This report on the Christie’s ONE sale in July 2020 by Colin Gleadell features important details on buyers, consignors and the decisions made by art advisors that affected the outcome of these lots. You won’t find information like the buyer of the Lalanne Hippopotamus and the sellers of Burri, Calder and Wong anywhere else. The report 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.)
Christie’s ONE sale last Friday was an attempt by the company to pool all its strongest cards together to break the pandemic price ceiling as Sotheby’s had done with its $363 million sale (including a $84 million Francis Bacon) a week earlier.
Impressionists, design and photography were all hauled in, and guarantees made on 37 lots worth some $210 million based on the combined low estimates, most of which were passed on to 3rd parties. The result, satisfactorily for Christie’s, was a winning $421 million sale over a pre-sale $337 million estimate. (Prices include the buyers’ premium, estimates do not).
This triggered a quick response from Sotheby’s that its comparable total for Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art last week, including day sales, came to $431 million. And then that the $411 million it achieved during the week of Hong Kong sales made it the ‘undisputed market leader’ in Asia, a term which Christie’s became particularly fond of in recent years, and one no doubt they will return to again – though they can forget about online only sales where Sotheby’s is streaks ahead.
Before the ONE sale, Christie’s had attempted to inject some dynamism into the proceedings by announcing a new 20/21 department basically wrapping up Impressionist and Contemporary art together. About 15 years ago, they tried something similar by creating 20th century sales – Impressionists were combined with the 19th century ( a way of allowing ambitious 19th C specialists to get their hands on more valuable Impressionist paintings), and the latest contemporary art was separated from the new mammoth 20thcentury category of modern and post-war art. For various reasons—losing market share in both 19th C and Impressionists to Sotheby’s, and the thinness of their non post-war contemporary art catalogues—the experiment didn’t last long. But now, times have forced a similar restructure, this time with the promise that Impressionists will be included in the 20/21 category, though it still looks like two departments simply pooling resources while the pickings are slim to mount a single substantial sale—like the ‘ONE’ sale.
If the ONE sale was intended to trumpet the togetherness of Christie’s departments and global centres, it was a very lop-sided signal. Apart from being US top heavy, Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and classic Moderns were in a glaring minority. A recently discovered c.1923 Chagall was typical, but not early enough to be interesting, and sold within estimate for $850,788. A Modigliani portrait of 1907, on the other hand, was too early and atypical to excite real interest and sold within estimate for $5.1 million. An 1897 landscape by Pissarro had a third-party guarantee and sold below estimate (so probably to the guarantor) for $2.3 million. Best of this group was a Magritte (about which more below) , and a sparkling 1892 pointillist view of a regatta by Theo van Rysselberghe—a second string Post-Impressionist, following in the slipstream of the leading pointillist, Paul Signac (record $26 million)—that sold for a mid-estimate $9.1 million given by a London client. The feel-good painting had been bought in 1983 for $180,000 by the prominent Canadian collector, Hebert Black, who sold it four years later for $440,000 to this auction’s seller, described by Christie’s only as ‘a Distinguished Private American collector.’ Correct as far as it goes, but in reality the financier Scott M Black (no relation), who counts Michael Bloomberg amongst his clients. Black had previously lent it to The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for 13 years to be admired by all. The latest price comes on the back of a record $10.7 million paid in London three years ago for another sailboat painting by van Rysselberghe.
Bridging the modern and contemporary is later period Picasso—here, version ‘F’, 1955, from his ‘Femmes d’Algers’ series. Identified by experts as the property of Hong Kong based collector, Joseph Lau, (the lot was described by Christie’s only as ‘Property from a Distinguished Private Collector’) it had a third-party guarantee and an estimate of $25 million and sold just over that for $29.2 million. The guarantor will probably have thought it would make more considering the much larger version ‘O’ from the series made a Picasso record $179 million in 2015.
As at Phillips, guarantees played an important role in assembling and marketing the sale. But although the amount guaranteed was much greater than at Phillips, the guaranteed percentage of the total pre-sale estimate of the sale was lower, though still a considerable 63%. Of the two in-house guarantees, one, Philip Guston’s late period Fort did not sell at $4-6 million—one of only four lots unsold in the auction.
