Christie’s has announced its top lot up for auction in the New York session of its global “ONE” 20th century art sale on July 10. Barnett Newman’s Onement V (1948) is valued with an estimate of $30 million–$40 million.
Standing at five feet by three feet, the work features a deep blue canvas divided down the middle with a “zip” in a contrasting tone. Newman began using that motif in the 1940s, and it appears in many of his most valuable works. From an original series of six completed by the artist, Onement V is one of two examples from the series still held in private hands. The remaining four works reside in various museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, and the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin.
The painting has changed hands several times. It passed from the New York collection of Harriet and Hester Diamond to the artist’s wife Annalee Newman before prominent Pennsylvania collector David Pincus acquired the work in 1988. The work last came to auction in a Christie’s contemporary sale in New York in May 2012, where it sold to the current consignor for $22.5 million, besting its pre-sale estimate of $10 million–$15 million. The work is coming to the market without a guarantee.
“It is particularly fitting that this work was created at such a dramatic cross roads in American history,” said Ana Maria Celis, Head of Christie’s “ONE” sale in New York, noting that the work hails from “a time when artists were striving to free themselves from traditional notions of art that had been established by previous generations.”
The piece has been widely exhibited, and was first showcased publicly at Tokyo’s Kimura gallery in 1959, alongside works by Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko. In 1972 it was featured in the artist’s traveling solo survey at the Museum of Modern Art. It also figured in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 1987 exhibition “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985,” and was shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 1996. By 2002, the work was on long-term loan from the Pincus collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Another work from the series and the only other example held privately, the 1953 work Onement VI, was sold by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen in 2013 at a Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale, where it went for $43.8 million, meeting its high estimate between $30 million–$40 million. The 2013 sale established the second-highest price paid for a Newman work, under Black Fire I (1961), which sold in a Christie’s New York evening sale for $84 million just a year later, in 2014. That work far surpassed its high estimate of $50 million and came to the market after being in a private collection since 1975.
The most highly valued Newman works sold between 2013 and 2014. “The market for Newman is driven by the increased rarity of them,” Celis said in an interview. “Nearly every time a significant work has come to market over the last decade, the result eclipses the estimate and continues to shift the market.”
Celis said that despite the painting coming up for sale being smaller than the comparable one auctioned in 2013, the house expects it to sell at the high end of its estimate because of its historical value. “In fact, that painting is now publicly shown at the Fondazione Prada, which makes Onement V the only one not in a foundation or institution from this historical and breakthrough body of work,” Celis said. She also confirmed the deal around the work was in process with the seller before the shutdown, but that the work was officially consigned to go up in the new hybrid sale only recently.
Abstract Expressionism has long dominated the market at top auction houses. Along with Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still, Newman ranks among the most expensive artists associated with the movement. Like his contemporaries, Newman’s philosophical fixations drove his painting. Throughout his career, Newman called for the transcendental in modern art. Newman, who also penned theoretical texts, published a seminal essay titled “The Sublime is Now” in 1948, the same year the work on offer was completed.
In past decades, museum-level works have spiked recovery after market downturns. As the highest-priced lot in the offerings coming to Christie’s global “ONE” auction in July, the Newman sale will be an initial test of the market after the coronavirus pandemic forces a month-long live-sale hiatus.