Christie’s has established a new benchmark for the Contemporary art market, $745m for a single evening sale and $879m for the combined evening sales this week. In many ways, the two sales were one event divided into works for collectors and those for the new buyers entering the market at the very top. These new buyers are snapping up works that have been validated earlier by the market.
Although the headlines are all breathless about the sale totals—and many of the grizzled market pros are quoted expressing dismay about the prices—what Christie’s showed last night is how to run a well-ordered market. More than any other department in any other auction house, Christie’s Contemporary crew has a handle on who will buy what.
Carol Vogel noted the influx of new buyers eager to snap up works by recognizable names:
Tuesday night’s sale, however, was the highest total for a single auction, not accounting for inflation, in Christie’s history, officials at the auction house said, adding that about 30 percent of the buyers were new to Christie’s. Of the 72 works on offer, only four failed to sell.
But Dan Duray revealed the prevalence of guarantees dampened a lot of the bidding which made for a more orderly and manageable sale:
Even the record-breaking Barnett Newman, the evening’s top lot, which sold for $84 million (nearly doubling a previous record set at Sotheby’s last May, and impressively topping its $50 million estimate), sold to a standing order in the book, a tepid late sale battle that included just three bidders.
Such displays felt representative of much of the night, with many lots garnering just two bidders.
One reason the bidding was so subdued is that the new money is coming in over the top of the traditional buyers at auction. Many stalwart names in the art market fled from the auction room frustrated. Judd Tully captured some of that tone:
“I tried,” said New York dealer Robert Mnuchin, one of the underbidders on the de Kooning. “But I didn’t buy anything.”
That was a refrain expressed by a number of frustrated bidders, blown away by the depth of this market.
So who did the buying last night? Christie’s China lead bought 30% of the sale’s value herself, according to Tully’s tally:
It might be cheesy to say that Chinese bidding has accounted for a great leap forward in the global art market, but it would not be an exaggeration. On Tuesday, [Xin] Li’s clients accounted for 214,185,000 of the evening’s total.
Christie’s Brett Gorvy later clarified that the Asian buying was broader than just Xin Li’s Chinese clients. Let’s listen to what he told Brian Boucher at Art in America:
“And Asia is not just China,” Christie’s Brett Gorvy told A.i.A. after the sale. “Tonight we had clients from Malaysia, Hong Kong-based Taiwanese, and Indonesian bidders participating at the highest levels.”
That didn’t mean the regulars were all sidelined as Kelly Crow narrated in the Wall Street Journal:
All night long, auction regulars like New York dealers Larry Gagosian and Dominique Levy found themselves competing with Asian telephone bidders for the sale’s art trophies—with each taking spoils in turn. An Asian buyer outmatched several dealers in the packed sale room to win an untitled $66.2 million orange and purple Mark Rothko. But Mr. Gagosian beat out three rivals to win Andy Warhol’s $62.9 million, red-white-and-blue “Race Riot.” The Warhol was being sold by fellow dealer Bill Acquavella’s family trust. Mr. Gagosian also won a $23.7 million Christopher Wool, “If You.”
That last sale was somewhat indicative of the passing of works from the collecting establishment to the new global buyers. Crow caught another glimpse of the process:
Chicago collector Stefan Edlis, who sat in the sale room wearing a ball cap and stared intently as his Jeff Koons sculpture of a train filled with bourbon, “Jim Bean—J.B. Turner Train,” sold to a Chinese telephone bidder for $33.7 million. A different version of this 9-foot-long, stainless-steel train sold a decade ago for $5.4 million at Christie’s.
“I’m so happy with my price,” Mr. Edlis said afterward. “The art market is hot across the board—Pop is selling, Ab-Ex is selling, New Wave is selling, it’s all selling.”
The Jim Beam train went to Xin Li. Katya Kazakina got the reaction from an experienced Asia hand:
“Asia is a huge new force,” London-based jeweler Laurence Graff said at the auction. “We see it in our business as well. But diamonds haven’t done as well as art. Did you see that Richter? It gained more than 50 percent in a year and a half.”
Of course, not everyone sees it in the same way. Too many of the art market’s old guard perceive this new buying a threat. Over-matched or out-gunned, they resort to the usual lazy dismissals that portray their own buying as virtuous collecting but others’ purchases as philistinism. Brian Boucher missed an opportunity to point out to his interlocutor that art dealing by its very definition is speculating:
“The speculators have finally succeeded in commodifying art,” Frances Beatty, of Richard Feigen & Co., told A.i.A. after the sale, “which is a triumph for them and a disaster for the artists and for the culture, because it has made the speculators the leaders rather than the artists.”
The success of Monday night’s sale of work from the 80s to the present showed the demand for a new category. But last night’s sale also showed there might be the need for yet another sale where collectors can compete for some of the many high quality works by talents like Robert Mangold, Robert Gober or Robert Ryman (yes, yes, they’re all named Robert) who also being sought by more traditional collectors as Kelly Crow was right to point out:
Miami-based collector Paul Cejas took home a $6.9 million Robert Ryman, “Mission.” The work’s title is apt because the collector said he came into the sale determined to win the 1980 minimalist work. “You have to be disciplined and not reckless in this market,” Mr. Cejas added, “but if you like something, you stretch for it. And this is the one I wanted.”
Asian Collectors Give Christie’s a High-Yield Night (NYTimes.com)