On Thursday alone, $635m of Contemporary art traded hands. That’s more than half of the $1.15bn in Contemporary art sold during the week and nearly the same total as the first Rockefeller evening sale. In a fortnight that saw ~$2.7bn in public art transactions, that $635m might seem just a solid day’s trading. But the shape of the sales total—nearly $400m at Christie’s; $131m at Phillips and $107m at Sotheby’s day sale—points to the culmination of a greater trend in the art market as a whole and the Contemporary market in particular.
We have arrived at the end of a long road of art market growth. Looking back, one can seem similarities between this sales season and the peak of the market in 2007 and early 2008. But there are important differences too. Where that market culminated in a sense of euphoria, this one is cautious. Prices are full. Buyers are wary. Yet the totals remain mind-bogglingly strong.
We will have much greater detail on the day sales for AMMpro subscribers when we analyze the auction results in the coming weeks. For now, let’s focus on the Evening sales at Phillips and Christie’s which made for one very long night broken into two parts.
The mood at Phillips and Christie’s could not have been more different from each other and from the previous evening uptown at Sotheby’s. Where the Sotheby’s Evening sale surprised nearly everyone—like a spontaneous street party—both Christie’s and Phillips played closer to form. Still finding their feet even as they advance their numbers, Phillips posted a strong total despite a few setbacks. A handful of big lots were either withdrawn, failed to generate bids or had consignors too stiff-necked to take advantage their best opportunities.
At Christie’s, the art-trading juggernaut barreled through another big sale with Jussi Pylkkänen, surely the most skilled and comfortable auctioneer of this generation—or, perhaps, any other. Over the hump of Rockefeller sale where he seemed tense; and, after watching Adrien Meyer relieve him for the Impressionist and Modern Evening sale while maintaining the momentum; Pylkkänen teased, mugged and cracked jokes throughout the sale.
It started early on with the bidding for a François-Xavier Lalanne design work where Pylkkänen, not unlike a teacher separating rambunctious students in a class, admonished Loic Gouzer and Alex Rotter that they were standing too close together while bidding on the same lot. Rotter later came in for some skeptical questioning. Pylkkänen had turned toward Rotter in the middle of the bidding on the Lalanne to find the co-Head of Contemporary art turned half away from the proceedings, simultaneously chatting on a landline and scrolling through his phone.
“Alex, are you texting or are you bidding?” Pylkkänen asked patiently.
Rotter was indeed bidding. “We’re trying to figure that out,” he responded before offering $3.3m for the mid-sixties Lalanne bar.
“With a text at $3.3m,” Pylkkänen announced as he turned toward the other telephone bidder. “It’s a first.”
Working every possible advantage, Pylkkänen proceeded to egg on the other phone bidder to “put paid to this texting.”
It worked. Fifteen lots later in the sale, George Condo’s Nude and Forms came up with eleven telephone bidders eager to participate. The initial flurry of bids outnumbered the biddable increments, driving the price through the estimate range of $2.2m to $2.8m. In the sale room din, specialist Andrew Massad called out $2.9m in a loud, clear voice that exceed the volume of the other bidders.
For a moment, the other specialists were silent either because the number had caused their clients to reflect or simply out of startlement. Once another bidder had responded with $3m, Pylkkänen went back to Massad for a bid but adding the conspiratorial question, “surprised yourself with a shout?”
The room chuckled together. But Pylkkänen sensed another opportunity. He nudged Massad along. “Shout three-two,” he said. “Amuse us all. Go for it.”
Pylkkänen got the bid but not the shout. “Dammit,” he exclaimed, with mock chagrin. Eventually, Massad got left behind as Francis Outred and Xin Li Cohen bid the work to $5.2m. The $6.1m premium price advanced Condo’s record—set only in November—by 50%.
Even then, Pylkkänen wasn’t finished with Massad. At the end of the long 65 lot sale, with the room empty and the staff getting punchy, Pyllkänen began to do a buddy act with Massad. Imagine Pyllkänen as Dean Martin, the dry debonair straight man with impeccable comic timing, and Massad in the hapless Jerry Lewis role.
The bit worked. Pylkkänen got the laughs; Massad won each of the last lots.
