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.)
On Tuesday evening Christie’s launched its new 21st-century sale category (1980s to now) with a 39-lot sale estimated to fetch more than $145 million. Timed an hour later than normal, it ate into America’s dining schedules and Europe’s deep sleep time. And to say that it was all about Asia would be an exaggeration, as barely 7 or 8 lots attracted bidding from Hong Kong. Still, after two hours of remote bidding and eleven record prices, the sale totaled a very healthy $210.5 million, realizing a 95 percent sell-through rate (sold prices include the buyers’ premium; estimates do not).
There was no precise precedent for comparison, as previous contemporary art sales included postwar work, henceforth to be included in their 20th-century sales (starting in the 1880s). Christie’s did experiment splitting 20th century and 21st century in the late 1990s, leaving Impressionists to merge with 19th century, but it didn’t work. Now, a quarter of a century on, there is far more contemporary art to choose from. Christie’s last evening contemporary art sale in New York before the pandemic in November 2019 scored $325 million with 54 lots including postwar art; the equivalent sale in May 2019 was $441 million. The drop was to be expected after shifting the postwar material.
Also as expected, the majority of top lots in last night’s sale were late 20th century, providing the financial anchor for the new category. Only three were estimated at $10 million and over, two of them by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Nearly half the lots were guaranteed, covering 77 percent of the estimated sale value.
Of the 39 lots offered, 11 set new records for artists including, Alex Da Corte, Jordan Casteel, Nina Chanel Abney, Jonas Wood, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and Mickalene Thomas, among others.
Leading the pack by a mile was Basquiat’s 6.5-foot-tall skull painting In This Case (1983), from the same group of three as the record $110.5 million Basquiat skull painting purchased by Japanese billionaire businessman Yusaku Maezawa at Sotheby’s in 2017. The other is in the Broad collection. In This Case came from the collection of Giancarlo Giammetti, cofounder with Valentino Garavani of the Valentino fashion label, the pair being familiar figures at the New York auctions. The painting last sold at auction in 2002 but Giammetti didn’t get his hands on it then; Sotheby’s sold it below the low estimate to Gagosian for $999,500. Giammetti had to wait until 2007 to buy it from Gagosian. Since 2002, the estimate has risen from $1 million to $50 million with a third-party guarantee thrown in. In the event, eight bidders went for it, including one from Hong, until it sold for $91.1 million to a phone bidder with Christie’s contemporary art specialist Ana Maria Celis.
Another Basquiat, Untitled (Soap), 1983–84, was also under a third-party guarantee at $10 million–$15 million, with two bidders competing on Hong Kong telephones until one prevailed at $13.2 million.
Now the norm, the sale opened with the hottest contemporary artists for whom Christie’s could guarantee competitive bidding, which didn’t need financial guarantees. The question for these artists is whether estimates are moving up sufficiently to diminish that competition.
Although not an obvious case of market speculation, Alex Da Corte is enjoying some attention at the moment with a sculpture on the Met’s roof garden. At Christie’s, his 6-foot-square neon Night Vision (2018), from Karma’s 2018 New York exhibition “C-A-T Spells Murder” carried his highest estimate yet at $60,000–$80,000 and set the sale off to a good start, selling to a London bidder for a record $187,500.
Inevitably there were recent works by Salman Toor and Amoako Boafo whose markets have been booming throughout the pandemic. An online bidder from California picked up Toor’s Best Friends (2019) for a triple estimate $475,000. Boafo’s Blue Pullover from 2018 (a spin-off from his Dior collaboration?) saw bidding from Florida, Illinois, and Hong Kong before heading to Hong Kong for a double estimate of $625,000. Now the market is negotiating the next crucial step for these artists as owners get greedier. Are estimates getting higher? Will buyers respond? The answer appears to be yes on both counts.
On the market boomer list is Jordan Casteel, an artist who was featured in a recent HBO documentary on black art and signed by Massimo de Carlo in February, in addition to Casey Kaplan. Casteel hit the secondary market in 2018 and 2019 with several works that sold for multiple estimates. But the bidding had died down (or the estimates started climbing) after she hit a record $668,000 at a London sale in February 2020. This evening’s sale portrait, Jireh (2013), was lent to Casteel’s recent solo show at the New Museum by art dealer and collector Jody Robbins, presumably the vendor last night, though unidentified in the auction catalogue. The rare male nude portrait carried one of her higher estimates to date, at $350,000–$550,000, and US bidders chased it to the high end before selling for a new record $687,500.
