It’s not clear anyone went to Sotheby’s last night expecting to see a startling exciting sale. Today, most seem hard-pressed to make sense of what they saw. To begin with, the Contemporary Evening sale had trouble coming into focus. It was not one sale but three held consecutively. More than that, the night’s biggest lots held little drama selling on few bids but there was a steady stream of unanticipated, dogged competition that repeatedly perked up the room and revived interest.
The evening’s total figure of $392m was almost 23% more than last year’s equivalent sale (which was dominated by a single lot making $110m). The Mandel collection’s $107m more than covered the absence of a runaway lot. There was also the collection of five lots for the Studio Museum of Harlem’s building fund that added $16.4m to the total.
The rest of the various owners sale made up the rest of the margin, and more, in enthusiasm as unexpected record prices were set late into the evening for well-established artists like Mark Tansey and Cecily Brown not to mention artists as varied as Kerry James Marshall, Jonas Wood, John Chamberlain, Njideka Akunyili Crosby and David Hockney.
It’s safe to say that the whole event caught the art world by off guard, as The Art Newspaper‘s Sarah Hanson discovered:
“I was surprised by how strong it was”, says advisor Philippe Ségalot.
Ségalot was a stalwart sticking around to the final lot with other hard cases like Andy Hall. But the rest of the room had a mass exodus right after George Condo’s Day of the Idol made a price just over the high estimate of $2m to settle in at $2.775m with premium. Others trickled out earlier including some who didn’t even wait for the end of a lot’s bidding. Peter Brant was sitting a few rows behind Jose Mugrabi when the Neumann family’s Basquiat, Flesh and Spirit came up for bids. Already somewhat dampened by the family’s histrionics, Mugrabi made a faint $25m bid before demurring any further bids with a nervous shake of his head. In the awkward moment, Brant rose from his seat, silently turned and walked up the center aisle toward the exit making no sign of recognition as the final and full $27m bid was called out excitedly.
Potential embarrassment averted at no cost to the Basquiat brotherhood, Sotheby’s specialist Bernard Lagrange was all too happy to have made the big buy. Just as it was a night for new names among the artists, the sale saw the younger members of Sotheby’s crew gamely push through for their clients. Elizabeth Webb might won the spirit award gamely shouting out a bid on one of the evening’s Mark Bradford paintings to make sure her client got an oar in even though it was quickly surpassed in a frenzy of numbers.
If auction aficionados were weary by lot 25 that was because there had been another 26 lots in the Mandel collection that preceded the event. The top lot of that sale was a Mark Rothko work on paper that sold for a wake-up call price of $18.85m. The work was a vivid white, crimson and orange recalling the Reds show recently opened at Mnuchin gallery (a dealer with a long involvement in the Rothko market.) Last week, Yasuku Maezawa, a small entourage in tow, toured the gallery show of red works by Ad Reinhardt, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Kazuo Shiraga and Arshile Gorky. The winning telephone bidder for the Rothko was Yuki Terase who happens to handle Maezawa among other clients.
That may have been other only story of a classic name surprising to the upside last night. The top lot of the sale was a Jackson Pollock drip painting that sold quickly to a single bidder to make $34m with premium.
Aside from the success of the Studio Museum’s sale, the story coming out of the sale was was the rise of valuable exciting and potentially dominant African-American artists. This was a theme the New York Times ran with:
“The rise of African-American artists is part of a broader tendency to re-evaluate neglected artists that’s been going on for a few years,” said Candace Worth, an art adviser based in New York. “Art history isn’t just about the big Ab-Ex guys any more,” she added, referring to postwar painters such as Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning and Richter, who have long dominated the auction scene. “We’re opening a conversation, and the market is playing catch-up.”
In a sale so populated with black artists, their success was bound to leave an impression. Bloomberg’s Katya Kazakina spoke to Thelma Golden, Studio Museum’s director since 2005 who said, “it’s a testament to the importance and centrality of these artists within the narrative of contemporary art.”
Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s market run seemed to have cooled slightly but “Bush Babies” selling for $3.38 million, quietly pushed the auction record for the artist up. The biggest statement of the evening was Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times surging past it’s already impressive high estimate of $12m to make more than $21m with premium.
