Judging by the use of lot numbers designating whether a work was in the (a) or (b) sale, Christie’s viewed last night’s PWC Evening sale as part two of the week’s Post-War and Contemporary Art extravaganza. Splitting the sales—without adding Modern masterpieces to plump the totals—didn’t advance the ball much for Christie’s in overall terms. Taken together, the Contemporary works in the two evening sales totaled around 833m, pretty much what the house did in the Evening sale last November.
The Master, Judd Tully, did a little math for us calculating the overall low estimate for Contemporary works in both sales at around$378m or just a rounding error away from Sotheby’s overall Evening sale total. In other words, Christie’s seems to have spent—or arranged to have spent—$378m to achieve a total sale of $833m. That 1 to 2 ratio appears to be similar to November’s spending too.
Guarantees may have supercharged the ultra-high end of the Contemporary market but they seem to be losing their effectiveness to push the market even higher. (Remember, the biggest of the big lots were Modern works.) Christie’s provided 64 guarantees on Contemporary lots against Sotheby’s 16 guarantees. That’s four guaranteed lots at Christie’s to every guaranteed lot at Sotheby’s. Nonetheless, Sotheby’s held it’s own against the pummeling by recording roughly half the sales total.
The net effect may have been less to crowd out the competition than it has been to intimidate some of the long-standing collectors. Here’s Katya Kazakina:
“The prices are crazy,” said Miami-based collector Martin Margulies as he left the sale. “The real collectors are not buying that stuff. I was able to build up a collection. Today you can’t.”
“It’s a different world,” New York collector Jerome Stern told Margulies.
“I like the old world,” Margulies responded.
The other lasting impression that the guarantees perpetuate is the feeling the market is only for show. Here’s Scott Reyburn talking to Christian Ogier:
“What we witnessed is shadowboxing,” said Mr. Ogier, who was at the Monday night sale. “It was well-choreographed, a beautiful show, but what was the financial truth?”
Others reacted with puckish humor as Brian Boucher found out:
“Fifty million is the new normal,” New York dealer Francis Beatty, of Richard Feigen & Co., said after the sale.
But even those who depend upon the very wealthy for their livelihood seem to be recoiling, as Reyburn heard:
“It’s a spectacle of excess at the highest level,” said Abigail Asher, partner in the New York and Los Angeles art consultants Guggenheim Asher Associates Inc., who was at Monday’s auction. “The last few years have been building up to this moment. A new class of buyer has entered the market and they’re prepared to pay staggering sums for trophy pictures.”
“There’s something slightly boastful wanting to own these things,” Ms. Asher said. “And there’s a prevalent sense that this is also about asset gathering, not just collecting.”
Finally, there may be a more cold-blooded reason to doubt the future of guarantees. They seem to be scaring off the punters, according to David Zwirner who spoke with Artnews’s Dan Duray about the disappointing results for a seminal Twombly Bolsena work that many thought would rival the best blackboard paintings in price:
That painting was only on the block for about a minute, like the brief contest over the Bacon. Zwirner blamed the limited bidding on those lots on the high guarantee the house had made on the canvases.
“When you start off so high,” he said, “it makes it hard for others to jump in.”
Guarantees are now closely associated with trophy buyers as opposed to collectors. But the biggest lots in Christie’s sale were not trendy works. Well, the Lucian Freud might have been but that’s going back a few years:
Lucian Freud’s 1994 portrait of a corpulent nude woman, “Benefits Supervisor Resting,” sold for $56.2 million to London dealer Pilar Ordovas, over its $50 million high estimate. After the sale, Ms. Ordovas said she bought the work on behalf of a client who wishes to remain anonymous.
“This is a painting that Lucian Freud told me he really loved,” she said. “I was determined to win it.”
The price surpasses the $33.6 million that Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich paid for a companion Freud portrait of the same woman, Sue Tilly, “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping,” seven years ago.
Otherwise, the near-record Rothko was not a flashy picture. After the red Rothko in the Monday sale performed without fireworks and the bright yellow one at Sotheby’s with the double-barreled provenance of Mellon and Pinault also underwhelmed expectations, it was somewhat of surprise to see the dark and rewarding but not immediately thrilling work at Christie’s make such a strong price. Charlotte Burns and Gareth Harris of The Art Newspaper take it from here:
There were at least six bidders for the canvas, including the dealer Jose Mugrabi and Christie’s staffers such as Amin Jaffer, the international director of Asian art; Ana-Maria Celis, a postwar and contemporary art specialist, and Lisa Layfer, the director of business development for the same department. The work eventually hammered at $73m to Layfer. Its $81.9m total, when fees were added, came close to the $86.9m record set in 2012 for Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow (1961).
