Christie’s double-header S.I. Newhouse and 20th Century collection sales Thursday night kicked off the auction week in New York with hardly a bang. The Newhouse sale totaled $177.8 million with fees—smack halfway between the low and high estimate—while the 20th Century sale drew in $328.7 million (with fees), adding up to a $506.5 million dollar evening that was over before 11 p.m.
With no less than nine major auctions, as well as the TEFAF, Frieze, NADA, and Independent art fairs and more gallery openings than is reasonable to count, it’s an understatement to say this is a big week for the New York art world. But being the first high-profile event of the season is a challenge. These two sales will set the tone for many collectors, dealers, and others eyeing the spring-buying season.
In the run-up, Christie’s was seeminly pitching the Newhouse sale as a kind of sequel to last November’s historic Paul Allen sale, which drew $1.5 billion in a single night. Like Allen, Newhouse was described by Christie’s as “one of the most celebrated, admired and influential art collectors of the 20th century.”
But, with a mere 16 lots, this was no Paul Allen sale.
Impressive lots are often put upfront to get things going. The sale began with Lee Bontecou’s Untitled (1959–60), which did well, raking in $8.7 million on an estimate of between $3 million and $5 million. Evening sales usually run late and goes long, but at this one, the tempo was fast. The allegrissimo continued through the roughly 17 minutes it took to sell 16 lots from the collection of a publishing titan who was also a “celebrated, admired, and influential” art collector, according to the house.
At least half the lots hammered at or below their low estimates, bringing the total to $177.8 million, above the $142 million low estimate, but well below the high at $202 million.
The star lot, Willem de Kooning’s Orestes (1947), had an estimate “in excess of $25 million,” according to Christie’s, which labeled the picture as one of the “most important black-and-white paintings ever to appear at auction.” Some consider Orestes to be the moment that de Kooning moved from figuration to abstraction, a form he would take to its pinnacle and is still touted for today. The bidding for the painting started at $19 million, and within a minute or so, it landed at $26.5 million. The brisk action stalled out and no one spoke besides the auctioneer. It felt like the scene in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off when Ben Stein is asking his students about trickle down economics. Anyone? Anyone?
Orestes, a lynchpin of modern art, hammered at $26.5 million.
After last year’s explosive Paul Allen sale, one might expect a cooling of the market, especially since this Spring auction season is swimming in estate sales of the recently deceased. In the 20th Century sale that followed the Newhouse one, Christie’s sold additional works from Paul Allen’s collection, as well as from the collections of Jacques and Emy Cohenca and Alan and Dorothy Press. Top-tier names all around. But the bidding did not reflect the glimmer from last year’s Allen sale. Perhaps, like listening to a band like U2 or the Allman Brothers, more of the same thing is not always the best idea. How many “brilliant, one-of-a-kind collections” can the market bear before collectors lose interest, or start wondering if another one-of-a-kind, museum-worthy de Kooning or Picasso is just around the corner? And one wonders if everyone in the room knew the whole sale was guaranteed.
A few prominent art advisers saw this coming. One told ARTnews that collectors were going for smaller price points. “Banks are failing and there is political upheaval everywhere you look. Perhaps it’s a generational shift, but the market is down and slow—across the board,” the adviser said. All the advisers we spoke to said that if there is a recession, it’s not the sort that effects the one percent. But, perhaps, it is the case that some are in the one percent because they pay attention to the signs.
“This year has been fundamentally slow and more challenging to transact in than the last few years. It’s not existential concern—it’s fatigue,” another adviser told ARTnews.” The calendar is more packed than ever. There are more estate sales than ever. Also, Basel is around the corner. Collectors might be saving money for the actual biggest event in the art world in both the primary and secondary market.”
It appears the market is saturated. That being said there was a great deal of lovely work in the 20th Century sale, but, sadly, the pace slowed to a crawl as auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen tried to make the best of the situation.
In that sale, the overall hammers were improved, and low estimates were met and more often even exceeded. But heavy hitters that should have made sparks, like Ed Ruscha’s Burning Gas Station (1966–69), fizzled out. Burning Gas Station started at $17 million and hammered at $19 million after one minute of bidding. Half of that minute was Pylkkanen looking around a silent room asking if anyone else wanted to bid on this “wonderful thing.”
The Matisse that followed, Jeune fille accoudée (1947), was indeed a highlight. The elegant drawing hammered at $1.3 million against an estimate of $500,000–$700,000, but the bidding felt so drawn out, you could have fit two S.I. Newhouse sales in there.
There were several star lots, but few shooting stars. The Philip Guston that followed Matisse, Chair (1976), should have been electric but barely made created any momentum. It hammered at $8 million on an estimate between $12 million and $18 million. The bidding for lot 28A, Picasso’s Femme assise au chapeau de paille (Marie-Thérèse), 1938, started at $16 million. The low estimate was $20 million, arguably a steal for any Picasso that has Marie-Thérèse in the title. It went unsold after a prolonged plea and giggles from the sales floor.
The remainder of the sale went by quickly, perhaps because seats were vacated shortly after the Newhouse sale had concluded. Unremarkably, the works from Paul Allen’s collection did well, mostly Hockneys and O’Keeffes, all of which exceeded their $6 million–$8 million low estimates.
The true star of the evening was Henri Rousseau’s Les Flamants (1910), from another estate, that of Payne Whitney Middleton. With an estimate of $20 million–$30 million, it hammered at $37.5 million, an auction record for the artist.
Whether these two sales are a bellwether for the market or merely pre-prom jitters, one cannot say with any authority. What we can say is there is a lot … a lot of art for sale in the coming weeks and it seems those who can afford to buy pictures worth millions are being a bit more choosy this go-around.