On Tuesday evening Christie’s launched its new 21st century sale category (1980s to now) with a 39-lot sale in New York estimated to fetch over $145 million. Timed an hour later than normal, it ate into America’s dining schedules and Europe’s deep sleep time. And to say that was all about Asia would be an exaggeration as barely 7 or 8 lots attracted bidding from Hong Kong. Still, after 2 hours of remote bidding and eleven record prices, the sale totaled a very healthy $210.5 million realizing a 95 percent sell-through rate (sold prices include the buyers’ premium; estimates do not).
There was no precise precedent for comparison as previous contemporary art sales had included post-war work, henceforward to be included in their 20th century sales (starting in the 1880s). Christie’s did experiment splitting 20th century and 21st century in the late 1990s, leaving Impressionists to merge with 19th century, but it didn’t work. Now, a quarter of a century on there is far more contemporary art to choose from. Christie’s last evening contemporary art sale in New York before the pandemic in November 2019 scored $325 million with 54 lots including post-war art; the equivalent sale in May 2019 was $441 million. The drop was to be expected after shifting the post-war material.
Also as expected, the majority of top lots in last night’s sale were late 20th century providing the financial anchor for the new category. Only 3 were estimated at $10 million and over, two of them by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Nearly half the lots were guaranteed, covering 77% of the estimated sale value.
Of the 39 lots offered, 11 set new records for artists including Alex Da Corte, Jordan Casteel, Nina Chanel Abney, Jonas Wood, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Mickalene Thomas, among others.
Leading the pack by a mile was Basquiat’s 6.5 foot tall skull painting In This Case (1983), from the same group of three as the record $110.5 million Basquiat skull painting that was bought by Japanese billionaire businessman Yusaku Maezawa at Sotheby’s in 2017. The other is in the Broad collection. In this Case had come from the collection of Giancarlo Giammetti, the co-founder of the Valentino fashion label – the pair being familiar figures at the New York auctions. The painting last sold at auction in 2002 but Giammetti didn’t get his hands on it then; Sotheby’s sold it below the low estimate to Gagosian for $999,500. Giammetti had to wait until 2007 to buy it from Gagosian. Since 2002, the estimate has risen from $1 million to $50 million with a third-party guarantee thrown in. In the event, 8 bidders went for it including one from Hong until it sold for $93.1 million to a bidder on the phone with Christie’s contemporary art specialist, Ana Maria Celis.
Another Basquiat, Untitled (Soap), 1983-4, was also under a third-party guarantee at $10 million-15 million and had two bidders competing on Hong Kong telephones until one prevailed at $13.2 million.
The European contingent was led by a self-portrait wood sculpture by Martin Kippenberger titled Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself (1989), which has been in the same collection since the year it was made in 1989. Other versions in different media are in public collections such as MoMA and Glenstone. Self-portraits are Kippenberger’s strongest suite on the secondary market. One painting made the current record in 2014 when it sold to Gagosian for $22.6 million, another sold to a Chinese collector in 2013 for $18.6 million. No Kippenberger sculpture has sold for more than the gold contorted 7-foot brass lantern made for the 1992 edition of Documenta which made £2.2 million ($2.85 million) in March 2019, so this self-portrait, guaranteed in house and estimated at $10 million-15 million, was always going to break the artist’s sculpture record at least….even though the there was only one bidder bidding through Christie’s London-based French-speaking specialist Edmond Francey (for Pinault?), who bought it for $9.5 million.
Now the norm, the sale opened with the hottest contemporary artists for whom Christie’s could guarantee competitive bidding, so didn’t need financial guarantees. The question for these artists is now whether estimates are moving up sufficiently to diminish that competition.
Although not an obvious case of market speculation, Alex da Corte is enjoying some publicity at the moment with a sculpture on the Met’s roof garden. At Christie’s, his 6-foot square neon Night Vision (2018), from Karma’s 2018 “C-A-T Spells Murder” exhibition in New York carried his highest estimate yet at $60,000-80,000 and set the sale off at a good pace selling to a London bidder for a record $187,500.
Inevitably there were recent works by Salman Toor and Amoako Boafo whose markets have been booming throughout the pandemic. An online bidder from California picked up Toor’s Best Friends (2019) for a triple estimate $475,000. Boafo’s Blue Pullover from 2018 (a spin off from his Dior collaboration?) saw bidding from Florida, Illinois and Hong Kong before heading to Hong Kong for a double estimate of $625,000. Now the market is negotiating the next crucial step for these artists as owners get greedier. Are estimates getting higher? Would buyers respond? The answer appears to be yes on both counts.
