Just hours before Sotheby’s mid-season modern and contemporary art evening sale on Wednesday, the Baltimore Museum of Art announced a pause in the sale of its deaccessioned Clyfford Still and Brice Marden paintings which meant they would not be auctioned that night amid a backlash over the $65 million deaccession. The private sale of Andy Warhol’s Last Supper was also deferred while the museum tends to its constituencies but the loss of those works only diminished but did not sink Sotheby’s sale.
Adding to the pre-sale excitement, Sotheby’s auctioneer Oliver Barker announced from the rostrum that the auction house had sold Ronald Perelman Alberto Giacometti’s nine-foot-tall Grande Femme I, which carried a $90 million reserve, privately. At the beginning of the impressionist and modern portion of the sale, Sotheby’s announced that a similar, but smaller sculpture by Giacometti was also sold via private sale. Those transactions, along with the BMA’s withdrawn lots would have added a substantial amount to the public totals announced for the auctions.
As it was the contemporary sale generated a total of $142.9 million, landing at the low end of the pre-sale estimate of $128.2 and $184.3 Million, across 39 lots. (Sale totals include the house’s buyer’s premium; pre-sale totals do not.) Five lots were withdrawn before the sale. 19 works total from the contemporary sale were guaranteed, the low estimated total of which was $46.8 million. The impressionist sale brought in $141 million across 38 lots, also toward the low end of the estimate of $112.7 million-$162.3 million. 17 works were guaranteed, the low estimated total of which was a collective $58.3 million. Three works were withdrawn before the sale. Together, the sale’s realized a 97% sell-through rate.
Barker led the two auctions from London, fielding bids from remote colleagues in Hong Kong and New York, with the auction also broadcast on social media channels, and streaming services like Museum TV and Cheddar. According to Barker’s comments in the post-sale press conference, Sotheby’s estimates more than 1 million viewers watched the auctions.
The top lot of the contemporary sale was a Calder sculpture that sold for $8.3 million. “A proper global battle,” exclaimed Barker during competition for the Calder lot, which drew bids from London, New York, Hong Kong and online. A mix-media work by Jean-Michel Basquiat titled Black (1986), from the estate of dealer Enrico Navarra hammered above the high estimate of $6 million to Sotheby’s chairman of the Fine Art division Amy Cappellazzo’s bidder for a total of $8.1 million. It’s counterpart, Jazz (1986) sold slightly lower to another bidder for $6.9 million. Ruth Asawa’s hanging sculpture made circa 1952 saw bidding from Hong Kong with Yuki Terase, Sotheby’s Asia head of contemporary art. It eventually went to a bidder with Brooke Lampley for $4.3 million with buyer’s fees, still under the record price of $5.4 million set at Christie’s in July.
Works of design were among the most prominent sales in contemporary segment of the auction. Three vintage Alfa Romeo concept cars made a price of $14.8 million; a Carlo Mollino mid-century dining table deaccessioned from the Brooklyn Museum collection fully outpaced its estimate to sell for $6.2 million.
The sale opened with Jordan Casteel’s Barbershop (2015) which did not see the usual early-lot bidding frenzy. It hammered just above the low estimate at $450,000 to make 564,500 with buyer’s fees. The fireworks came with the second lot, Matthew Wong’s Dialogue (2018), a forest scene, which sold for $1.7 million, against an estimate of $200,000-$30,000. It sold to a bidder on the phone with Liz Sterling, a Sotheby’s chairman and director of private sales. The late artist has seen a rapid market ascent following his debut in Sotheby’s June contemporary evening sale. Most recently, Wong’s record moved up to $4.5 million for Shangri-La (2017) sold during a Christie’s contemporary day sale in October.
British-Ghanaian painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s single-figure painting Figure of Eight (2015) was offered twice during the sale. First, it hammered at $700,000, and the second time went for $650,000 to make $806,5000 with buyer’s premium, against an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. The first sale involved a misunderstanding over the bid made by Sotheby’s Nicholas Chow. When the auction was re-run at the end of the sale, Chow’s bidder would not advance and the work went to another buyer. The price comes below the artist’s record of $1.6 million set at in November 2017 at Sotheby’s New York for the sale of The Hours Behind You (2011).
