Art Market

5 Key Trends from New York’s $2 Billion Auction Week

Nate Freeman
Nov 21, 2018 8:52PM

Courtesy of Christie’s.

On Friday afternoon, after the last lots of the Christie’s afternoon post-war and contemporary art evening auction hit the block, the bellwether sales at New York auction houses came to a close. Once the dust settled, the six days of auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips had just eked by the $2 billion dollar mark. It was once again a giga-week—this time twice over.

Christie’s came out on top, selling $1.1 billion in work out of its Rockefeller Center salesroom, and claimed the week’s two biggest trophies: Edward Hopper’s Chop Suey (1929), which sold for $91.9 million during a special sale staged to showcase works from the collection of the late cruise ship baron Barney Ebsworth, and David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures) (1972), which sold for $90.3 million to a bidder on the phone with chairman Marc Porter.

Sotheby’s also scored a victory in the post-war and contemporary department, with both its evening and day sales outperforming the equivalent sales at Christie’s. But overall, it fell behind its rival house, with a total of $835 million in sales last week—though up 15 percent compared to November 2017. Phillips totaled $114 million in two sales, with a record haul for a day auction, but an evening sale that lagged due to prominent unsold works.

Here come the Hockneys

David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972. Courtesy of Christie’s.


Immediately following the post-sale conference to discuss the post-war sale where the Hockney broke the auction record for a living artist, Christie’s auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen sat down for an interview, gavel still in hand, and proclaimed that, when it comes to that record, “I don’t think that price will be surpassed in my lifetime.” In the aftermath of the momentous sale, he said to expect to quickly see a swell of Hockney consignments from those who feel his market is cresting, and that now is the time to cash in.

“The collectors who own them will want to let them go now, as they can get the right price,” Pylkkänen said.

There’s reportedly already a large Hockney painting set to be sold by Christie’s in the near future that will test his market endurance. The auction house held one work from the Ebsworth collection back from last week’s single-owner sale to sell at a later date, and over the weekend, a source at Christie’s (who spoke on the condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to discuss the consignment publicly) indicated that this work is, in fact, another giant Hockney double portrait: Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott (1968–69).

Like Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures), this latest Hockney to head to market also featured in the artist’s retrospective that toured the Tate, the Pompidou, and the Met. It was reportedly held back from the sale for the same reason that consignors were waiting until after this season to sell their Hockneys: Once the world-record price for a living artist at auction was achieved, the rising tide would lift all boats. It will reportedly be sold in the March sale in London, with an estimate between $40 million and $60 million. (A spokesperson for Christie’s said the auction house declined to comment.)

A KAWS for celebration

KAWS, Untitled (Fatal Group), 2004. Courtesy of Phillips.

How swiftly a market is created these days. In March 2018, Phillips slotted two works by KAWS—an American street artist known to friends by his legal name of Brian Donnelly—deep into its day sale in London: the sculpture Accomplice (2010) as lot 155, and a painting, Keep Moving (2012), as lot 157. At the time, his auction record was just $489,000, but Accomplice sold for $927,363 over a high estimate of $693,096, and Keep Moving sold for an astounding $1.2 million over a high estimate of just $346,548.

By October, KAWS had bidding interest that warranted the artist’s inclusion in the Sotheby’s contemporary art evening sale in London. Auctioneer Oliver Barker didn’t know what to make of the work: a gigantic painting of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants. When a man standing without a seat deep in the back of the room raised a paddle to bid, Barker said, dryly, “Great taste!” Laughter spread throughout Sotheby’s New Bond Street salesroom in London’s Mayfair neighborhood.

“I spot a new Damien Hirst coming!” Barker continued, as the laughs reached a fever pitch.

The price achieved was no joke, however: At an £850,000 hammer, or £1 million ($1.3 million) with fees, it was more than three times the work’s high estimate of £250,000, and easily a new record for the artist. With momentum on the side of KAWS, Christie’s and Phillips lined up works for their evening sales in New York. At Phillips, Untitled (Fatal Group) (2004) attracted a raft of bidding in the salesroom and from specialists on the phones, before the painting finally hammered at $2.9 million, or $3.5 million with the buyer’s premium. It sold to the client on the phone with specialist Kevie Yang, who works closely with the Hong Kong team.

As Asian collectors continue to fight for works by KAWS, expect more to appear in sales the Hong Kong sales at the end of the month and in the March sales in London.

Top-lot flops

With the standalone sale of works from the Ebsworth collection at Christie’s, there were six evening sales across five nights. And half of those six sales saw their top lots fail to find buyers—a result of thin bidding above the $10 million mark.

