This report on the Sotheby’s Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary Evening sale for June 2020 by Angelica Villa is available to AMMpro subscribers. (The first month of AMMpro is free and subscribers are welcome to sign up for the first month and cancel before they are billed.)
On Monday, Sotheby’s staged its marquee contemporary, Impressionist, and modern evening auctions in its first live session featuring a fully remote format. The long-awaited market trial took place in the New York headquarters following several months of live auction hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. The leading lots were works by top postwar names—Francis Bacon, Clyfford Still, and Roy Lichtenstein, with Jean-Michel Basquiat not far behind. The sale achieved a total of $363.2 million across the three evening auctions and a 93 percent sell-through rate overall.
Head auctioneer Oliver Barker addressed the virtual audience from his podium in London in a surreal multi-camera global livestream connecting teams across time zones spanning Hong Kong, London, and New York. Kicking off the evening sale was the Ginny Williams collection, a far-sighted gathering of works by female modernists, which saw an impressive 100 percent sell-through rate, to bring in a total of $65.5 million, easily outdoing its $51.7 million high estimate. The contemporary art evening auction that followed featured 10 pieces from the storied West Coast Collection of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson (aka Hunk and Moo), among significant others; that sale realized a total $234.9 million. Only one lot in that sale, a Basquiat oil and Xerox collage from the collection of Robert Farris Thompson, failed to find a buyer.
At the high-value end of the auction, modern master Francis Bacon’s large-format Triptych from 1981, inspired by Aeschylus’s trilogy of Greek tragedies dating to the 5th century B.C., drew prolonged bidding. Online and phone bids brought the work within its estimate of $60 million to $80 million before the hammer came down at $74 million ($84.5 million, with buyers premium). The work’s consignor is Norwegian collector Hans Rasmus Astrup, who bought it in 1984, and is selling it to raise funds for his private foundation, the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo. It is the sixth large-format Bacon triptych to come to auction, and the first of its kind since 2014. The sale marks Bacon’s third-highest price achieved at auction.
Pop master Roy Lichtenstein’s White Brushstroke I from 1965 sold for $27 million, settling within an estimate of $20 million to $30 million. The highest price paid for another Brushstroke from 1965, featuring a similar scheme by the artist, went for $28.5 million in a Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale in May 2017. Clyfford Still’s abstract work PH-144 (1947-Y-NO.1), consigned from the Hunk and Moo Anderson estate, hammered at its $25 million low estimate ($28.7 million, with buyer’s premium).
Also from the Anderson collection was a Mark Rothko work from 1969, Green, Blue, Green; it posted a price of $8.4 million on a $7 million to $10 million estimate. View from a Porch, a 1959 Richard Diebenkorn landscape, hammered below estimate at $7.7 million ($9 million, with buyer’s premium). An orange-hued horizontal canvas by Helen Frankenthaler from 1975, Royal Fireworks, quickly shot up past its high estimate of $3 million; protracted competition between bidders on the phone with Sotheby’s chairman of the Fine Art Division Amy Cappellazzo and vice chairman Brooke Lampley eventually drove the price to $7.9 million. Having drawn 48 bids, the sale tripled Frankenthaler’s previous auction record of $3 million, for Blue Reach (1978), sold at a Sotheby’s contemporary day sale in May 2018. Williams acquired Royal Fireworks at a Christie’s New York contemporary sale in November 2011 for $818,500, at that time more than double a high estimate of $350,000.
Lee Krasner’s Re-Echo, a work from her seminal “Earth Green” series completed in 1957, a year after the sudden death of her husband, Ab-Ex heavyweight Jackson Pollock, swiftly reached its online $4.7 million bid, then climbed over $5 million with Cappellazzo’s telephone bidder; after reaching a stalemate at around $6.4 million, an online bidder resurfaced to push the work well over its $6 million high estimate to $7.7 million ($9 million with buyer’s premium), making it Krasner’s second-highest selling work at auction. The painter’s auction record was set at a Sotheby’s New York contemporary evening sale in April 2019, when Maryland-based mega-collectors and founders of the Glenstone museum housing their private collection, Mitchell and Emily Rales, bought Krasner’s The Eye Is the First Circle (1960) for $11.7 million.