For all of Pylkkänen’s japes, and despite the good business done up and down the price spectrum, Christie’s sale did the most to leave an impression of the market coming to grips with a significant change. Christie’s $397m Evening sale total was only $5m more than Sotheby’s even though the perception going into the sales was that Christie’s was in a commanding position.
Judd Tully was able to get the apt quote from Andrew Fabricant on his way outside of the room:
“I don’t understand the momentum of these sales, the energy in the room changes from day to day and it’s completely bi-polar.”
Fabricant was referring to the relatively low and almost vacant energy in the Christie’s salesroom, despite the strong numbers being rung up—an atmosphere that was the complete opposite of the stadium-like excitement at Sotheby’s on Wednesday.
Coinciding with the uneven distribution of energy in the sales rooms is a broad market rotation toward newer names of many different types. Sarah Hanson captured some of this in her final story for The Art Newspaper:
“Both nights were very strong”, says advisor Baird Ryan, of Morgan Walker Fine Art. “It’s hard to walk away from the week and not consider a new price level for artists like Mitchell, Louis, Diebenkorn and De Kooning.” He acknowledges “a shift in tastes and a secular mood” driving a correction to the canon, but says there is also “a rotation in the market” away from certain names. “A few years ago, Richter was currency, and in a few years I’m sure he will be again”, Ryan says. Until then, though, the smart money is elsewhere.
The sense of malaise comes from the tepid interest demonstrated towards some of the top lots. These works were by names that have driven the market for the last few years. The Wall Street Journal‘s Kelly Crow summed it up this way:
It’s lonely at the high end of the art market, as collectors increasingly do an about-face and shy away from trophies in favor of lower-priced works. During two weeks of spring sales that concluded Friday, more than $2.8 billion worth of art changed hands across Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips in New York. Fueled by years of consistently higher art prices, new and seasoned collectors shopped as if art values will keep going up indefinitely, dealers said. However, rather than fueling bidding wars, many of the priciest pieces garnered the thinnest competition, sometimes selling on a single bid or to an investor who had prearranged to buy the work if no else stepped up. That marks a turnabout from a few seasons ago, when auction houses could bank on selling their priciest pieces even if less-glitzy ones floundered. Now, the very pieces that aim to dazzle prospective bidders are proving to be the auction houses’ biggest liabilities.
This is true—but, also, not true. The art market is a house of many mansions. The shift toward the middle market has not come suddenly upon us this season. Nor was there a total absence of competitive bidding on some very expensive works of art. As Crow suggests with her next paragraph, the cause of this shift toward lower value lots is actually a positive force in the market:
“Collector confidence is higher and more broadly based than at any time I can remember,” said Anthony Grant, a former Sotheby’s auction executive who now works as a private dealer.
How is it confidence can be high and broad-based but the top of the market is weak? The answer might lie in two factors. One is that the pervasive use of third party guarantees is pricing works to their fullest leaving little room for competition. Judd Tully tallied them for us at Christie’s:
A huge number of lots were backed by guarantees—37 lots from third parties and five from the house. In all, then, 42 of the 64 offerings had financial backing, assuring success.
A sale, whether pre-arranged or won in the room, is a sale. That means although there is a happy buyer and a happy seller even if the sale comes off in the auction room as a fizzle or a dud.
The problem seems to be more localized. There are some trophy works that achieved their highest prices in the last decade coming back to market to achieve the same price again. We saw that last year at this time and last November and again now with Andy Warhol works. This season’s example is the Double Elvis bought by the guarantor, Brett Gorvy, which made $37m six years after having sold for the same price. An exasperated Judd Tully asked,
How could such a major painting by a revered artist stay dead flat over six years?
“It’s on holiday for the moment,” quipped dealer and Warhol maven Alberto Mugrabi as he left the salesroom.
The group of art traders surrounding the Warhol market have also been on holiday with the Mugrabi family checking out pretty early. Whether the Mugrabis’ absence is a cause or an effect of the dormant Warhol market is hard to know. Effect is the more likely answer. The slowdown in the Warhol market is even greater further down the value pyramid as could be seen in the three works at Phillips on Thursday night that sold below or near the low estimate despite having good reasons to attract buyers in each case.
The Mugrabis may be absent from the Warhol market. But they have been far more active in the market for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work on the high end and George Condo’s market on the lower end. Though they were not visibly bidding for either on Thursday night.