Jean Dubuffet’s Rue Tournique Bourlique (1963), also deaccessioned from the Brooklyn Museum of Art, sold for $3.2 million with buyer’s fees, against a low estimate of $2.5 million; another work by the artist from the museum, Le Messager, went for $3.3 million. Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (1989) sold for $5 million with buyer’s premium. Alex Katz’s double portrait of twin face-to-face women The Red Band (1978) sold for $3.2 million after protracted bidding in New York and London, against an estimate of $1.8 million to $2.5 million.
“Another great market moment for us tonight was continuing the well-deserved recalibration of the markets for legendary female postwar artists,” said David Galperin, head of Sotheby’s New York contemporary art evening sale in a post-sale press conference.
Among the other museum deaccessions in the auction was from the The Palm Springs Art Museum, which sold a monumental maroon-wash Helen Frankenthaler gifted to the museum in 1994 to support its acquisition fund. After drawn-out bidding between Lampley and Courtney Kremers, Sotheby’s head of contemporary day sales, Carousel (1979) hammered at $3.9 million with Lampley’s phone bidder, making $4.7 million with buyer’s fees. The result follows Sotheby’s record-breaking sale of Royal Fireworks (1975) in June for $7.9 million. Among the other second generation female abstract expressionists represented in the sale was Lee Krasner. Her orange canvas Camouflage from 1963 sold for $3.8 million. The low estimate was $2.5 million.
In a pre-auction video with author and former radio-show host Kurt Andersen, Amy Cappellazzo discussed Mark Rothko’s black and maroon canvas from 1958, made in tandem with his Seagram murals. “For every corner of the globe,” she said, “there could be a buyer for Rothko.” Yet, there wasn’t tonight as the work once owned by financier David Martinez and last sold at Christie’s in May 2013 for for $27 million failed to garner a bid. Buyers may have been put off by the $25 million low estimate
Leading the modern portion of the night was Giacometti’s Femme Leoni (1956) prompting another sparring match between Terase and Lampley; the statue hammered at 22.6 million to Terase’s bidder, going for $26.2 million with buyer’s fees, against an estimate of $14 million to $18 million. Van Gogh’s floral still life from 1890, formerly restituted to the Rothschild family, the descendants of its original owners, went for $16.2 million to Brooke Lampley’s phone bidder, hammering below the estimate of $14 million.
Giorgio de Chirico’s mythological scene Il Pomeriggio di Ariannne from 1913 brought one of the more suspenseful moments of the night. Caught between phone bids from Julian Dawes, co-deputy head of the Impressionist and Modern Art department and Grégoire Billaut, head of the contemporary art department in New York, it eventually went to Billaut’s client for $15.9 million with premium, setting a new, but surprisingly low, record for the artist. It last sold at Christie’s from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé for $14.1 million in February 2009. A second lot from the same collection as the de Chirico, Man Ray’s Black Widow (Nativity), 1915, hammered below its low estimate, going for $5.8 million, against an estimate of $5 million to $7 million, making the second highest price for the artist.
Surrealists occupied a substantial portion of the modern sale. René Magritte’s, L’ovation from 1962, formerly in the collection of Dominique de Menil, made $14.1 million, against an estimate of $12 million-$18 million. Another Magritte’s Reverie de monsieur James (1943) depicting a bushel of intertwined roses and emerging hands sold for $5.1 million with buyer’s premium. The painting has been requested for the upcoming museum exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris devoted to the artist, but failed to reach much beyond the low expectation. Paul Delvaux’s Le Vestales (1972) sold for $1.4 million, almost reaching the high estimate of $1.5 million. Georgia O’Keefe’s Jonquils (1936) made $4.3 million, hammering below the low estimate of $4 million.
A Monet from the Brooklyn Museum saw competition from Hong Kong and New York, hammering at $3.8 million, against an estimate of $2.5 to $3.5 million with an online bidder.
Correction, 10/29/20, 11:31 a.m.: A previous version of this article misstated the seller of René Magritte’s L’ovation was Dominque de Menil. Menil previously owned the work and is not current the seller.