The Marshall work has a story. Chicago’s zoning laws require buildings to spend a certain percentage of their construction budget on public art. The consignor of Past Times was McCormick Place in Chicago. The person instrumental in getting the work in McCormick Place spent last week busily calling reporters to get his connection to the work included in this week’s reporting. Sarah Hanson was happy to oblige:
Art advisor Joel Straus, who served as curator of McCormick’s public art collection, tells The Art Newspaper, “I called Kerry to see if we could buy one of epically scaled paintings. There was a waiting list and he needed to intercede in order for us purchase one”—but did so because McCormick Place was near his home. Straus bought it for $25,000 in 1997 on behalf of the Metropolitan Pier and Exhibition Authority, tonight’s consignor. He relates Marshall’s painting to the Art Institute of Chicago’s famed Seurat, Sunday on La Grande Jatte, and says, “It’s as important as the Seurat but shows black culture that is not typically seen.”
The Marshall was bought by Sotheby’s Jackie Wachter who has a number of clients in the music industry. The Wall Street Journal’s Kelly Crow speculated that Sean Combs was the buyer, a theory backed up by Sarah Hanson’s narration:
Before the sale Brett Gorvy, the co-founder of Lévy Gorvy gallery, had posted a photo on Instagram of the rapper P. Diddy “looking carefully” at Marshall’s Past Time and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Flesh and Spirit. “Good luck, Mr Diddy” Gorvy wrote, leading to speculation that the rapper may have been bidding.
Two lots after the Marshall, Barkley Hendrick’s Brenda P, one of the artist’s distinctive portraits, shattered the artist’s previous record to sell for $2.175m. The earlier record was made a year ago at Sotheby’s when Amy Cappellazzo landed a consignment of Hendricks’s work for the day sale. Bringing her clients downstairs, Cappellazzo was able to generate the kind of interest that set Hendricks’s market just under the $1m barrier. Those prices also brought more high-quality work to the market.
You can hear a bit about Cappellazzo’s adventures in the Hendricks market in this podcast. In addition to Brenda P, Sotheby’s also secured Dancer for the day sale where it too made another $2m price.
Part of what made these strong prices so impressive was the light interest in some of the biggest names of the last several years. Judd Tully pointed to two artists whose work previously had bidders lined up, especially rare examples:
Christopher Wool’s medium scaled text painting, Untitled (S69) from 1992 in enamel on aluminum—the boldly lettered and slightly dripping words “SEX LUV” consumed most of the picture plane—squeaked by, thanks to its irrevocable bid, for $7.9 million (est. $7 million–$10 million). It last sold at auction at Phillips de Pury New York in May 2012 for $4 million. Another irrevocable bid-backed entry, Gerhard Richter’s magisterial, squeegee-applied Abstraktes Bild from 1991, sold to another telephone bidder for $16.6 million (est. $15 million–$20 million).
Instead, as Hanson discovered, bidders were crowding around well-respected artists whose work has been turning up the heat recently:
Cecily Brown’s Suddenly Last Summer (1999), estimated at $1.8m to $2.5m, fetched $6.8m. “It was a good painting from a good period”, says collector David Nisinson. “I expected it to do well but I definitely didn’t expect it to make that price.”
Interest also came from slightly unexpected places. David Hockney’s market was given new momentum by the recent retrospective and the momentum continued last night with two record prices set in succession. The first was a paper pool estimated at $5m that went for $11.7m all in. Then a bigger work came on the block and went to a surprising specialist, according to the reporting team at Artnet:
David Hockney‘s Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica (1990), however, caused more excitement. The painting was also estimated at $20 million to $30 million and carried a guarantee. Barker opened the contest at $16 million, and the painting reached $28.5 million once premiums were added to the winning bid from specialist Patty Wong, setting a new auction record for the artist.
Finally, one of the last lots of the evening offered a change-up. After protestors arrived at Sotheby’s on Monday to show their displeasure over the Berkshire Museum’s de-accessioning, none had the staying power to last through Wednesday’s very long sale to be there when a Calder sculpture from the museum was sold to the foundation:
In a brief feel-good moment, Alexander S.C. Rower, Alexander Calder’s grandson and president of the Calder Foundation, nailed the winning bid for Calder’s circa 1932 Double Arc and Sphere, which was being sold by the Berkshire Museum in a controversial deaccession, for a bargain $1.2 million (est. $2 million–$3 million). “The Calder Foundation is going to restore it and then begin to show it, so Calder’s genius will be seen by more people,” Rower said.
As a Black Artist Soars at Auction, Rethinking ‘Blue Chip’ (The New York Times)