Art Market

5 Art Market Takeaways from the New York Spring Auctions

Nate Freeman
May 21, 2019 10:30PM

KAWS, KURFS (TANGLE), 2009Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Last week’s bellwether post-war and contemporary art auctions across Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips grossed a total of $1.214 billion. Christie’s came out on top with $631.95 million across its evening, morning, and afternoon sales; that house was followed by Sotheby’s, with $447.7 million, and Phillips, with $134.62 million. Looking specifically at the week’s evening sales of post-war and contemporary art, Christie’s was the dominant force, accounting for more than half of the three houses’ total take of $981 million, according to Artsy analysis.


That $981-million total was the biggest result for a week of post-war and contemporary art evening sales in New York since November 2017, when the bottom line got a major boost from the inclusion of a non-contemporary work in Christie’s post-war and contemporary art sale—Leonardo da Vinci’s $450-million Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500). Last week’s total was the best result for a series of spring evening sales of post-war and contemporary art in New York since May 2015, when Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips’ evening sales totaled $1.135 billion (that season was also dominated by Christie’s, which had itself a billion-dollar week).

What were the major narratives to emerge from the week’s auctions? Here are five takeaways everyone was talking about after the dust settled.

The mysterious bunny buyer

Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

A few days after the dealer Robert Mnuchin bought Jeff Koons’s Rabbit (1986) at Christies, the New York Times got an exclusive interview with the gallery owner in his Upper East Side space. The question on the mind of reporter Jacob Bernstein—and anyone who follows the art market—was: Who was on the other end of that flip phone Mnuchin had pressed to his cheek when he bid $80 million dollars, pushing the price of Koons’s stainless steel bunny to $91 million with fees? Once again, Koons claimed the title of the world’s most expensive living artist—but we had no idea who the purchaser was.

Unsurprisingly, the 86-year-old former Goldman Sachs banker isn’t talking. As he left the salesroom Wednesday night, Mnuchin said he would never divulge the identity of whom he was bidding on behalf of; when Bernstein asked again a few days later, he honored that promise, and said nothing. That didn’t stop insiders from guessing. Minutes after the hammer came down, the buzz began circulating that the purchasers were Mitchell and Emily Rales, the mega-collecting couple who last year opened what’s become the latest must-see stop on the global art pilgrimage: Glenstone, a private museum in Potomac, Maryland, which has show-stopping works by Michael Heizer, Robert Gober, and, yes, Koons. Rabbit would further establish Glenstone as a world-class art mecca, but a spokesperson for the museum said over email that they were not the buyers. (Mitchell Rales did say Monday that he was bidding through Mnuchin to buy Lee Krasner’s The Eye is the First Circle (1960) at Sotheby’s on Thursday night.)

Others pointed to Steven A. Cohen, the Museum of Modern Art trustee and hedge fund manager who runs Point72 Asset Management, has a net worth of $12.8 billion, and a long-standing relationship with Mnuchin. But he, too, denied that he was the owner. Perhaps one day the new owner will put the record-setting edition of Rabbit on public view, revealing their identity. For now it may be simpler to visit the edition of the work on view at The Broad, in Los Angeles.

Gift to MoMA…or 13,233% profit?

Dana Schutz, Civil Planning, 2004. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

In 2004, the New Jersey management consultant David Teiger bought a painting by Dana Schutz, Civil Planning (2004), from LFL Gallery in Chelsea. According to gallery co-founder Zach Feuer, he chose to sell to Teiger—there were other suitors for the massive, nearly 10-foot-by-14-foot painting by an in-demand artist—because the collector had brought with him a curator from the Museum of Modern Art, where he was a trustee, and assured the dealer Civil Planning would be a promised gift to the institution. Feuer said he sold Teiger the painting for less than $15,000.

But the painting never made it to MoMA. Instead, the heirs of the collector, who died in 2014, consigned Civil Planning to Sotheby’s as part of a trove of work that will benefit the family’s foundation. The president of the Teiger Foundation said in an email there was no documentation indicating the late collector’s desire that the painting be given to MoMA.