Joan Mitchell’s dynamic 1956 Liens colorés, a painting some 55½ by 75 inches, features the artist’s signature sprawling brushstrokes; it hammered at a mid-estimate $5.95 million, still a fraction of her current $16.6 million auction record. Williams having bought the piece from the collection of Dallas-based Morton Meyerson in 1994, this is the first time it has come to auction. Another Mitchell canvas, Garden Party (1961–62), shot up after 29 bids to $6.7 million ($7.9 million, with buyer’s premium); an online bidder won the work. Later in the sale, Mitchell’s Straw from 1976 went to a phone bidder with Sotheby’s Brooke Lampley, for $8.8 million against an estimate of $5 million to $7 million.
The sale also brought a new record for artist Vija Celmins, whose 1995 black monochrome painting Night Sky #7 sold for a below-estimate $6.6 million, surpassing the artist’s previous record of $4.2 million for a work on paper. Conceptual painter Agnes Martin’s white monochrome Mountain Flowers I drew fast initial bids to reach its low estimate quickly; it eventually achieved $5.2 million, to double a presale low expectation of $2 million, but came in at half the artist’s record price of $10.7 million.
Another knockout figure was set for Donald Judd’s groundbreaking wood and galvanized iron piece from 1962, the only one of five variations of this sculpture to come to auction; it drew a host of bids, eventually achieving $9.8 million after a long phone bidding war. Laura Paulson, of Gagosian’s advisory leg, is the consignor’s agent and helped bring the work to auction. Abstract Expressionist Sam Francis’s blue canvas from 1956, completed during his seminal Paris era, went for $8.9 million, surpassing its high estimate of $7 million.
Elsewhere in the Ginny Williams Collection sale, Georgia O’Keeffe, who leads the pack of female modernists with an auction record of $44 million, executed a strong performance. O’Keeffe’s 1930 New Mexico Landscape and Sand Hills, featuring sprawling hills against a gray sky, reached its high estimate of $1.2 million quickly with a series of phone bids, eventually selling for $1.4 million to nearly double its low estimate of $800,000. Large-scale outdoor “eye” benches of black granite from 1996–97, acquired by dealer Ginny Williams directly from artist Louise Bourgeois, sparked a battle between global bidders, going for $3.3 million, three times their high estimate. A Fang-Betsi classical African sculpture from the collection of Sidney and Bernice Clyman sold within estimate for $3.6 million. Last on the market in 2001, a 1983 Basquiat canvas featuring a lone white head against a background of scrawled squares brought $2.9 million, falling within estimate.
A new name surfacing this season in the evening sale segment is that of the late artist Matthew Wong; his Realm of Appearances opened the contemporary art evening sale with a high estimate of $70,000, and set a $1.82 million record price following competition among 59 bidders from 16 countries. The painting was originally bought at Karma gallery in New York in 2018. The price blows away Wong’s previous record, set this past May at Sotheby’s first-ever online day sale of contemporary art, for an untitled watercolor on paper that took $62,500, four times its $15,000 high estimate. That sale inspired some controversy, as the 2018 painting was consigned by a flipper who had bought it at the artists’ first gallery show; the thirty-five-year-old artist died by suicide in October 2019.
British-Ghanaian painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s 2016 figurative painting Cloister sold for $574,000, far above its $400,000 high estimate. The artist’s current auction record stands at $1.6 million, set by The Hours Behind You (2011) when it was sold from the collection of Jerome and Ellen Stern at Sotheby’s New York in 2017; that price outstripped four times the painting’s $350,000 high estimate.