Here’s where we get to some of the nuance on the broad idea that the top of the market is dormant and that the old reliable names are tired. Alberto Mugrabi was shilling for Phillips’s Basquiat work, Flexible, which came from the estate. Offered without a guarantee and at a low estimate, Mugrabi told the NY Post that he would do anything to own the work and called $60m a conservative price.
Was the $45m it finally sold for a sign of weakness at the top of the Basquiat market? After all, Sotheby’s had no luck generating bidders for the Neumann family’s Flesh and Spirit—which may have been because of the work’s condition (the Neumann family seems to have interesting ways of storing its incredible art.) Or, is it a sign of strength as collectors revalue pieces not on canvas? The New York Times‘s Scott Reyburn tried to answer that question:
“Collectors are beginning to pay greater attention to Jean-Michel’s ‘wood slat’ pictures,” said Scott Nussbaum, head of the 20th century and contemporary art department at Phillips, who added that the previous high for a Basquiat on a similar support was $17 million.
The other big name that defied the general diagnosis that big names don’t attract bidders anymore was Francis Bacon. At Christie’s, his Study for a Portrait of George Dyer also disproved the idea that guarantees dissuade bidding when it sold for $49m. Artsy’s Nate Freeman scratched his head and asked Brett Gorvy to explain,
It was not a foregone conclusion that the Bacon would reach its $30 million estimate, or even sell at all, as it was not guaranteed. As Gorvy noted after the sale, “The Bacon market has been tough”—especially when a work by the artist that was supposed to sell at Christie’s in London for a record price last October could not find a buyer and became a hefty pass.
The lesson of last October’s Bacon might not be that the artist’s market was withering but that the seller should not have turned down the impressive £58m that seemed to be bid in the auction room. The New York Times got an expert opinion this week’s Bacon:
“It was a good picture and a good price,” said Ivor Braka, a London dealer who specializes in Bacon.
Judd Tully canvased the waterfront, as well, to get a better sense of the market for the Irish painter:
The seller acquired the painting from Marlborough Gallery in Vaduz, Lichtenstein, in May 1977, at a time when his paintings were selling for under $50,000 at auction. Market intel suggests the painting arrived at auction after making the rounds on the private market for a long stretch.
“It’s a really strong price and a very good subject,” said London dealer and Bacon expert Pilar Ordovas as she exited the salesroom, “but the subject [George Dyer] simply isn’t enough, as we know.”
Another work that had been shopped privately, this time by Christie’s which also seems to have owned the painting, was the big Rothko, No. 7 (Dark Over Light). It was shown in Asia last year with a $50m asking price. The New York Times made this observation on its price appreciation:
The 90-inch-high Rothko had at one time been owned by the former Yahoo chief executive and Warner Bros. chairman Terry Semel. Its latest, unidentified owner had paid $21 million for it at auction in 2007. Last night, just over a decade later, it sold to one bid from its guarantor for $31.1 million.
AbEx interest seems to have been completely burned out by the show at the Royal Academy in London a year and a half ago. Last November, two works by Franz Kline sold for ~$10m and $20m respectively; this season, two works by Kline sold for ~$3m and ~$5m respectively. The latter work had a $6.5m low estimate but the seller, no doubt guided by Sotheby’s sense of the market, was willing to make a significant compromise of $2.1m to get the work sold.
Some market observers are suggesting that the AbEx window has shut decisively. Phillips had high hopes for a Robert Motherwell whose work ought to be in the same price range as Kline, especially for the hard-to-come-by large works from the Elegy to the Spanish Republic series. Judd Tully had a fair bit to say about that:
Robert Motherwell’s At Five in the Afternoon (1971), from his “Spanish Elegies” series, which made an $11 million hammer, or $12.7 million with premium. It was being sold by interior designer Holly Hunt. That result was just above its $12 million low estimate but good enough to set a new artist record—one of three set tonight. That result “lifted him onto a new price category,” the house’s chairman, Cheyenne Westphal, said after the sale. (His previous record, set in 2012, was a mere $3.7 million, a paltry sum compared to those of many of his fellow Ab-Exers.)
