Christie’s decided to expand their First Open franchise earlier this Summer in response to growing demand for five-figure works of Contemporary art. The inaugural July sale, which somewhat disproved the conventional wisdom that the art world hibernates after June and before October, made $5.8m.
The success of the sale surely proved Christie’s point, and this week we’re seeing the follow up with strong mid-season line ups at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, as well as Phillips lighting up the board last week with its Oscar Murillo score. But of the $5.8m in Contemporary art that Christie’s sold in July, more than a quarter of the sale’s value came from four works that barely fit the First Open profile.
Four canvases by Canadian Color Field painter Jack Hamilton Bush that had been part of the Andy Williams estate which Christie’s apportioned across its various sales established record prices for the artist bringing more than $1.5m in combined value.
Bush was friends with Kenneth Noland and got career boosts from Clement Greenberg but his collector base views him more as an important Canadian artist. Until now, it would seem.
According to Saara Pritchard who put together the July First Open sale, the bidding for Bush was off the hook. “Lot #4, I think it jumped from $32,000 to $300,000 in one bid because there was that sort of energy in the room and dynamic,” says Pritchard. “And another of my colleagues had a bidder at the exact moment say $280,000.”
It was a style of bidding that auctioneers dream of,” says David Heffel, the Canadian auctioneer who has been at the center of the Bush market as it rose and came to New York to be in the room while the works sold.
Andy Williams wasn’t a collector of Canadian art. He bought Bush’s work because he admired it, had done his research and chose some of the artist’s finest works. Whether it was Williams’s reputation for a discerning eye or a growing interest among global buyers in finding a first-rate Color Field painting at a discount that drove the prices to a record $600,000 for one work and strong 2- and 3-handle prices for the others, we will never know.
Even though all the paintings ended up back in Canada, three of the four to the one paddle, the interest was truly international. “We had 25 phone bids for each of the Jack Bush paintings and a number of people who flew in from various parts of the world,” says Pritchard who was impressed that the Summer scheduling had not deterred bidders. “The room was completely packed to an unprecedented level.”
What we do know is that the scaffolding necessary for a stronger market in Bush’s work is being built as we speak. Toronto’s National Gallery will soon mount a Bush retrospective and Sarah Stanner is preparing a catalogue raisonnée of the artist’s work that will answer important questions for Heffel and Pritchard about how many more large-scale works like the ones Williams bought exist.
“When the catalogue raisonnée comes out,” Pritchard says pointing out that Bush only made 1700 paintings of which 30 comprised the record-setting series. “We’ll see if there are more works of this quality. But the scholar putting it together rated these among the top of works that she’d ever seen condition-wise, composition-wise, color-wise, scale, everything.”
Then Pritchard and Heffel will have a better idea of which direction the Bush market might take. Pritchard thinks the painter’s works on paper are undervalued but big paintings are what’s needed to whet the appetite of buyers who don’t hail from the Great White North. Even during the Summer doldrums, the strong prices were noticed.
“A lot of European and Asian buyers who know color field work may not know this work,” Pritchard says. “Now that, to the extent they follow Christie’s results, they do.”