When bidding opened on the lot Thursday night, specialists howled and barked over each other to try and get a bid in, pushing the price over the $400,000 high estimate within seconds. The hammer price was $2 million—a 13,233% return on the original investment. That astronomical increase in value helped make Schutz the top contemporary artist of the week’s evening sales in terms of her works’ average performance compared to the midpoint of each of their pre-sale estimate ranges (or mid-estimate) across her works offered during the Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips evening sales, with Schutz’s works selling for 419% more than their mid-averages, on aggregate, according to Artsy analysis.

The price with fees was $2.4 million, smashing the record for a work by Schutz that had been set just a few hours earlier, when Signing (2009) sold for $980,000 with fees at Phillips. Such results come just months after another Schutz work from the Teiger collection, Her Arms (2003), hammered at $650,000 at Sotheby’s, more than three times its high estimate. (Evidently, the controversy surrounding Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till in the 2017 Whitney Biennial has done nothing to temper the demand for her work.) And while it’s hard to justify a system that gives artists no resale royalties whatsoever—especially when Schutz made no more than $7,500 for a painting that would eventually sell for more than 320 times that—it’s important to note that her primary market prices have risen with her success at auction. Sources said that the dozen paintings in her show at Petzel earlier this year were priced between $350,000 and $500,000 and they all sold, netting the artist half the gross on each work.

Still KAWS-ing a frenzy

KAWS, The Walk Home , 2012. Courtesy of Phillips.

Nothing last week came close to breaking the astounding KAWS record set in April in Hong Kong, when THE KAWS ALBUM (2005)—which depicts the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as reimaged by The Simpsonssold for HK$115.9 million ($14.8 million), nearly 15 times its high estimate, netting a massive profit for its consignor NIGO, a DJ and producer. Sources indicate that the person behind that record-breaking purchase was Raphael Geismar, a French restaurateur and railway parts heir who is living in Hong Kong; they stressed that Geismar—who is also the founder of the art space HOCA, which hosted a KAWS show in March—was buying as part of a larger deal that delivered the painting to another individual or entity.

But those expecting the KAWS market to cool down last week were sorely mistaken—and those who took advantage of the artist’s white-hot streak and put work on the auction block saw big returns. The four KAWS works featured in last week’s evening sales collectively outperformed their mid-estimates by 357%, according to Artsy analysis; by comparison, works by the artist in most plentiful supply at the three evening sales—Andy Warhol, with 12 pieces—sold for just 92% of their mid-estimate.

On Thursday, Phillips had several Warhols from the collection of Miles and Shirley Fiterman that sold to the guarantor without a single bid. At Christie’s on Wednesday there was the much heralded Double Elvis [Ferus Type] (1963) consigned by David Martinez, the financier who greatly reshaped Argentina’s economy in the 2000s—it sold to its guarantor after not receiving a single bid. And later in the Christie’s sale, the blue portrait of Elizabeth Taylor that was projected to “perk up the Warhol market” didn’t get any bids at the outset, prompting Larry Gagosian and Jose Mugrabi to wrestle with paddles a few feet away from each other over who got Liz [Early Colored Liz] (1963) for the bargain-bin price of $19.3 million, below the low estimate of $20 million.

And while it may be a good time to buy Warhol, it’s a great time to sell KAWS.

KAWS consignors seem to be demanding that estimates be pushed up in the wake of the record-breaking results, but the amount of action on the week’s biggest KAWS lots proved it’s still possible for KAWS classics to go undervalued. An untitled work from 2016 with a high estimate of $550,000 at the Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale Afternoon Session on Wednesday sold for $1.1 million. That night at Christie’s post-war sale, KURFS (TANGLE) (2009) held a high estimate of $800,000 but sold for $2.65 million. At Sotheby’s on Thursday, KURF (HOT DOG) (2008), had an ambitious high estimate of $2 million, but beat it with a $2.2 million hammer, or $2.66 million with fees. Also on Thursday came the 17th lot of the Phillips 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, KAWS’s THE WALK HOME (2012), which had a high estimate of $800,000. With five bidders on the phones, the work climbed to a $5 million hammer, or just under $6 million with fees.

It’s unclear why THE WALK HOME came to be worth more than twice as much as both KURFS (TANGLE) and KURF (HOT DOG). Both of the “KURFS” works depict members of the cartoon Smurf family, while THE WALK HOME presents the cartoon sea creature SpongeBob SquarePants with his hands in the air. Perhaps the SpongeBob works, along with the Simpsons works, will go on to be considered especially valuable parts of the KAWS oeuvre.

