Art Market

$46.2-Million Lichtenstein Nude Drives Christie’s Global Relay Auction

Benjamin Sutton
Jul 10, 2020 10:40PM

Roy Lichtenstein, Nude with Joyous Painting, 1994. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Barnett Newman, Onement V, 1952. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Christie’s conducted its first major auction since the COVID-19 outbreak on Friday, with auctioneers in its Hong Kong, Paris, London, and New York salesrooms symbolically passing the gavel in a global relay sale.

The so-called “One” global sale brought in a total of $420.9 million, including fees. With three of the planned 82 lots withdrawn and five failing to sell, Christie’s tallied a solid 94 percent sell-through rate by lot, and 97 percent by value.

In Hong Kong and London, auction house staff were joined by a few in-person bidders, several of whom competed for and won major lots. The New York and Paris rooms were staff-only, with social distancing measures observed in the former and employees separated by clear barriers in the latter. The relay format created a sense of camaraderie that differentiated Christie’s virtual auction ever so slightly from recent efforts in a similar vein at Sotheby’s and Phillips, each of which was conducted entirely from a single, primary location with a single auctioneer.

The result was a slow but often spirited auction that stretched to nearly four hours as the auctioneers corralled bids coming simultaneously into four different rooms in four different countries, as well as online. Each leg of the sale was conducted in the local currency, so prices shifted from Hong Kong dollars to euros, to pounds, and finally to United States dollars.

A few lots sparked sustained bidding wars, some of them spanning continents. David Hockney’s Jade Plant (1988), for instance, was featured in the London leg of the sale, but ultimately went to a bidder on the line with the president of Christie’s Asia Pacific, Francis Belin, in Hong Kong for more than double its low estimate—the hammer price of £3.5 million ($4.4 million) came to £4.1 million ($5.2 million) with fees.

Top lots

Brice Marden, Complements, 2004–07. Courtesy of Christie’s.

  • Roy Lichtenstein’s Nude with Joyous Painting (1994) sparked joy for collectors on both sides of the Pacific, with specialists in New York and Hong Kong fielding phone bids for the large canvas, which came with an on-request estimate of around $30 million. Transcontinental competition quickly pushed it past that threshold and beyond. Ultimately, the bidder on the phone with Belin in Hong Kong prevailed, fetching the late Lichtenstein for a hammer price of $40.5 million, or $46.2 million with fees. That result was good enough to make it the top price at auction for a Lichtenstein from any decade other than the 1960s (his most sought-after period) and his third-biggest auction result overall.
  • Barnett Newman’s Onement V (1952) had the auction’s highest presale estimate, at $30 million to $40 million, but fell well short. After a few bids, it went to the bidder on the line with Ana Maria Celis, the head of the sale, for a hammer price of $27 million, or $30.9 million with fees. Considering that it sold for $22.4 million when it last appeared at auction—just eight years ago, also at Christie’s—the $8.5-million price jump is nothing to sneeze at.
  • Brice Marden’s Complements (2004–07), a diptych of swirling lines that Christie’s had priced to smash the painter’s previous auction record did just that, selling for the same price as the Newman: a $27-million hammer price that came to $30.9 million with fees. While that hammer result was just shy of the low estimate of $28 million, the final price was enough to nearly triple Marden’s previous auction record of $10.9 million, set last November at Sotheby’s.

George Condo, Force Field, 2010. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Christie’s broke the auction records for seven artists over the course of the sale. The opening leg of the sale in Hong Kong saw two record-breaking results. Yellow Quadrangle (1959), a composition in black and canary yellow by the pioneering Japanese abstract painter Takeo Yamaguchi, spurred a contest among bidders on the phone and in the Hong Kong salesroom, ultimately selling for a hammer price of HK$12.5 million (US$1.6 million). With fees, the price came to HK$15.1 million (US$1.9 million), or more than five times the work’s high estimate. Another bidder in the Hong Kong salesroom competed with a phone bidder in New York for George Condo’s Force Field (2010), driving the price well above its high estimate of HK$28 million (US$3.6 million). The New York phone bidder ultimately prevailed, with a hammer price of HK$45 million (US$5.8 million), or HK$53.1 million (US$6.8 million) with fees—about $700,000 ahead of Condo’s previous auction record.