Dotted throughout the sale, though, were examples of healthy gains. Joan Mitchell’s diptych, Grande Vallée V11 had a guarantee and sold mid-estimate without a hitch to a Hong Kong phone bidder for $14.5 million. Mitchell’s profile wasn’t always so high. In 2008, the painting had been offered by Christie’s at $4-6 million and not sold. It was bought after the sale by last week’s seller. According to Bloomberg, that seller was US billionaire entrepreneur, Lorenzo Fertitta, who, the report states, is advised by Brett Gorvy, the former head of Christie’s contemporary art department. When La Grande Vallée V11 went unsold, Gorvy would have facilitated the after-sale. If Fertitta was last week’s seller (Gorvy did not respond to an email seeking confirmation), he was well advised. Mitchell’s market may have peaked before now, but with added Asian interest, shows no signs of slipping.
The same vendor description (Important American Collector) was also afforded the top lot of the sale, Roy Lichtenstein’s Nude with Joyous Painting, a late work (i.e., 1994, catchy, but definitely not vintage pop) which made the highest price yet for a post 60s work at $46.2 million after three bidders, two American and one Asian, slugged it out over the $30 million estimate before the auctioneer brought the gavel down announcing the painting was ‘going back to Hong Kong’. Again, the guarantor did well and the timing of the sale was good. Though it remains a mystery why a savvy advisor like Gorvy (with a new gallery in Hong Kong) would have failed to anticipate the Asian competition and taken a last-minute guarantee that ate into Ferttita’s profits significantly .
Lower down the scale a pumpkin painting by Yayoi Kusama, bought in Hong Kong only 2 years ago for $1.1 million, sold for $1.9 million.
Less profitable would have been a burned plastic work by the Italian Arte Povera artist, Alberto Burri. One of only two modern Italian works in the sale (Christie’s usually holds several sales a year in London and Milan devoted to modern Italian art, but that market has softened lately) Rosso Plastica, 1963, was bought at Sotheby’s in 2014 for £3.7 million by the Nahmad family of art dealers just as plans for the Guggenheim’s Burri exhibition were under way. It was the second highest price paid for Burri and was exhibited in their New York gallery’s Monochrome exhibition in 2017 (all information omitted from the Christie’s catalogue). At Christie’s, auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen called for someone in New York, Paris or Hong Kong to bid, but only two bids in London brought the work to its £2.8 million low estimate where it sold (£3.4 million including the buyer’s premium). A loss for the Nahmads, though not serious for them, and no upside for the guarantor.
Another hit was taken, unexpectedly, for a 1960 Calder stabile, Mountain, bought at Bonhams in 2015 at the upper estimate for $845,000. It then appeared in 2017 at Zona Maco in Mexico (not recorded in Christie’s catalogue) on Adam Lindemann’s, Venus Over Manhattan gallery’s stand (presumably the buyer at Bonhams). Calder is generally considered a safe bet in the market, but this sold, unprotected by a guarantee at Christie’s, for a reduced $579,000.
On the other hand, it would have been a contented guarantor and seller of Gerhard Richter’s vintage squeegee abstract, Frost (1) 1983. Last at auction in 2007 where it sold to an Asian phone bidder who outgunned New York advisor, Andrew Ruth, to buy it for $2.8 million, the purchaser represented it for the Hong Kong leg of the ONE sale, where it sold on the high estimate for $10.3 million back to Hong Kong against US bidding.
The late entry 3rd party guarantor for Magritte’s 1962 L’Arc d Triomphe, estimated at £6.5-9.5 million and selling for £17.8 million ($22.4 million), would also have done well. The painting which last sold at auction in 1992 for $1.1 million, has had two owners since, watching as the surrealist market has been creeping up. Magritte’s record was broken three times between 2016 and 2019. Two of these went to Asian buyers, but there were no bids from Hong Kong for this quietly surreal painting which perhaps lacks obvious Instagram appeal. The competition came from London and New York. America has enjoyed a spate of Magritte exhibitions in the last six years, and it was Marc Porter’s bid that won the painting. Chief suspect for the other end of the phone is Wilbur Ross, Donald Trump’s secretary of commerce, who is a leading Magritte collector.
Unguaranteed work at the highest end struggled. Barnett Newman’s Instagram unfriendly monochrome Onement V, 1952, sold below estimate for $30.1 million. Brice Marden’s Complements, 2004-7, which had come from the Donald Marron estate and had not been immediately sold by the triumvirate of dealers (Pace, Acquavella, Gagosian) who won the estate from the auctioneers last year, also sold below estimate for $30.1 million (albeit an artist’s record), and Ed Ruscha’s Annie, 1962, sold after little competition, below estimate to a New York phone bid, reportedly made by Gagosian, for $22.9 million. All three were all-American affairs, with no European or Asian bidding. Similarly, Wayne Thiebaud’s Four Pinball Machines 1962, (reportedly sold by Kenneth Siebel who has owned it for nearly 40 years) was not guaranteed and sold below estimate for $19.1 million – a record nonetheless.
