Art Market

$38.6 Million Bacon Leads $310 Million Sotheby’s Sale of Post-war and Contemporary Art

Anna Louie Sussman
Nov 17, 2017 2:08PM

Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s posted a solid contemporary sale Thursday evening, bringing in $310.2 million over 72 lots, or $267.4 million before buyer’s fees, with a notable 96% of lots sold.

Bidding on many of the higher-end lots was thin, but a fair number of them—44 in all, or 61% of the sale—came with guarantees or irrevocable bids, suggesting that the auction house preferred to cut deals ahead of the sale rather than hold out for a little drama in the room.

“It shows they didn’t have much interest in the works and just wanted to get these things sold,” said Brett Gorvy, a former Christie’s executive and partner in Upper East Side gallery Lévy Gorvy.

It was a buzzkill, but an effective one. Thursday night marked Sotheby’s fourth consecutive New York contemporary evening sale with a sell-through rate of 90% or more by lot, Grégoire Billault, senior vice president and head of Contemporary Art, New York, said after the sale. All of the 24 works on paper from the Diamonstein-Spielvogel collection sold, two-thirds of them for above their high estimates.  

It was the final evening sale of a historic auction week that saw Christie’s sell Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi for $450 million, far and away the highest price ever paid for a work of art. The five evening sales together—two Impressionist and Modern sales and three contemporary sales, including Phillips’s earlier on Thursday night—brought in $1.946 billion, results that mark a significant rise from the previous year but are still well below the $2.7 billion week of auctions held in May 2015.

Coming after Christie’s dramatic Wednesday night sale of the Leonardo, Sotheby’s multiple results in the mere millions might seem almost quaint. But, Christie’s star lot aside, the houses’ sales finished near neck and neck, with Sotheby’s selling 12% more of the lots it offered.

The wry and charming auctioneer and senior director and chairman of Sotheby’s Europe Oliver Barker nonetheless couldn’t ignore his competitor’s big night, remarking after the $6.7 million sale ($7.5 million with fees) of a 2001 Ferrari Formula 1 race car that “it seems like Italian exports do well at contemporary sales.”

Bidders came from 36 countries, Sotheby’s said. As had been the case at Christie’s contemporary sale on Wednesday night, the presence of Asian buyers was muted in comparison to both houses’ Impressionist and Modern sales, suggesting a meaningful trend in activity from that region. The total haul inclusive of fees was a 12% rise from last year’s $276.5 million, over 64 works.

The night’s big sale was Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of George Dyer (1966), which sold for $35.5 million, or $38.6 million with fees, barely above its low estimate of $35 million. In the same private collection for nearly half a century, the small triptych is one of five that depicts his longtime lover.

Another star lot, Andy Warhol’s Mao (1972), sold Thursday night for $28.5 million, or $32.4 million with fees, below its low estimate of $30 million. The 82-inch work is part of his “Mao” series’s first set of 11 works, conceived in the early 1970s following U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China. In total, Warhol made nearly 200 works featuring the Chinese leader.

One of the few lots of the evening that elicited a bidding war, Roy Lichtenstein’s disjointed, cartoon-inspired Female Head (1977) blew past its $10 million to $15 million estimate and hammered down at $21.5 million, or $24.5 million with fees. It came from the collection of Elizabeth R. Rea and the late Michael M. Rea, who bought it from the legendary Leo Castelli Gallery. A portion of the sale’s proceeds went to the Dungannon Foundation, sponsor of The Rea Award for the Short Story, a literary prize established by the late Mr. Rea.

Jean Dubuffet’s Maison Fondée (1961), one of the sale’s star lots, whiffed at $11.8 million. It was one of just three works that failed to sell.  

A Louise Bourgeois spider sculpture, Spider IV (1997), one of an edition of six, sold for $12.8 million or $14.6 million with fees, squarely within its $10 million to $15 million estimate, and “a new record for a wall-mounted spider,” according to Sotheby’s. It was one of nine works by female artists in the sale (the most ever in a Sotheby’s contemporary evening auction), many of whom Billault noted did extremely well Thursday night.

Works by two other women, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Laura Owens, also set artist records. There were over 10 bidders for an untitled 2012 work by Owens, who is currently the subject of a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. They pushed the final price up to $1.45 million, or $1.7 million with fees, more than four times its $300,000 high estimate. Yiadom-Boakye’s The Hours Behind You (2011), from the collection of Jerome and Ellen Stern, also went for over four times its high estimate of $350,000, at a hammer price of $1.3 million, or $1.5 million with fees.

“The whole of the art world is really reconsidering” women artists, said Barker. “I think commercially Louise Bourgeois has only really caught up with some of her contemporaries in the last five years.”

He cited the growing number of solo shows devoted to women in museums around the world, but said the auction house wasn’t going after consignments based on an artist’s gender.

“We haven’t consciously gone out and said, ‘Oh, we need women artists,’” he said. “I think that would be a little bit sexist, actually.”

Alberto Burri’s striking, apocalyptic Nero Plastica L.A. (1963) barely scraped its low estimate of $10 million, selling for $9.5 million, or $10.9 million with fees. The work had been previewed after Sotheby’s London sale and is an example of his experiments in burning and shaping molten plastic with a blowtorch.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Cabra (1981–82), which was held in Yoko Ono’s collection for over two decades, also sold near its low estimate. The work, which references Muhammad Ali’s triumph over boxer Oscar “The Bull” Bonavena, who insulted Ali with racial slurs, hammered at $9.5 million, or $10.9 million with fees, on an estimate of $9 million to $12 million.

Another Basquiat, Flash in Naples (1983), went for $7 million, or $8.1 million with fees, just making its low estimate. Featuring two bright red figures of cartoon superhero The Flash against a grid of colorful lines, the work nonetheless brought its consigner a considerable return: It had last sold in 2010 for $3.3 million at Sotheby’s in New York.

Jeff Koons’s New Hoover Celebrity IV, New Hoover Convertible, New Shelton 5 Gallon Wet/Dry, New Shelton 10 Gallon Wet/Dry Doubledecker (1981–86) sold for $5.5 million, or $6.4 million with fees, well under its low estimate of $7 million. One of the artist’s early ready-made works in which he wryly enshrined everyday objects in vitrines, consecrating them as both art and consumer goods, it last sold at auction for $137,500 in 1991.

Despite the many works that had just one or two bids, Billault and his colleagues seemed pleased with the results. It was the second time this week that Sotheby’s followed this well-orchestrated but low-drama sales strategy, following its Tuesday night Impressionist and Modern sale, which brought in $269.6 million over 64 lots, many of which also had a bare minimum of bidders.

“They sold almost everything off. I think it’s the strategy of the season,” said Morgan Long, a senior director of the Fine Art Group in London.

Anna Louie Sussman