In addition to Marden, the New York portion of the sale saw a new record set for Wayne Thiebaud, whose meta commentary on American abstraction Four Pinball Machines (1962)—in which the tops of three pinball machines feature allusions to the work of Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, and Sol LeWitt—fell just shy of its low estimate of $18 million, selling for a hammer price of $17.5 million. With fees, the price came to $19.1 million, more than double his previous record.

Wayne Thiebauld, Four Pinball Machines, 1962. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.401, Hanging Seven-Lobed, Continuous Interlocking Form, with Spheres within Two Lobes), ca. 1953–54. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Ruth Asawa’s towering wire sculpture Untitled (S.401, Hanging Seven-Lobed, Continuous Interlocking Form, with Spheres within Two Lobes) (ca. 1953–54) set off a contest between phone bidders in New York and Hong Kong. It ultimately sold to the buyer on the line with Christie’s chairman for the Americas, Marc Porter, for a hammer price of $4.5 million, or $5.3 million with fees. The result was well ahead of the artist’s previous auction record of $4 million, set at a Christie’s morning sale last November. Asawa was the only female artist whose auction record was broken during the sale, and was just one of seven women whose works were included in the 82-lot sale—though stellar lots by Joan Mitchell, Cecily Brown, and Georgia O’Keeffe did set off spirited bidding.

However, the sale wasn’t without a bit of disappointment. The top lot of the Hong Kong portion was an abstract composition in bright red by French-Chinese painter Zao Wou-Ki, a usually dependable art market force. Interest in the work stalled after slow bidding pushed it near its on-request estimate of $10 million, and it ultimately failed to sell. The New York portion of the sale also saw a pair of bought-in lots: Jasper Johns’s Untitled (Gray Painting with Spoon) (1962), which stalled out well short of its $4.5-million low estimate, and Philip Guston’s Fort (1979), which had a $4 million to $6 million presale estimate but did not entice a single bidder.

The auction house saw serious participation from online bidders on some of the evening’s biggest lots. One of the underbidders on the record-setting Thiebaud was bidding online, and one of the sale’s five Picassos, Baigneuses, sirènes, femme nue et minotaure (1937), went to an online bidder for a hammer price of $6.9 million, or $8.1 million with fees.


Cecily Brown, Carnival and Lent, 2006–08. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Despite its unconventional format—replete with dramatic video preludes as each successive auctioneer took the rostrum—the Christie’s sale could be considered a success. The overall sales figure of $420.9 million bested the Sotheby’s total from its June 29th global sale, which brought in $363.2 million across about the same number of lots.

The hammer prices from the Christie’s sale totaled $361.5 million, firmly within the presale estimate of $332.3 million to $444 million. Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti said during a virtual press conference after the sale that, combined with the results of the Hong Kong evening sale that immediately preceded the global auction and the New York day sale that immediately followed it, the auction house was selling more than $500 million worth of art in the span of 24 hours.

Cerutti also noted that the sale’s buyers were exceptionally well-distributed geographically: 38 percent from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa; 37 percent from the Americas; and 26 percent from Asia Pacific. He and others from Christie’s saw this geographic diversity as a signal that their global sale format had been a success, engaging an exceptionally broad coterie of collectors.

What this latest Christie’s result suggests—after the recent virtual sales at Sotheby’s and Phillips, and a string of successful auctions by all three houses in Hong Kong over the past week—is that despite a global pandemic and the upending of the traditional art market calendar, collector demand is still steady at the top end of the market.

“This was a new format—and it worked,” Alex Rotter, Christie’s chairman of post-war and contemporary art in New York, said during the press conference. “It showed the market is ready for new formats of selling and new formats of thinking about collecting art.”

Benjamin Sutton