Following its record-high $676 million sale of the widely anticipated Macklowe collection in New York on Monday night, Sotheby’s staged a modern art evening sale the following evening that brought in a collective $282 million with fees.
This sale achieved a near perfect sell-through rate, with 46 out of the 47 lots offered finding buyers. More than half of the lots were secured with financial backing; 25 works from the sale had irrevocable bids, meaning 78 percent of the works would sell for at least their pre-sale low estimate. Before the sale, three lots were withdrawn, including a 1932 Georgia O’Keefe painting (estimated at $8 million) and a Henry Moore sculpture. Overall, the lots that went to auction Tuesday night hammered at $240.5 million, landing solidly within its pre-sale expectation of $192.2 million–$266.9 million.
Sotheby’s European chairman, Oliver Barker, returned to the auction podium at the house’s York Avenue headquarters in New York to lead the two-hour evening sale, the second of its four marquee sales this week. Attendees filled the audience of the house’s revamped salesroom, accompanied by new digital frills which were sponsored by electronics company Samsung.
The sale’s top lot was Claude Monet’s Coin du bassin aux nymphéas (1918), a water lilies still-life scene that sold for $50.8 million. Coming to the sale with an irrevocable bid, it hammered at $44 million, healthily above its low $40 million estimate. It went to a bidder on the phone with Sotheby’s Mexico City office representative Lulu de Creel, who triumphed over two bidders in Hong Kong to win it. According to Artnet News, the work was being sold by engineer and MIT Museum board member Ronald Cordover, who lent it a 2020 exhibition devoted to the French painter that traveled to the Denver Art Museum and the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, Germany. He purchased it at auction in 1997 for $6.7 million.
But it was a 1949 self-portrait by Frida Kahlo that stole the show. Held in a private collection for some 30 years, it sold for a record-setting $34.9 million. The painting depicts the artist gazing tearfully at the viewer with an image of her husband, Mexican painter Diego Rivera, superimposed on her forehead, serving as a kind of third eye. Blitzing past Kahlo’s $8 million auction record, the work hammered on a bid of $31 million (just above its low estimate) to a client on the phone with Sotheby’s New York private sales representative Ana di Stasi.
Sotheby’s revealed after the sale that the winning bidder was Argentine financier Eduardo F. Costantini. One of the world’s top collectors and the founder of the private museum MALBA in Buenos Aires, Costantini is no stranger to breaking auction records for Latin American art.
Kahlo’s painting, a response to Rivera’s infidelity, also bested the previous auction record for a work by a Latin American artist, held since 2019 when one of Rivera’s works sold for $9.8 million. In a statement following the sale, di Stasis said, “You could call tonight’s result the ultimate revenge, but in fact, it is the ultimate validation of Kahlo’s extraordinary talent and global appeal.”
Another new auction record was set for French centenarian Pierre Soulages. His 1961 black-and-red abstract canvas for $20.1 million with fees, after a protracted bidding spar between Sotheby’s chairman in Switzerland, Caroline Lang ,and Sotheby’s chairman of Europe, Helena Newman. When it hammered for hammered for $17.3 million to Newman’s client, the salesroom broke into applause. More than doubling its estimate of $8 million, the result exceeded the artist’s previous auction record of $10.6 million set in in November 2018 when a 1959 painting sold at Christie’s in New York.
Another big-ticket item that outpaced expectations was an untitled hanging mobile sculpture made of painted metal sheet and wire by Alexander Calder. Three bidders between New York and London, including one in the auction room, drove the hammer price up to $16.9 million, well past its $10 million estimate. The piece sold for a final price of $19.7 million. The current seller purchased it at Christie’s two decades ago for $1 million.
Salvador Dali’s L’Angelus (1934-35), a minuscule painting of two male and female silhouetted figures divided by a blue body of water, also surpassed its estimate, going for a final price of $10.7 million. The lot, which has been held in the same collection for three decades, more than doubled its estimate of $4 million.
Other noteworthy sales came throughout the auction. A 1933 portrait of a child holding a stuffed teddy bear, titled Portrait de Mademoiselle Poum Rachou, by Art Deco darling Tamara de Lempicka sold for $7.8 million, against an estimate of $3.5 million. The seller purchased it at auction in 2009 for $2.9 million. A vibrant abstract canvas titled Berkley #6 (1953) by Richard Diebenkorn was sold by the family of developer Jay I. Kislak for $5 million to raise funds for the collector’s family foundation.
Following the record sale of the Kahlo, lots by female Latin American surrealists also found success on Tuesday. Leonor Fini’s Les Aveugles (1968), which depicts two floor-bound women in an embrace that was exhibited in Fini’s 2018-2019 retrospective at the Museum of Sex in New York, sold for $867,000, more than three times its estimate of $200,000. A Remedios Varo painting of two figures in a dream-like interior scene, Les feuilles mortes (1956), sold for $2.8 million, exceeding its high estimate of $2 million.
Unlike others sales that took place this week and last at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, tonight’s modern art auction fielded far more bidding from the U.S. and Europe, than it did from Asia. Though the sale was highly managed with behind-the-scenes financial deals that typically hamper bidding on major lots, competition among determined buyers was still spirited. As one viewer, a director at a New York art lending firm, Naomi Baigell, observed: “Some lots took time, but hit their mark.”