On the market boomer list is Jordan Casteel, an artist who was featured in a recent HBO documentary on black art and signed up by Massimo de Carlo in February in addition to Casey Kaplan. Casteel hit the secondary market in 2018 and 2019 with several works that sold for multiple estimates. But the bidding had died down (or the estimates started climbing) after she hit a record $668,000 at a London sale in February 2020. This evening’s sale portrait, Jireh (2013) was lent to Casteel’s recent solo show at the New Museum by art dealer and collector Jody Robbins, presumably the vendor last night, though unidentified in the auction catalogue. The rare male nude portrait carried one of her higher estimates to date at $350,000-$550,000, and US bidders chased it to the high end before selling for a new record $687,500.
Another young Black artist, Nina Chanel Abney, who has shown with Jack Shainman since 2017 and whose bright, playful paintings have been favored by the Miami collectors Don and Mera Rubell was represented in the sale. Her works have been selling successfully at auction since 2018. Her prices had risen to a quadruple estimate £225,000 ($285,243) for a smaller, earlier work in 2019 but had not been exceeded until now when Abney’s 8-foot square diptych Untitled (XXXXXX), 2015, representing the arrest of a white youth by two black policemen (it’s from Abney’s ‘role reversal’ series) sold yesterday at Christie’s. The estimate of $150,000 to $300,000 was the highest yet placed on her work, but that did not put off a bidder from Hong Kong paying a record $990,000 for it. The same bidder went on to pay a record $275,000 for New York, New York by Joel Mesler – six times the estimate.
A large-scale still life painting by Jonas Wood, Two Tables with Floral Pattern (2013), had the highest estimate yet placed on his work at $2 million-$3 million. Wood’s record, fueled by demand in Asia was $4.9 million for his Japanese Garden in 2019, and had not been exceeded since. Five of the highest Wood prices have been achieved in Hong Kong, but on this occasion, Asia was outbid by the U.S. as the work sold for a record $6.5 million.
And then there was Mickalene Thomas whose Racquel Reclining Wearing Purple Jumpsuit (2016), was not only her largest painting at auction, but again had the highest estimate for the artist yet at $400,000-$600,000. A similar sized work sold at Phillips in December for a record $901.200 against a $200,000 low estimate, but this rhinestone studded lady went several bids better breaking the $1 million-dollar barrier at $1.8 million.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s over 8’ powerful group portrait, Diplomacy 111 (2009) had been shown at the Armory Fair in 2010 where it was bought by art consultant and collector Susan Barrett. With a successful Tate show just under her belt the painting carried the highest estimate yet for the artist at $700,000-$1 million and after a three-way battle between London, New York and Hong Kong sold to Hong Kong for a new record $1.95 million.
None of El Anatsui’s large bottle top wall hangings have ever gone into an auction with a low estimate of $1 million or over before. But again, Christie’s was seen to push the boat out giving the artist’s first work in an evening sale in New York a $1.2 million-$1.8 million estimate, a move which proved justified after it sold to a Celis client for a record $1.95 million.
One of disappointments in this respect was a painting by Kerry James Marshall. Only one of his paintings has been estimated at over $6.5 million, and we all know what happened to that (it sold for $21.1 million). The following year his Vignette 19 was offered with a $6.5 million low estimate and sold for $18.6 million. This evening Christie’s had a life size painting of Nat Turner, an enslaved man who was hanged for a Virginia insurrection in 1831, from the collection of Seattle-based art dealers Greg Kucera and Larry Yocom, guaranteed with a $6.5 million low estimate. Perhaps the image was too steeped in history, and it appeared to sell to the third-party guarantor on the low estimate and without competition for $7.5 million.
The top 21st century lot was, if not art as we know it, a collection of nine digital NFT’s of CryptoPunks minted by Matt Hall and John Watkinson (aka Larva Labs) in 2017. It was their first appearance in a major art auction and the punk tokens had an estimate of $7 million-9 million. Unusually for an auction, the work was consigned by the artists, so classifiable as primary market. As to be expected for a work that allowed payment in crypto currency, strict payment conditions applied. Christie’s catalogue essay quoted Andy Warhol: “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” ‘With the Punks, LarvaLabs,’ it goes on, ‘have taken this pithy maxim and flipped it and reversed it. In making the CryptoPunks, they made art that is money.’ In this case just shy of $17 million.