Another young Black artist, Nina Chanel Abney, who has shown with Jack Shainman since 2017 and whose bright, playful paintings have been favored by the Miami collectors Don and Mera Rubell, was represented in the sale. Her works have been selling well at auction since 2018. Abney’s prices had risen to a quadruple estimate £225,000 ($285,243) for a smaller, earlier work in 2019 but had not been exceeded until now: her 8-foot-square diptych Untitled (XXXXXX), 2015, representing the arrest of a white youth by two black policemen (from Abney’s ‘role reversal’ series), carried an estimate of $150,000 to $300,000—the highest yet for one of her works; it sold to a bidder from Hong Kong for a record $990,000. The same bidder went on to pay a record $275,000 for Joel Mesler’s New York, New York, six times the estimate.
Another artist who enjoyed his highest estimate yet ($2 million–$3 million) was Jonas Wood, for his large-scale still life painting, Two Tables with Floral Pattern (2013). Wood’s previous record, fueled by demand in Asia, was $4.9 million, for his Japanese Garden in 2019. Wood achieved his five highest prices in Hong Kong, but on this occasion, Asia was outbid: the work to a US buyer for a record $6.5 million.
And then there was Mickalene Thomas, whose Racquel Reclining Wearing Purple Jumpsuit (2016) was not only her largest painting to date at auction, but again had the highest estimate, at $400,000–$600,000. A similar-size work sold at Phillips in December for a record $901.200 against a $200,000 low estimate, but this rhinestone-studded lady went several bids better to break the million-dollar threshold at $1.8 million.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s powerful group portrait more than eight feet wide, Diplomacy III (2009), was shown at the 2010 Armory Fair, where art consultant and collector Susan Barrett bought it. The artist having a successful Tate show soon to close, the painting carried her highest estimate yet, $700,000–$1 million; following a three-way battle waged between bidders in London, New York, and Hong Kong, it sold to Hong Kong for a new record $1.95 million.
None of El Anatsui’s large bottle-cap wall hangings has ever gone to auction with a low estimate of $1 million or more. Once again, Christie’s pushed out the boat to give the artist’s first work in a New York evening sale a $1.2 million-$1.8 million estimate, a move justified when it sold to a Celis client for a record $1.95 million.
One disappointment in this respect was a painting by Kerry James Marshall. Only one of his paintings was estimated at more than $6.5 million, and we all know what happened to that (it sold for $21.1 million). The following year his Vignette 19 was offered with a $6.5 million low estimate: that one sold for $18.6 million. This time, Christie’s had Nat-Shango (Thunder), 1991, a life-size painting of Nat Turner, an enslaved man who was hanged for leading a Virginia insurrection in 1831, from the collection of Seattle-based art dealers Greg Kucera and Larry Yocom, guaranteed with a $6.5 million low estimate. Perhaps the image was too steeped in history—it appeared to sell to the third-party guarantor for the mid-estimate $7.5 million without competition.
Urs Fischer’s life-size steel rhino weighed down with domestic Things carried the highest published estimate for the artist at $3 million–$6 million; it also appeared to sell to the guarantor on the low estimate. The NFT market and the artist’s move from Gagosian to Pace may not have done him any favors.
The top 21st-century art lot was, if not art as we know it, a collection of nine digital NFTs of CryptoPunks minted by Matt Hall and John Watkinson (aka Larva Labs) in 2017. It was their first appearance in a major art auction, and the punk tokens had an estimate of $7 million–$9 million. Unusually for an auction, the artists themselves consigned the work, so it classified as primary market. As might be expected for a work allowing payment in cryptocurrency, strict payment conditions applied. The Christie’s catalogue essay quoted Andy Warhol: “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” The essay continues, “With the Punks, LarvaLabs, have taken this pithy maxim and flipped it and reversed it. In making the CryptoPunks, they made art that is money.” In this case, just shy of $17 million.
Angelica Villa contributed reporting