At Christie’s Impressionist and modern art evening sale, Vincent van Gogh’s Coin de jardin avec papillons (1887) was saddled with a steep $40 million estimate, and could not find a single bidder. Afterward, Max Carter, the head of the sale, admitted that the estimate—which was also the reserve price—was “ambitious,” but insisted that the house would sell it after, albeit privately. The next night, at Sotheby’s, Marsden Hartley’s Pre-War Pageant (1913) also failed to inspire a single bid, as the $30 million estimate seemed too high for buyers. Sotheby’s now owns the work, having guaranteed it without a third party.

“We believe in the painting,” August Uribe said after the sale. “We’re confident that we’re going to come out all right. We have no apologies.”

At Phillips’s Thursday sale, the evening’s top lot was supposed to be a Jackson Pollock drip work that had been controversially consigned by the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro—it had been the only Pollock on view in the country. The work held a pre-sale estimate of $18 million, but after a few bids in the room failed to hit the reserve, it was bought in. It’s unclear if the work will return to the Brazilian museum, or if Phillips will attempt to sell it privately.

Speaking with auction specialists in the wake of the three major buy-ins, many said that the estimates were out of reach of the clients who may have been interested in bidding, preventing the lots from reaching their reserves. There were also fewer bids from Asian collectors for the Impressionist and modern trophies that were bid on with more ferocity last May, when Christie’s offered the Peggy and David Rockefeller estate—an impeccable provenance. Sources also indicated that an economic slowdown, stringent capital controls, and American trade sanctions may have restricted bidding from China at the highest levels.

More records for black artists

Henry Taylor, I’ll Put a Spell on You , 2004. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

During its post-war and contemporary evening sale this past May, Sotheby’s made history by securing new records for three black artists in a single sale: Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Barkley L. Hendricks, and Kerry James Marshall. The latter saw his stunning mural Past Times (1997) sell to music mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs for $21.1 million, quadrupling the artist’s auction record.

Sotheby’s brought about similar successes for black artists at its post-war sale this November. Henry Taylor’s I’ll Put a Spell on You (2004) hammered at $800,000, four times its high estimate, for a new record. There were also records for Jacob Lawrence, whose work The Businessmen (1947) sold for a $5.2 million hammer, more than double its high estimate of $2 million, or $6.1 million with fees; and for Jack Whitten, whose painting Ancient Mentor I (1985) sold for an above-estimate $1.8 million at the hammer, which came to $2.2 million with fees.

The trend continued on Thursday at Christie’s. A new record was achieved for Sam Gilliam, when his Lady Day II (1971) sold for $2.1 million with fees. There was also a record broken for Robert Colescott, which had been a late addition to the sale. On October 7th, post-war and contemporary chairman Loïc Gouzer uploaded an image to Instagram with the caption: “Pretty great #robertcolescott hanging at Moma, if you have a great one DM me asap and if its [sic] good enough we will put it in the evening sale.” On October 26th, Gouzer posted another picture indicating that he had consigned Colescott’s Cultural Exchange (1987); last Thursday, it sold for a record $912,500, three times its low estimate.

Sell by day

The evening sales may be where the fireworks are, but the best way to judge the health of the market is through the day sales. They are also the best indicators how much profit is left in the bag for the auction houses after a sales week. Consignors rarely pay fees when offering up big lots for the evening sale lots, and sometimes they eat into the house’s premium if that fee was offered as bait to secure the consignment. Such deals are rarer during the day sales, and with hundreds of lots with not-insignificant buyer’s premiums, the fees can add up—especially when such sales are successful.

And successful they were this season. Phillips secured its highest grossing day sale in its history, at $25.5 million, and Sotheby’s saw its day sales topple the $100 million mark for the third season in a row.

Day sales are also opportunities to see which artists more frequently traded on the primary market are drawing the deepest demand, and this season was no different. At Phillips on Wednesday, a Per Kirkeby painting estimated to sell for a high estimate of $80,000 sold for $212,500, and a Hernan Bas work with a high estimate of $45,000 sold for $112,500.

The Sotheby’s sale saw an untitled work by Cy Twombly sell for $3.1 million over a $1.8 million high estimate, and Elizabeth Peyton’s Flower Ben (2002), from the David Teiger collection, went for $945,000 over a high estimate of $350,000. Robert Colescott and Henry Taylor continued their winning streaks, too: An untitled Taylor from 2016 sold for $162,500 over a $35,000 high estimate, and Colescott’s Cotton (1989) sold for $663,000 over a $150,000 estimate.

At Christie’s post-war afternoon session, a work of Crosby’s came up for the first time all week—she has a slow process and produces less than a dozen paintings per year, making consignments scarce. Buyers pounced on the untitled work on offer from 2010, pushing the bidding far above its $500,000 estimate to a final price, with fees, of $1.4 million.

Nate Freeman