This round-up of the reporting on the November Contemporary Evening sales at Christie’s and Phillips is available to AMMpro subscribers. We will have a detailed report on the sales based on lot data next week.
Last Thursday’s dual Evening auctions starting with Phillips’s $88m curtain raiser and culminating with Christie’s dramatic will-it-won’t-it $90m auction of David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) was a fitting close to the New York auction season where $1.8bn in art was sold in six days. Christie’s dominated the top of the market with two $90m works and three evening sales coming in around $300m. Sotheby’s proved a strong performer besting its rivals in Contemporary art when counting by sale title. Phillips had some unexpected failures that interrupted the house’s momentum toward establishing a third-way alternative to the big money duopoly.
Phillips did well with its white Joan Miró Femme dan la nuit which made $22.6m, Andy Warhol’s Gun which made $9.54m, Carmen Herrera’s Blanco y Verde which made $2.66m and kept Phillips streak of setting annual Carmen Herrera records alive and KAWS’s Untitled (Fatal Group) riff on Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert which sold for $3.5m and Mark Rothko’s Black Blue Painting which made $4.2m. The house did poorly with Alberto Burri and the Jackson Pollock painting being de-accessioned from Brazil that was bought in despite strong bids to $15.6m.
The failures at Phillips were somewhat surprising and the mood at Phillips wasn’t helped by the tone of the auctioneer who seemed over-matched by the stress of a tough sale. The source of Phillips’s troubles may not have been apparent, but they were glaringly obvious compared to the opaque comments Kenny Schachter offered The Art Newspaper about the sale of the $90m Hockney.
Yet the art dealer, collector and journalist Kenny Schachter says that “like an Egyptian statue with hands extended both front and back”, a deal like this Hockney painting is never quite what it appears to be. “If no fees are exchanged—Christie’s all but agreed to forego a commission—self buying has ends in itself. Money coming money going, propping up your painting price has ends of its own,” he says.
It’s not clear on what evidence Schachter is accusing the consignor of buying the work himself which would be illegal and foolish to expose to Christie’s which has a duty to prevent. Nor is it clear how the consignor could benefit from buying the work back himself. His ownership would have to be kept a secret for many years after. There’s little or no reason to believe a resale could be accomplished any time soon at any price that wasn’t a major loss.
These gnostic comments may be a reference to the last living artist to take the highest-price crown. In that sale, a group of collectors with various interests in the artist were active in the bidding. But their object was greed, not self-dealing. That one of the bidders became the unintentional buyer when the presumed money-no-object buyer bowed out of the bidding is its own punishment. This cautionary tale is well-known to the market participants too.
More to the point, the consignor is very active buyer and seller of art but he is not known to be an engrosser of artists’ work. Thus, it is unlikely that he has peers willing to push the painting to a record price. On the other side, Hockney’s output isn’t great enough for their to be many other interested parties who might benefit by taking the risk of bidding the work to an $80m hammer price. In fact, the bidding on the Hockney that took place in $100k increments from $70m to $80m is probably the best evidence that the two final bidders were sincere buyers. The risk of each successive bid winning far exceeded the reward of a slightly higher price.
The final irony of the evening was that the most likely beneficiary of the Hockney record price is the Ebsworth family trust and Christie’s.
Christie’s did well with Ebsworth collection. Christie’s ended the two sales of Ebsworth property most likely behind on their guarantee by a good $23m. It so happens that Christie’s held back the one painting, another of the Hockney double portraits that was also included in the retrospective. With the new $90m top price, Christie’s looks more likely to get that much or more from the sale of that painting in 2019. I don’t think anyone would seriously suggest the Ebsworth trust was bidding on the pool painting.
Apart from the Hockney, there wasn’t much evidence of a masterpiece market at Christie’s or anywhere else in town last week. Many of the big name works were sold on a single bid or driven by competition to prices just below the low estimate. We’ll have more detailed numbers later this week and earl next week. Some obvious works that might have seen strong bidding even just three years ago were sold matter-of-factly. The de Menil Rothko sold under the low estimate without much vigor to the bidding. The hammer price was $32m pushed up by a single counter-bid from $28m.