Since Spanish Elegies are so rare, the art advising community seems to be in a bit of a panic about how to make sense of, and therefore how to value, Motherwell. Though if the mood is moving away from the heroes of AbEx, it may not be moving away from abstract painters. Witness the success of works by Joan Mitchell across the houses and the strong prices paid for Cecily Brown’s work, including a new record for her work made at Sotheby’s. This sets up a Sarah Hanson’s take in The Art Newspaper:
“It’s a bad time to be a white male artist”, quips the art advisor Lisa Schiff, but the joke rang true at the evening sales of post-war and contemporary art at Phillips and Christie’s on 17 May. The results confirmed the pattern set at Sotheby’s the previous night and in record-setting day sales this week: the market is strong, expanding and in search of freshness. “There is an appetite and a hunger for great things”, says the advisor Abigail Asher, of Guggenheim Asher, “but the energy feels different.”
Again, this feeling is the culmination of a long period of pronounced competition for historical masters. Buyers have been searching for indisputably important artists whose markets have remained under-developed for a variety of reasons. One obvious reason has been exclusion. There were some nice prices around town for Sam Gilliam’s work but there’s still a long way to go there. A record was set for Grace Hartigan and for Helen Frankenthaler this past week too. Both artists have lower prices and less visibility in the market than Joan Mitchell who set a more spectacular record at Christie’s for Blueberry, the second most valuable Mitchell in Christie’s Evening sale by estimate but the first one price achieved.
Both Mitchells had never been on the market before. The 9-ft-long untitled work from 1957-8 was bequeathed by Mitchell to one owner who seems to have sold the work to Christie’s outright. Perhaps because of its size or decorative appeal, Christie’s estimated that work at $7-9m. Painted in 1969, Blueberry was bought by Henry Hillman in 1970.
The New York Times points to Blueberry’s success as another example of re-evaluating Mitchell’s position within the very masculine AbEx canon:
“Historians are recognizing the importance of female artists’ contribution to the Abstract Expressionist movement,” said Andrew Terner, a private dealer and collector based in New York. “And this was just such a beautiful painting.”
The bidding tells a more complex story. The demand for Blueberry far outstripped that for the untitled painting. Ana Maria Celis, Christie’s new head of the Evening sale, had landed Blueberry from the Hillman Foundation and its position upfront in the auction signals their confidence in the work. That paid off when Pylkkänen spent a considerable time fending off a flurry of phone bids for the work to give a bidder the room (whom Judd Tully identified as Jonathan Boos) ample chance to stay in the game. Bids from the telephones flew at Pylkkänen from every direction around him has the auctioneer kept his eyes on the room. Finally, Pylkkänen succumbed to the inevitable and sold it to a telephone bidder for $16.6m.
With half a dozen or more bidders on Blueberry, Christie’s might have been expecting more than two to show up for the untitled work five lots later. But there the bidding was far more restrained as Loic Gouzer’s client on the telephone refused to accede toPylkkänen’s request for $2m bidding increments. Gouzer had opened with a solid low estimate bid of $7m—no one seemed to be playing coy with what it would take to buy this work—and got worked up to $7.7m before dropping out. The winner’s $7.8m bid was comfortably within the estimate range. The $9m final price with premium made the work Mitchell’s 5th best price.
The point here is that abstraction isn’t dead. And the appetite for new work isn’t confined to overcoming past discrimination. There were also records set for Morris Louis at Christie’s Evening sale and two new top ten prices for Kenneth Noland were achieved in the day sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.I
In the Evening sales, there were other interesting moves for abstract painters. Lévy Gorvy have been promoting Pat Steir’s waterfall paintings in the US and Asia for some time. The investment seems to be paying off for the gallery directly and indirectly for Phillips, as Judd Tully points out:
The other new records were for Pat Steir, whose 12-foot-wide Elective Affinity Waterfall (1992) sold for $2.3 million to a phone bidder handled by Phillips’s Vera Antoshenkova
The other artist Lévy Gorvy has been working the Chinese market on is Willem de Kooning. No painter could embody the hard-edged, hyper-masculine outlines of the classic AbEx heroic painter and boozer than de Kooning. But that’s not what needs to be marketed here. Lévy Gorvy was bidding on a small work from the 1970s at Phillips but couldn’t get it a price that would allow for a mark up. So they dropped out:
Willem de Kooning’s Untitled 13 (1977)—Brett Gorvy entered the bidding at around $2 million, but was beaten by a bidder working with Antoshenkova, who ended up winning the piece for $4.16 million, with all fees included.
