The art market reopened last night with a resounding bang as Sotheby’s sold $363.2 million in modern and contemporary art through an innovative hybrid sale of a live auction conducted on three continents simultaneously with no direct access to bidders. Even with those constraints, the demand for art was evident throughout several bidding wars between Sotheby’s staffers manning telephones and the occasional online bidder willing to click in eight-figure bids (a record sum) only to lose the night’s top lot to an old-fashioned landline telephone bidder.
The strength of Sotheby’s 93.2 percent sell-through rate for 69 lots cannot be separated from the reputations of several legendary collectors and the exceptional quality of the works of art on offer. Sotheby’s three-sales-in-one-night format of auctions included 18 lots from Colorado collector Ginny Williams that brought in $65.5 million; 10 works from Hunk and Moo Anderson’s collection being sold by their daughter Putter Pence that made $66.3 million; and the 10 out of 11 works from a private collection of Latin American Surrealists and modernists with the title “The Vanguard Spirit,” which totaled $26.6 million.
Even going into the sale with the advantage of strong in-demand work from noted collectors, no one knew whether bidders would feel comfortable with an entirely new sale format that saw the normal auction theater reversed. Instead of the auctioneer as focal point, the video-enabled sales lingered upon the specialists bidding from their phones. Auctioneer Oliver Barker’s ability to keep the impression of momentum going through his skillful patter was somewhat masked by the format’s emphasis on the subtle emotions of Sotheby’s specialists as they plead with their eyes, feigned nonchalance or shrugged in exasperation. The sale went off without a technical hitch—save for the extended run of nearly five hours—and provided plenty of evidence that the art market is leaning into the necessity of moving the auction world online. Barker closed the sale by proclaiming that these “innovations are here to stay!”
Among the leading lots across the auctions were major works by Francis Bacon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Joan Mitchell, and Lee Krasner. Auction records were achieved for Mario Carreño, Vija Celmins, Leonor Fini, Helen Frankenthaler, Wifredo Lam, Alice Rahon, Remedios Varo, Matthew Wong, and for a work on paper by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
At the highest-value end of the auction, the drawn-out bidding for Francis Bacon’s Triptych from 1981 saw a battle between Sotheby’s resident Bacon expert, Gregoire Billault, and an online bidder from China exchanging blows. Every time Billault bid $1 million, the online bidder would respond with the same figure plus $100,000. From $60 million countered by $60.1 million all the way to $73.1 million finally topped by $74 million bid by telephone, the two bidders obstinately pursued the work. The final selling price of $84.5 million with buyer’s premium sent a signal that the big spenders in the art market have not yet been spooked by the current overlapping economic and political crises. The work’s consignor is Norwegian collector, Hans Rasmus Astrup who bought the work in 1984 and is selling the work to raise funds for his private foundation, the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo. It is the sixth large-format triptych ever to come to auction and the first of its kind since 2014. The sale marks the third-highest price achieved at auction for the postwar Bacon.
Among the significant works in the contemporary evening sale was Roy Lichtenstein’s White Brushstroke I, from 1965, which sold for $27 million, landing within its estimate of $20 million–$30 million. Clyfford Still’s abstract work PH-144 (1947-Y-NO.1), from the storied West Coast collection of Hunk and Moo Anderson, hammered at its low estimate of $25 million, bringing in a total sale price of $28.7 million with buyer’s premium.
Earlier in the evening, Helen Frankenthaler’s orange-hued horizontal canvas Royal Fireworks, from 1975, quickly shot up past its high estimate of $3 million to eventually reach a selling price of $7.9 million. Lee Krasner’s Re-Echo, hammered far above its high estimate at $7.7 million, fetching a total of $9 million. Agnes Martin’s white monochrome Mountain Flowers I eventually achieved $5.2 million, doubling its a pre-sale low expectation of $2 million.
Another knock-out figure was set for a Donald Judd steel fixture from 1962, one of the only of its kind to come to auction, which achieved $9.8 million after long phone bidding war. Abstract Expressionist Sam Francis’s blue canvas from 1956 completed went for $8.9 million.
Joan Mitchell’s Garden Party, from 1961–62, eventually sold for $7.9 million. Joan Mitchell’s Straw, from 1976, went for $8.8 million. The sale also brought a new record for artist Vija Celmins, whose painting Night Sky #7 sold for $6.6 million.
Elsewhere in the Ginny Williams collection sale, Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1930 painting New Mexico Landscape and Sand Hills eventually sold for $1.4 million, helped to that price by bidding from Hong Kong. Louise Bourgeois’s large-scale outdoor black granite eye benches from 1996–97 acquired directly from the artist sparked a battle to $3.3 million.
Among the new names surfacing this season in the evening sale segment is the late artist Matthew Wong, whose Realm of Appearances opened the contemporary art evening sale, going for $1.82 million against an estimate of $60,000–$80,000. It was originally bought at New York’s Karma gallery in 2018. The 35-year-old artist committed suicide in October 2019.
Basquiat’s untitled work on paper featuring a scrawled head similar to the much-admired painting at the Broad museum in Los Angeles went for $15.2 million, beating the previous record price of $13.6 million achieved for a work on paper by the artist.
The final stage of the auction featured Picasso’s small-scale Tête de Femme Endormie, from 1934 and consigned from the David Lloyd Kreeger Foundation, which sold for $11.2 million to a phone bidder. Cuban Surrealist Wifredo Lam’s Omi Obini, from 1943, sold for $9.6 million. The work carried the highest auction pre-sale estimate ever assigned to the artist’s work; it broke Lam’s previous record of $5.2 million set at Sotheby’s Paris in December 2017.
Female Surrealists saw new highs in the modern sale. Leonora Carrington’s Tuesday, a figurative scene from 1946, fetched a total price of $1.1 million with buyer’s premium. Leonor Fini’s Figures on a Terrace. from 1938, went for $980,000, a new record price for the artist. Remedios Varo’s 1956 interior scene Armonía (Autorretrato Sugerente) also set a new record for the artist at $6.2 million. Mario Carreño’s Cortadores de Caña sold for $2.7 million, a record price for the artist. And Alice Rahon’s Los Cuatro Hijos Del Arco Iris also brought a new record high for the artist at $512,000.