$448 Million Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Sale Led by Bacon and Twombly

  • Photo courtesy of Christie’s.

    Photo courtesy of Christie’s.

Wednesday night’s $448 million Post-War and Contemporary sale at Christie’s New York showed the appetite for fresh-to-market works is stellar, if not voracious.

The results were a notable increase from November’s total of $277 million, thanks to a handful of high-value lots, including four works that together made up more than one third of the total.

Those results suggested something of a comeback at the top end of the market, a segment of the auction market that had declined sharply in 2016 as high-rollers held their cards close to the vest during a tumultuous year. The total value sold of works priced above $10 million fell by more than half last year, according to The Art Market | 2017, a report published recently by Art Basel and UBS, in a year when worldwide auction sales dropped by 26%.

The sale finished with 96% of lots sold, or 68 out of 71, and a 99% rate sold by value. The result without the buyer’s premiums came to $391.3 million, falling within the estimated $339.2 million to $462.8 million range. The vast majority of the works were fresh to market, 85% having not been for sale in at least 20 years, something which tends to stoke demand.

Two lots were withdrawn, including a pricey untitled 1977 painting by Willem de Kooning, which had been estimated for between $25 million and $35 million and a Bruce Nauman sculpture with a $2 million–$3 million estimate. As for the three unsold lots, Loic Gouzer, Christie’s chairman for Post-War & Contemporary Art, blamed President Donald Trump. Given the events of the week, who was in a position to question him? Still, American buyers were a major presence on Wednesday night, winning 55% of the works, and seemingly unfazed by current events and the stock market’s drop on Wednesday.

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The evening’s total was lifted by the sale of four headline works, which combined sold for over $167 million. While 82% of the lots fell within or exceeded their estimates, bidding was often subdued, even for featured works such as Sigmar Polke’s Frau mit Butterbrot (1964), which sold for $17 million after less than half a dozen bids (or $15 million at the hammer, right at its estimate), or the sale’s cover lot, Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (1963).

The Bacon triptych sold for a total $51.7 million, or $46 million before the buyer’s premium. That fell short of the work’s estimate, provided on request, of in excess of $50 million. The portrait was the first painted of Bacon’s lover and muse, who according to (a likely false) legend met the artist while attempting a break-in of his studio. It once belonged to famed children’s books author Roald Dahl before passing to the current consignor.

Cy Twombly’s energetic, large-scale Leda and the Swan (1962), had a slightly better run, climbing from the low $30 millions up to a $47 million hammer price (or $52.8 million with the buyer’s premium). The result, which came safely within its estimate of between $35 million and $55 million, was met with muted applause. Painted during his years in Rome, the painting appeared on sale for the first time in 30 years.

La Hara (1981), Jean-Michel Basquiat’s depiction of a hulking white policeman, with its implicit critique of the “broken windows” theory of policing, felt particularly salient at a time when the country’s attorney general has stated his intention to bring back “tough on crime” policies and empower law enforcement officials around the country. Bidders seemed to agree: The large painting exceeded its estimate of $22 million to $28 million and sold for $34.9 million, or $31 million without the buyer’s premium.

Roy Lichtenstein’s Red and White Brushstrokes (1965) saw limited bidding action, hammering at $25 million, its low estimate. With the premium, the total price came to $28.2 million. The painting is one of 14 works in his “Brushstrokes” series, of which just a few remain in private hands.

Christopher Wool’s Untitled (1988) barely exceeded its low estimate of $15 million, finishing at $15.1 million ($17.1 million with the buyer’s premium) after just a handful of bids. One of his highly recognizable word paintings (it reads “PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE”), it was featured in the 1989 Whitney Biennial and comes from the Spiegel collection.

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One of Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soup can paintings, Big Campbell’s Soup Can with Can Opener (Vegetable) (1962), which the house expected to return in excess of $25 million, sold quickly for $27.5 million with the buyer’s premium, or $26 million without, after just a few bids, climbing in million-dollar increments, from the starting price of $22 million. The only one of this series with a can opener, and the first in the series of 11 at this large scale, it last sold in 2010 for $23.8 million.

Warhol’s Last Supper (1986), by contrast, had a feistier night, running all the way up to $16.5 million ($18.7 million with the buyer’s premium) from a starting bid of $4.5 million, and coming in at nearly three times the low estimate of $6 million.

Twenty-five of the sale’s lots came from the collection of Emily and Jerry Spiegel, New York arts patrons and early supporters of artists like Anselm Kiefer and Louise Bourgeois. The collection, which passed into the hands of the couple’s two daughters, was fought over by Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and smaller rival Phillips. One daughter, Pamela Sanders, chose Christie’s to sell more than 100 of her works, Bloomberg reported. The other daughter, Lise Spiegel Wilks, gave Sotheby’s a prize Basquiat for a guarantee of at least $60 million, according to the Bloomberg report.

Across the Wednesday night sale, 55 lots sold for over $1 million, and 11 of those went for $10 million or above.

Four artists notched new records at auction: David Salle for Footmen (1986), which sold for $583,500; Robert Gober for Untitled (1985) at $5.2 million; Rudolf Stingel for his massive portrait Untitled (After Sam) (2006), at $10.5 million; and Mark Grotjahn for Untitled (S III Released to France Face 43.14) (2011), which went at the high end of its estimate at $16.7 million. Man Ray hit a new record for a gelatin silver print, achieving $2.1 million on an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000 for Portrait of a Tearful Woman (1936).

Younger artists had a fairly strong night. Bidding for Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s I Refuse to be Invisible (2010) sold for $2.2 million at the hammer (or $2.6 million with the buyer’s premium), above its high estimate of $2 million, and Urs Fischer’s sculpture Julian (2014) sold for a within-estimate $3.3 million. However, Sterling Ruby’s SP302 (2014) failed to find a bidder.

Christie’s reported total art sales in 2016 of $5.4 billion, down for the second straight year from 2014’s high of $8.4 billion. The majority, $4.4 billion, came through public auction sales, and the rest through private sales ($935.5 million) and online sales ($67.1 million). Overall sales in the global art market were estimated at slightly under $57 billion in 2016.

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Speaking after Wednesday’s sale, Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti said he envisions private sales rising in tandem with auction sales, citing consistent 12% to 15% annual growth in private sales at his house. He said the private sales business often generated more business for the auction side, and vice versa, countering reports that the growth of private sales, where the priciest works could be shopped around more discreetly, as a portion of the major houses’ businesses is cannibalizing their public auctions.

Wednesday’s sale results suggest the Post-War and Contemporary sector will likely continue to dominate the auction market, following some speculation of in recent years of a comeback from the Impressionist and Modern art segment, with collectors using those works that serve as a more stable store of value as a hedge against political and economic uncertainty. Post-war and contemporary art accounted for 52% of the fine art auction market in 2016, according to The Art Market | 2017, up from 32% in 2009 and its highest share on record. The report’s author defines post-war and contemporary artists as those born after 1910.

Despite their growing share of the auction market, post-war and contemporary auction sales dipped alongside the broader market last year too, falling 18% to a total of $5.6 billion and down 28% from the 2014 peak of $7.9 billion.

The major post-war and contemporary evening auctions continue on Thursday with evening sales at Phillips and Sotheby’s. They come after decidedly mixed results in the first half of the week for Impressionist and Modern art. Monday’s Christie’s sale came to $289.1 million with buyer’s premiums included, while Sotheby’s saw its star lot withdrawn on the day of its Tuesday sale, dragging its total down to $173.8 million.


—Anna Louie Sussman