’s more, the total was up from the same auction a year ago, which generated sales of just $276.6 million, and it nearly bested the $319.2 million sale of last May—a sale that was boosted by a bidding war that catapulted an untitled work by Basquiat past the $100 million threshold, making it the most expensive artwork by an American ever sold.
Here tonight, there was nothing that came close to that Basquiat in terms of price or excitement. But after a throat-clearing stretch of 24 works from the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Collection—nearly all low-priced work on paper—the sale began in earnest with an untitled 2012 work by Laura Owens, who has a wildly acclaimed show that just opened at the Whitney Museum in New York. (There’s an empty space on the museum’s exhibition wall where the newly auctioned Owens will go on loan right after the sale.)
A great deal of talk leading up to the sale had focused on the Owens, considered to be one of her finest, and the fact that it was priced so low, with an estimate of just $200,000 to $300,000. Sure enough, as soon as Barker started the bidding, an avalanche of bids swept down, in the room and on the phones, and the price surged to $800,000 before Sotheby’s chairman Lisa Dennison came in with a bid at $950,000, where it slowed. After going back and forth with bidders on the phone, Dennison secured the lot for her client for a $1.45 million hammer, or $1.75 million with fees. That shattered Owens’s previous auction record, which had been just $336,500.
The next lot was the night’s other record-breaker, Lynette Yiadom Boakye’s Hours Behind You (2011), which sold to specialist James Mackie’s phone bidder after a group of bidders fought fiercely for it in the salesroom, with dealer Jeffrey Deitch entering the fray from his seat, and specialists climbing over each other to come out on top. That hammered for $1.3 million, for a with-premium price of $1.58 million, more than four times the high estimate.
Next, David Zwirner picked up Marlene Dumas’s Magdelena (Underwear and Bedtime Stories), 1995—which had been included in the 2015 Venice Biennale—for a $3 million hammer, $3.62 million with fees, and Roy Lichtenstein’s Female Head (1977) went to specialist Bame Fierro March for a $21.5 million hammer, or $24.5 million with fees. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Cabra (1981–82), which was being consigned by Yoko Ono, went to a bidder in the room for $10.9 million after fending off Billault.
But then a Jean Dubuffet estimated to sell for between $12 million and $18 million was a pass, and when Barker started the bidding on the Bacon, he chandelier bid up to $35 million, found a single bid from Branczik, and then could not find another interested party. The same happened with the Warhol Mao two lots later—one bid, and then nothing.
“So there’s always lots that have one bid, and yes, the Bacon sold on one bid, but if you look at things, we saw there were 73 lots and that was a long list,” said Billault after the sale.
There were some bright spots on the back end of the night, such as the Formula 1 racing car in which Michael Schumacher won the Monaco Grand Prix, which sold above a high estimate of $5 million, for $7.5 million. And Alberto Burri’s Nero Plastica L.A. (1963) sold to the Lebanese financier Samir Traboulsi for $10.9 million.
But it was clear there was some fatigue after a long auction week, and dealers such as Larry Gagosian and Dominique Lévy Irish exited the room with 20 lots left, making a beeline for the elevators. The adviser Philippe Ségalot said, “I’m running to the airport!” and David Nash, an underbidder on the Lichtenstein Female Head (1970), said it was a “solid sale” as the elevator doors closed.
Sarah Allen, the head of research at Hauser & Wirth, who managed to secure two works tonight—Louise Bourgeois’s Needle Woman (1990) for $1.3 million and Philip Guston’s The Visit (1955) for $8.3 million—said, “I feel very happy right now about what we got, and the sale.”
“Look, they didn’t have a da Vinci, but overall it felt very strong,” she added.
One of the underbidders of the Guston bought by Allen was Robert Mnuchin—who, as of today, has his last name on all new U.S. bills, courtesy of his son, the treasury secretary—but when asked about the lot, and the sale, he said, “I just need to go home.”
The week’s auctions conclude Friday with the postwar and contemporary art day sales at Sotheby’s.