Last Spring Christie’s had come over the top of its rivals to win a large collection of Richard Diebenkorn’s work that the house was able to sell quite well and without holding work back for a later sale. The strategy seems to have paid off because the one near-record price achieved last week that showed competition and confirmed previous prices was the sale of Diebenkorn‘s Ocean Park #137 (1985). Here’s Artnet’s Eileen Kinsella narrating the action:
a prized work, [it] had the added cachet of being owned for four decades by the late actress Mary Tyler Moore, who had acquired it from LA Louvre in 1988. As Rotter and Gouzer, standing side by side at the telephone podium, duked it out in $100,000 increments for the Diebenkorn, Pylkkanen joked that it was the “clash of the titans.” He had opened bidding at $15 million, compared with a low estimate of $18 million. The work sold for $19.2 million. The final price with premium of $22.6 million brushed up against the current auction record for Diebenkorn of $23.9 million, set earlier this year at Christie’s New York when a work from the same series, Ocean Park #126 (1984), beat its pre-sale estimate of $16 million to $20 million
The Art Newspaper’s Margaret Carrigan spoke to an art advisor who thought she saw the market turning toward works with important provenances:
“It was encouraging that some of the less commercial, more academic works—like the small Guston drawing and the Celmins work on paper—saw extremely active bidding and prices well above estimate,” says Betsy Bickar, an adviser with Citi Private Bank Art Advisory and Finance. Both of the works came from the esteemed collection of Mary Margaret Anderson.
Indeed strong sales ensued for many of the top works from important estates. Joseph Cornell’s Story Without a Name—for Max Ernst went for double its estimate at $1.2m ($1.4m with fees) and a small but sought-after Francis Bacon portrait from the collection of magazine magnate S.I. Newhouse fetched $19m ($21.6m with fees), proving that “provenance still matters,” Bickar says.
Others more directly in the market, like Pilar Ordovas who currently has a show of Bacon’s Women up at her New York gallery was expecting more out of the Newhouse picture, according to Judd Tully:
“I thought it could go a bit higher,” Pilar Ordovas said as she exited the salesroom, “because it’s an extraordinary painting.”
Tully, the dean of the art market press corps, had a fair bit more to offer in the way of interesting observations:
Alexander Calder’s delicate 21 Feuilles Blanches (1953), a wide-wingspan mobile in sheet metal, wire, and white paint, floated skyward to $18 million (est. $5 million–$8 million). Private dealer Neal Meltzer and Upper East Side gallerist Christophe van de Weghe were underbidders.
Robert Colescott’s multi-figured and art-history-referencing composition Cultural Exchange (1987), mural like at 91 by 115 inches, sold for a record $912,500 (est. $250,000–$350,000), tripling the previous high mark set at Swann Galleries in New York last month when Down in the Dumps: So Long Sweetheart (1983) sold for $329,000. Tonight’s Colescott last sold at Bonhams & Butterfields in Los Angeles in April 2006 for $26,888.
Color, and lots of it, infused Sam Gilliam’s Lady Day II (1971), which went for an artist–record $2.17 million (est. $1 million–$1.5 million). The Gilliam last sold at Sloans & Kenyon auctioneers in Chevy Chase, Maryland, in September 2003 for $4,500 (yes, four thousand, five hundred bucks).
Kinsella too had a raft of market reference points to post:
Morris Louis’s Para IV (1959) sold at Phillips in 2015 for $2.3 million. Tonight it sold for $3.25 million.
Peter Doig‘s Untitled (Silver Pond Painting) (2001) sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2007 for $2.7 million. Tonight it was estimated at $5 to 7 million and was bought in or unsold at around $3.8 million
And Tom Wesselmann‘s Great American Nude No 34 sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 2003 for $680,000. Tonight it was estimated at $3 million to $4 million and sold for $3.2 million with premium.