Basquiat’s 1982 work on paper Untitled (Head), featuring a scrawled head mostly in turquoise, went for $15.2 million to beat its $12 million high estimate as well as the artist’s previous $13.6 million record, set by another untitled 1982 drawing that sold at Christie’s in May 2015. Andy Warhol’s large-scale silkscreened yellow Cross from 1982 brought in $2.7 million against an estimate of $1.8 million to $2.5 million, after gathering just six phone bids. Frankenthaler’s 1978 Tunis, a muted red acrylic on canvas, sold for $2.96 million, neatly exceeding its $1.8 million high estimate.
A Yayoi Kusama painting from the Williams collection, INFINITY NETS V.A.T., circa 1979, drew the night’s first online bid; a steady back-and-forth between a phone bidder with senior vice president and contemporary specialist David Galperin and a bidder online drove the hammer price to $950,000 ($1.16 million with buyer’s premium), to meet its high estimate of $1 million.
Figurative works at the lower-price end saw success as well. The last lot on offer from the Williams collection was contemporary painter Alice Neel’s 1977 portrait Lilly Brody, which went for $1.04 million against an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. Neel’s current auction record is $1.65 million, achieved with the sale of Jackie Curtis and Rita Red at Sotheby’s New York in 2009. David Park’s Two Heads (1959), acquired by the Andersons in 1968, similarly sold for $1.04 million against an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000; contemporary artist Nicolas Party’s 2015 portrait against a red background brought in $650,000, meeting its high estimate of $600,000 on nine bids.
The final stage of the auction broke a series of records for modern and Surrealist Latin American artists who are newcomers to the evening auction, hailing from an estate in the Vanguard Spirit section of the sale. This session brought in $26.6 million, with a 91 percent sell-through rate. Leading the sale was Picasso’s small-scale Tête de Femme Endormie from 1934, consigned from the David Lloyd Kreeger Foundation, which hammered at the low end of its estimate at $9.6 million ($11.2 million, with buyer’s premium) to a phone bidder after drawing just five bids. The second-highest price in the group of Latin American mainstays on offer was Cuban surrealist Wifredo Lam’s 1943 abstract painting Omi Obini, which sold for $9.6 million. With the highest estimate ever assigned the artist’s work—$8 million to $12 million—the oil on canvas broke Lam’s previous record of $5.2 million, set at Sotheby’s Paris in December 2017.
Another Picasso painting titled Femme Assise from 1929 sold for $4.8 million, reaching its low estimate after eight bids. Female Surrealists saw new highs in the modern sale, including Leonora Carrington, whose figurative scene from 1946, Tuesday, hammered at its high estimate of $900,000 ($1.1 million, with buyer’s premium). Leonor Fini’s Figures on a Terrace from 1938, which features a seated self-portrait, went for $980,000, easily surpassing its $600,000 high estimate as well as the artist’s previous $628,000 record, established with the sale of Les quatres saisons at Christie’s London in 1990. Remedios Varo’s 1956 interior scene Armonía (Autorretrato Sugerente) also set a new artist record at $6.2 million, collecting twice its high estimate of $3 million. Yet another artist record price was set when Mario Carreño’s 1943 Cortadores de Caña sold for $2.7 million, and Alice Rahon’s Los Cuatro Hijos Del Arco Iris (1960) brought a new artist record at $512,000 when it demolished its $180,000 high estimate.
Rene Magritte’s Le Sens Propre from 1929 just reached its low estimate of $2.5 million ($2.8 million, with buyer’s premium), and Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture Orpheus (Maquette 2) (Version II) did the same, fetching $2.2 million ($2.5 million, with buyer’s premium), its low estimate. Norwegian master Edvard Munch’s Standing Nude from 1916 brought in a mid-estimate $2.06 million, and Bernard Buffet’s 1956 Arlequin, a portrait in green failed to reach its low estimate of $800,000, selling for $600,000 as the last lot of the night.