Artist power couple alert!

Jonas Wood, Japanese Garden 3, 2019. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

It’s not easy to get restless collectors with dinner reservations to stay in their seats through the end of an evening sale to bid on the last lot. But the salesroom at Christie’s was still mostly full when Jonas Wood’s Japanese Garden 3 (2019) capped the post-war and contemporary art evening sale on Wednesday night.

In the year leading up to the May sales, Wood saw his work rack up $13 million in auction gross, and in April, he was given the task of filling up the warehouse-like Gagosian space on West 24th Street in Chelsea and pulled off a bravura result. There was also the fact that Japanese Garden 3 was being sold to protect the rainforest. The consignment of the work was a partnership between Wood, Christie’s, and Art to Acres to fund the preservation of 600,000 acres of South American rainforest—and, pivotally, the Global Wildlife Conservation and Rainforest Trust pledged to match the hammer price four-fold.

Jonas Wood, M.S.F Fish Pot #5, 2015. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Shio Kusaka, (carved 39), 2013. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Estimated to go for a high estimate of $700,000, it hammered for $4.1 million, meaning that with the promised gift from the two foundations, the work by Wood raised $20.5 million to protect a swath of the rainforest 40 times the size of Manhattan. The price with fees came to a record $4.9 million for the artist, but such a figure wasn’t a fluke spurred on by environmentally-minded collectors. The following day, M.S.F. Fish Pot #5 (2015) sold for $3.4 million at Christie’s Afternoon sale, and The Speller (2007) sold at Sotheby’s post-war evening sale for $1.7 million, indicating that the $4.1 million price the night before wasn’t completely an outlier.

In a serendipitous twist, another artist who saw her work sell for several times the high estimate last week was Shio Kusaka, an artist who makes porcelain sculptures that often appear in Wood’s paintings—Kusaka and Wood are married. On Wednesday at the Phillips post-war and contemporary art day sale, a porcelain vase work, (square 36) (2018), estimated at $3,000 to $5,000, sold for $25,000. On Thursday at the Christie’s post-war and contemporary art afternoon session, another stoneware work by Kusaka, (carved 39) (2013), estimated to sell for between $8,000 to $12,000, sold for $52,000. And on Friday at the Sotheby’s day sale, the Kusaka stoneware vase (line 65) (2017), estimated to sell for between $10,000 and $15,000, sold for $100,000. Say hello to a new art market power couple!

Wade Guyton waning

In May 2014, Wade Guyton was on the cusp of a new record price at auction when he tried his best to sabotage his own market. An inkjet-on-canvas work from 2005 depicting a gigantic “U” was about to go on the block at Christie’s, in a sale curated by Loïc Gouzer and titled “If I Live I’ll See You Next Tuesday,” for an estimated $3 million. Shortly before the sale, Guyton took to his Instagram and posted a picture from his studio, whose floor was covered with identical versions of the same painting coming out of his inkjet printer, undercutting the notion that the one for sale at Christie’s was anything special. On the day of the auction, New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz wrote: “Whatever happens tonight, I admire an artist willing to tank his own market by flooding it with confusing real-fake product.” Except it didn’t work. The piece at Christie’s sold for a record $3.5 million, and two days later that record was smashed when a very similar “U” inkjet work sold at Sotheby’s for just under $6 million with fees. In November of that year, Guyton’s hot streak continued, with two more paintings topping $4 million at the fall auctions.

The Guyton market has cooled considerably since then, and in 2017 a “U” work that sold for $1 million in March 2014 went for $670,000. This season may have been the most frigid yet for Guyton. An inkjet work that last sold for $302,500 at Phillips de Pury in 2010 could not find a single bidder to hit its $300,000 low estimate during the Christie’s post-war afternoon session on Thursday, and the work went unsold. Sotheby’s took an even bigger loss when a Guyton estimated to go for between $2 million and $3 million went unsold at its post-war and contemporary evening sale on Thursday night. Guyton is still a critically lauded artist adored by institutions—he has a solo show at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne opening in November—but perhaps his 2014 wish to torpedo his own market has finally come true.

Nate Freeman