After last November’s stunning Contemporary art sales total, everyone expected the Christie’s team to keep driving toward the goal of a $1bn Evening sale total. Why? No one really knows. It just seemed like the Everest before them, a goal worth attaining because, “it’s there.”
Instead, Brett Gorvy and his team seem to have set their sights on something else: total domination within the auction house and outside of it. With the success of last night’s sale, Gorvy has effectively colonized the Impressionist and Modern department within Christie’s and threatened to bring the fight to Sotheby’s on that house’s strongest turf.
There was another, broader goal for the sale: extend Christie’s corporate strategy which is increasingly looking beyond the duopoly toward creating new markets for art at the highest level. Gorvy and company put together this “Looking Forward to the Past” sale with the vague concept of introducing Contemporary art collectors to earlier works and artists. But the real target was new buyers looking to own A+ works wherever they came from.
If these Contemporary collectors had never heard of Magritte, Dubuffet or Calder, they should hardly be called collectors. There’s nothing wrong with buyers and the world seems to be filled with many more of them these days. This is what Gorvy meant nearly two years ago when he remarked after a very successful sale that something had changed in the art market.
With a $705m total and numerous artist records, it is hard to call the sale anything but a success. Christie’s management seemed to underscore the marketing goals of the sale too when Jussi Pylkkanen remarked at the press conference, according to Artnet’s Brian Boucher:
“Every one of the works in the top 10 tonight was bid on by very new clients,” auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen said at a post-sale press conference. “Competing at the highest level were people who have been in the market only five or six years.” Bidders hailed from 35 countries.
Other observers echoed the theme. Here’s the New York Times’s Scott Reyburn:
“This kind of cross-pollination is an effective way of getting collectors to buy in different areas,” said David Nisenson, a private dealer. “There’s a great demand for masterpieces, and there are a lot of wealthy new buyers who want to park their money.”
Christie’s managed the sale with great skill and expertise, there was only one lot that passed, but it isn’t a sure thing that the sale worked. The top lots would have been top lots in any sale. The remaining lots were often sold below or near low estimates suggesting that either the estimates were just too high (possibly dictated by the guarantee levels) or the luster of the top lots did not translate to the adjacent lots.
Don’t tell that to the man charged with leading the sale who gave Artnews’s Dan Duray evidence of his success:
Specialist Loic Gouzer, who organized both special sales, said after the auction that the conceit had worked, and that the person who bought the 1926 Piet Mondrian usually only bought “Christopher Wools, things like that.”
Katya Kazakina backs up Gouzer with this observation, even though the work in question sold at the very bottom of the estimate range:
Mark Rothko’s 1958 “No. 36 (Black Stripe)” fetched $40.5 million, within the estimated range. The buyer was the client of Jinqing Cai, Christie’s president of China.
Christie’s can afford to invest in this sort of market-building. And invest they did. Charlotte Burns has pointed out the level of guarantees, where half the lots had financial backing, covered nearly 70% of the pre-sale estimate value:
Looking Forward to the Past, featured 35 Modern and contemporary works created between 1902 and 2011, of which 69% were guaranteed to sell, either by Christie’s, third-parties or a combination of both. “They need the guarantees to attract those kinds of masterworks—people don’t want to take the risk at that level,” said dealer Harry Blain as he left the sale. “It was an incredibly impressive auction—there was a lot of expectation and a lot of competition.”
Scott Reyburn also got this reminder to those who were so quick to be quoted after Steven Murphy’s dismissal that the house would embark on a new era of fiscal conservatism:
“After Murphy left people thought there would be fewer guarantees, but it’s more of the same,” said Guy Jennings, the managing director of the Fine Art Fund in London. “Christie’s is using high finance to squeeze the opposition out.”
Beyond the strategy, the big lots sold and sold well. Scott Reyburn identified the seller of the Picasso, Les Femmes d’Alger:
It was bought at that auction by a Saudi collector and kept in a house in London, said two dealers with knowledge of the matter, who declined to be named because of concerns over confidentiality.
Steve Wynn, who bought Le Reve at the Ganz sale before selling it to Steven Cohen, was there selling a Picasso Dora Maar and causing a little mischief too, according to Kazakina:
“I bid early on, at $125 million,” Wynn said in an interview outside of Christie’s after the auction. “I think $179 million is a price you sell a picture at, not the price you buy it at.”
The third most expensive piece of the night was Picasso’s scarlet 1938 portrait of the artist’s lover Dora Maar, “Buste de femme (Femme a la resille).” Consigned by Wynn, it sold for $67.4 million, surpassing the presale target of about $55 million. The buyer was a client of Wei, Christie’s president of Asia.
“I thought it was a fair price,” Wynn said after the sale.
Dubuffet’s densely colorful 1961 “Paris Polka” fetched $24.8 million, more than three times the artist’s previous auction record of $7.4 million set six months earlier, at Sotheby’s November auction. The seller was billionaire collector Cohen, who runs family office Point72 Asset Management. Christie’s guaranteed Cohen an undisclosed minimum price regardless of the sale’s outcome.
It should also be pointed out that even the works that seem to sell lethargically in the room had very strong returns. The Master, Judd Tully, points out this 60% gain on Warhol’s Liz diptych:
Andy Warhol’s 40 by 80 inch spray enamel and silkscreen diptych, “Silver Liz (diptych)” from 1963-65, which made $28,165,000 (est. $25-35 million). The Warhol last sold for $18,338,500 at Christie’s New York in May 2010.
In the end, the sale may not have been for new customers, after all, judging by who Tully spoke to on the way out of the sale:
“The market is stronger than ever,” said private dealer Philippe Segalot, who bought On Kawara’s (lot 12A) conceptual painting, “Sept. 13, 2001” for $1,205,000, “and this sale speaks for itself.”
Picasso Sets Auction Record at Christie’s (artnet News)
Picasso Painting at $179.4 Million Sets World Auction Record (Bloomberg Business)
Christie’s breaks the record again (The Art Newspaper)
Picasso Painting Shatters Record at Christie’s Blockbuster Auction (BLOUIN ARTINFO)