As the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic sweeps across the art market, closing down public auctions until the summer, many sale series have moved online. Last week, Sotheby’s announced a new series of online sales for its modern and contemporary categories this Spring, along with a selection of highlights for the Contemporary Day sale which will be open for bidding on May 4.
Among the highlights for the works on offer in the contemporary day sale segment will be Richard Prince’s black acrylic silkscreen on canvas 3 Jokes Painted to Death from 1987. Renowned for his method of cultivating his content from commercial mass media, Prince has likened his approach to beach-combing. In the first half of the 1980s he began collecting comic material from advertisements, magazines and editorials which he would later repurpose for the Joke paintings. The triptych on offer at Sotheby’s comes from the early period of the seminal series, from 1987 to 1992, when the artist graduated from recording one-liners on pieces of paper and collecting the phrases, to reproducing them on monochrome screen-printed canvases. As an early piece, the black work is notably different than the highly saturated large-scale counterparts done in the 1990s that surface at auction for prices between $3-5 million.
Noting the key difference in the work on offer, Head of Sotheby’s Contemporary Afternoon Sale in New York, Max Moore said “the triptych format is rare for the series, it emphasizes the repetition of this one-liner, it really gets to the point. As opposed to the later works from the Joke series, which are uniformly monochromatic and feel almost sterile, you can really see the artist’s hand at work with every mark and imperfection across each of the three panels.” The work’s surface is host to dark comedy, the subject is the chance meeting of two friends, ending with a typical Princian missive “if I knew, I wouldn’t be here” that plays with dead-pan existentialism. Fractured, out of context, and shifting out of visibility the joke is overlaid on the trace of a veiled printed lyric, with the words “selling silk in Florida” just barley legible beneath—the faded text sprawled across three registers recalls the work’s key question of coming and going.
As digital sales become the emphasis, specialists are tasked with finding works conducive to virtual collecting. As Moore notes, “the Prince Joke series is iconic and immediately recognizable, so it made me confident in bringing this work to the May Contemporary Art Online Day Sale because it’s familiar to collectors worldwide. For an online sale, it’s an ideal candidate.”
Amid a volatile financial market and the onslaught of changes to the art industry’s seasonal calendar, the expansion of both online sales and private sales mean higher valuer works are being sold through virtual means. With the Prince piece being the most expensive lot to be offered in an online sale at Sotheby’s— the Day sale presents collectors with a prolonged access to works that would have otherwise been subject to the tight competitive margin of live auction. Moore also noted that “at the $500,000 low estimate, for a new or established Prince collector, this presents an incredible opportunity to acquire an iconic work at a more accessible price point.” The current auction record for a Prince Joke painting is $4.8 million, set in a Christie’s Contemporary sale in 2016.