Records were also set for artists who have been struggling to move into the top price ranks. Here’s Jussi Pylkkanen quoted by Dan Duray:
“Until now I think that we’ve talked about new emerging buyers coming into the market, but the Ryman”—Bridge (1980), which sold for $20 million despite the failure of a similar Ryman one night prior at Sotheby’s—”was a sophisticated painting,” he said. “The Rothko was sophisticated. What we’ve seen in our market is a very knowledgable market.”
Some of that knowledge was on display as during the first lot as crowds bid on Ileana Sonnabend’s Anselmo driving it to $6.4m or 8x of the high estimate. Kelly Crow had this reaction:
“That was a thing of beauty,” New York dealer Cristin Tierney told artnet News. “Just when you think auctions are about nothing but diamond dust, a bidding war over something rigorous and conceptual restores your faith in an intellectual elite. There are still some collectors out there who are the real deal.” Several of the Sonnabend lots dramatically exceeded their estimates.
Estimations of the quality of the Sonnabend works differ. Some were vocal in declaring the dealer’s unerring genius:
“Every piece from that collection had quality you just don’t see anymore,” collector Don Rubell said after the sale.
“The market really responds to the quality of a collection,” his wife Mera concurred, “and it doesn’t get better than Sonnabend.”
Others wondered privately whether the record-setting Rauschenberg that $18.6m was priced on its provenance. Dubuffet did well all week with the earlier sale setting a new record and the artist’s unique sponge piece causing a kerfuffle in the middle of sale room:
Another standout was a Jean Dubuffet sculpture that hammered at $1 million (about three times its high estimate estimate) despite the dealer Philippe Ségalot raising his hand at the hammer and keeping it up, snapping it through preparations for the next lot.
“I didn’t see your bid,” Christie’s president and auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen told Ségalot from the rostrum. Ségalot was formerly the head of the contemporary art at Christie’s and instead of accepting this got out of his seat and walked to the phone bank to speak with the man who currently holds that title, Brett Gorvy. The auction stalled as Pylkkänen announced he would reopen the lot, but then decided to settle it after the auction. (From the piece’s listed final price with premium, $1.21 million, it seems Ségalot still missed out. Had another bid been registered that sum would likely have been higher.)
There were also strong prices for other unusual works by name-brand artists. One collector had complained on Instagram that Tony Shafrazi’s Basquiat had been shopped unsuccessfully for a decade. But Christie’s had no trouble finding a good buyer:
A large and unusual work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Field Next to the Other Road (1981), which features a stick figure man leading a cow, was the sixth highest lot, selling for $37.1m (with fees, est $25m-$35m). The private dealer Christophe Van de Weghe underbid the work, which had been consigned by the dealer Tony Shafrazi. “I was sorry not to get it,” Van de Weghe said. “I tried to buy the work once before in the 1990s at the start of my career. It was on offer then between $125,000 and $175,000 and was bought in, which meant I could have bought it the next day for $75,000—but I didn’t have the money then.”
Even the Warhol was an offbeat work:
In a tie for second-highest lot of the evening, Andy Warhol’s Colored Mona Lisa (1963) had dealer Amalia Dayan battling it out until the end with her former boss Larry Gagosian, who won the piece for $56.2 million (all totals include premium, unless noted), well over its high estimate of $35 million. After the sale Dayan said she was disappointed to have lost the work for her client. “It’s a masterpiece,” she said. “Great year, great subject, it’s everything he’s about, plus great provenance.”
Let’s go back to Scott Reyburn for a summing up of the event:
“It lacked some of the fairy dust of the past couple of seasons,” Guy Jennings, managing director of the Fine Art Fund Group in London, said after Wednesday’s sale. “Sellers’ expectations are very high. Christie’s did a very solid, professional job to achieve it. Every time they perform well, the bar gets pushed a little higher.”
And The Art Newspaper closes with a wise warning. Guarantees have seemed to reach their limit and many of the week’s Contemporary lots are being bid upon with restraint:
“It was a strong sale—you’re almost not surprised anymore,” said the European dealer Thaddaeus Ropac as he left the saleroom. “It’s an unreal world—we had a great opening at Frieze, and now these auctions. You need to be careful not to get used to it.”
Christie’s Sells $1.4 Billion of Art in Two Auctions in New York (Bloomberg Business)
Christie’s Has Art World’s First $1 Billion Week (NYTimes.com)
Christie’s Megasale Totals $658.5 Million (artnet News)
In New York auctions $2bn already spent but no one is that surprised (The Art Newspaper)