At Christie’s later that night, the push in the de Kooning market was for even later work:
Willem de Kooning’s late and spare Untitled VII (1986), brawnily scaled at 77 1/2 by 88 inches, sold to New York and London dealer Per Skarstedt for $5.94 million (est. $4 million–$6 million). It last sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 2011 for $4.28 million.
“We had a show in London of late de Koonings six months ago,” Skarstedt said right after the auction, standing outside Christie’s Rockefeller Center headquarters, “and I’ve been buying late de Koonings for the last few years. It made about the same price tonight as it did seven years ago. I hope they’ll go up eventually.”
So, although it is correct to say, as Sarah Hanson does, that there is a shift away from the market’s previous leaders, the seat of new interest isn’t always obscure:
It was not a great night for the postwar and contemporary titans who have dominated the category in recent years. A Donald Judd wall stack, a Dan Flavin “monument” for V Tatlin, and a sombre Clyfford Still were among the scant number of buy-ins. Works by Jeff Koons, Yves Klein, Damien Hirst, Christopher Wool, and Agnes Martin sold but on the low end of their estimates.
Take, for example the rousing success Christie’s had with the Zucker collection of Richard Diebenkorn works. The house offered a very healthy guarantee. For that it was healthily rewarded, especially after taking the risk of putting all of the works on offer at once. Here’s the Times on the sale that netted $43m:
For many, the lots to watch in Christie’s auction were a group of 12 paintings by Richard Diebenkorn, an artist traditionally regarded by the market as “second tier,” but whose association with the Bay Area Figurative Movement of the 1950s and 1960s could prompt reassessment in today’s internet economy. Eleven of these had been collected by the New York real estate developer Donald Zucker and his wife, Barbara, including the large-scale 1984 canvas “Ocean Park #126,” from the artist’s admired series of abstract paintings. Estimated at $16 million to $20 million, that one work sold for $23.9 million, setting a new auction high for the artist.
Before we leave the subject of big names that no longer work. We should have a word about Jeff Koons’s Play-Doh sculpture that Artnet’s reporters kept an eye upon:
Several lots later came Jeff Koons‘s monumental sculpture Play-Doh (1994—2012), a work which took some two decades to produce. The estimate was about $20 million, which was exactly as high as anyone was willing to go. After opening at $17 million it received a bid or two from Christie’s specialists, but then was quickly hammered down to Koons’s dealer Larry Gagosian, who was seated on the aisle. With premium, the final price was $22.8 million.
The recent spate of lawsuits concerning late delivery of Koons’s meticulously crafted works might suggest that buyers are put off Koons. Considering the waiting list for his work, it might simply be that Larry Gagosian is in a better position to assuage a disgruntled billionaire fed up with the difficulties Koons’s studio is having delivering primary work.
A few final thoughts and observations from the coverage of the last two Evening sales of a very busy art week. First, for all of the talk of buying works that were fresh to the market or had been held and loved, there were still some decent scores to be had. A new record was made for Nicolas de Staël. As often happens with record prices, it was made with a work that had previously made a record price—only five years ago:
Nicolas de Stael’s nu Debout (1953) made a record $12.1 million (est. $7.5 million–$9.5 million) and came to market with a third-party guarantee. It last sold at Artcuriel in Paris in June 2013 for €4,690,690 and tonight’s figure literally doubled that result.
The Condo market has been seeing regular records this last year. We discussed the new record set at Christie’s above but here is worth noting the bidder and buyer that Judd Tully spotted at Phillips:
David Benrimon was among those vying for George Condo’s Red Head (2012), which ended up getting picked up by pharmaceutical entrepreneur Stewart Rahr for $1.82 million.
We’ll have more on the Condo market later this Summer but while we’re noting bidders and buddy acts, there’s also this duo to observe:
An Anselm Kiefer being sold without reserve, Laßt 1000 Blumen blühen (Let 1000 Flowers bloom), 1999–2007), began slowly, at half its estimate of $1.2 million to $1.8 million, but climbed steadily. Inigo Philbrick, seated next to dealer and columnist Kenny Schachter, engaged in the bidding until it was ultimately nabbed by French collector and dealer, John Sayegh-Belchatowski, for $1.22 million.
Back to the Tried and True Blue (Chip) at Christie’s (The New York Times)