One standout unguaranteed work was Ruth Asawa’s untitled hanging wire sculpture, c 1953-4, which fetched a record $5.4 million. It was being sold by an anonymous party who inherited it from Gaylord Hall, a Bay area dentist who supported Japanese American arts and crafts and died last year aged 95. Hall bought the piece in 1994, long before Asawa was taken up by the market, and most recently by David Zwirner, for $2,300. That’s some mark up.
Another was Frank Stella’s 1962 classic and rare grey toned, Sharpeville, which came from the family of long-term collector Morton G Neuman, a Chicago cosmetics manufacturer, who had acquired it in the 60’s. Again, this was an all-American contest as it sold above estimate for $11.6 million
In spite of the apparent strengths of the market, there were bargains to be had. London dealer, Ben Brown, said “The market seems extremely selective but also very odd, and many things seem to slip between the cracks. Several great works made less than they should have.”
Brown, for instance is one of the leading dealers in the work of Claude and Francois-Xavier Lalanne. In recent months the whacky arty designs of Les Lalannes have been selling like hot cakes – viz Sotheby’s Paris studio sale of their collection last year was a $100 million sell-out. At the ONE sale there was an almost 10-foot long blue polyester and brass hippo bath, Hippopotame I 1998 by Francois-Xavier with a Euros 800,000 – 1.2 million estimate. An earlier brass and copper version sold in New York last year for a quadruple estimate $4.3 million. Brown was the underbidder on that, so the ONE sale estimate was appealing to him. Officially it was made in an edition of 4 (originally for Marcel Duchamp), but all are different in detail, so unique, says Brown. After a few bids he saw off the competition to buy it within estimate for E1 million ($1,148, 677), and said he would take it home and enjoy it for a few years.
He was also able to buy advantageously for stock. From the collection of Josep Sunol Soler, a Spanish businessman who died last year and bought post-war Spanish art in the 1970s before it became expensive, he bought a 1964 painting by the grand master of Spanish ‘informel’ art, Antoni Tapies, below estimate for £443,250 ($557,165), and one of Irish painter, Sean Scully’s ever popular Wall of Light series of paintings. Of the 30 that have been at auction, all have sold for up to $1.4 million recently, but Brown snagged this one below estimate for £791,250 ($994,601).
One of the imponderables of the sale was the failure of a 1963 abstract by Chinese/French artist Zao Wou-ki with a $10 million estimate. The artist’s work has been selling for that and more like clockwork on the Asian market, but the Hong Kong auctioneer reached an impasse at $HK 80 million, and after a long wait for telephone bids to come through, brought the hammer down as an unsold lot.
“I sold it twice,” said Hong Kong dealer Pascal de Sarthe. “First in 1998 when paintings like this one were selling around US$150,000 and then during the Zao exhibition I did at my gallery in Hong Kong in 2011. I can’t disclose the price that the collector paid then. Despite a week of amazing auction results for the works of Zao Wou-Ki, I can’t explain why this great painting failed to sell.”
Nonetheless, the Hong Kong leg of this sale was probably the most successful in terms of selling above estimates – with younger generation artists who have fanatical following in Asia (60,000 of the 80,000 digital viewers of this sale were from Asia). These sales included Martin Wong, the subject of a New York v Hong Kong bidding battle (won by New York), as was George Condo’s record breaking Force Field. Interestingly the top selling Wong of the Statue of Liberty in tears (1990) was from New York’s Shin Gallery collection. Owner, Hong Gyu Shin, made an impact in New York when he underbid Elaine Wynn on that record breaking $142 million Francis Bacon triptych of Lucian Freud in 2013.
Comparing sale totals to previous seasons, while pointless because of the radically different circumstances effecting consignments, does actually reveal a sterling effort by all the major houses to adapt and keep their ships afloat. Prices, meanwhile, are not, with only a few exceptions, plummeting as they did in 2008/09. Losses and hardship sales have been fairly minimal, while gains, particularly on long held classics and short-term flips, have been widespread and confidence boosting.
Visually, the sales were certainly an interesting experience to watch. Meanwhile, having passed the first major hurdle of the pandemic, the market will wait to see if prices suffer a delayed reaction. The art market has often been the last into a recession as wealthy art lovers look to buy good art while they can in a diminishing supply chain. That has been the pattern in the past and looks to be so again.