Art Market

5 Lots That Will Make or Break the Upcoming New York Auctions

Nate Freeman
May 9, 2019 3:51PM

Installation view of William Bouguereau, La Jeunesse De Bacchus, 1884, at Sotheby’s, 2019. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Next week, billions of dollars of art will be up for sale at New York City auction houses, and the performance of top lots will set the tone for the art market for the next six months. The five biggest sales will take place at the global powerhouses Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips, and we’ve chosen to spotlight one pivotal lot from each sale—not necessarily the most expensive lots, but the ones that could reset an artist’s market or alter the way the house conducts auctions in the future. Read on to learn about the highlights everyone is chattering about before they potentially make history next week.

Paul Cézanne, Bouilloire et fruits (1888–90), at Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale on May 13th

Paul Cézanne, Bouilloire et fruits, 1888–90. Courtesy of Christie’s.


The consignment from the estate of magazine baron S.I. Newhouse that’s gotten the most attention is, understandably, Jeff Koons’s Rabbit (1986), a stunning stainless steel sculpture of an inflatable bunny that scandalized the art world when it was unveiled in 1986—but went on to become the transformative object in Koons’s world-conquering career. To make sure the Rabbit excitement went beyond the art world, Christie’s hired the ad agency LIDA to design a sprawling ad campaign that blasts the tagline “Own the Controversy” across social media platforms, and encourages users to share the hashtags #goodbunny or #badbunny.

But there’s another Newhouse work that needs no such hype machine: Paul Cézanne’s Bouilloire et fruits (1888–90), a still life by the Post-Impressionist master that’s estimated to sell for $40 million. The late Condé Nast owner purchased it at Sotheby’s in London in December 1999, just weeks after getting hooked on the artist at a show of Cézanne watercolors at Acquavella in New York. With such an estimate, a lucky, uncontested single bidder could get the work for less than what Newhouse paid in 1999, $29.5 million, which is equivalent to $45 million now. But advisors are saying the price that wins this picture will be higher. Cézanne’s still life paintings of fruit are among the most iconic artworks made in the last two centuries, and the chance to own a piece of art history that was also part of Newhouse’s storied collection may prove irresistible.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, La Jeunesse de Bacchus (1884), at Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale on May 14th

William Bouguereau, La Jeunesse De Bacchus, 1884. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

At Sotheby’s New York headquarters, the dramatically transformed galleries are among the most talked-about narratives of the season—so much so that, even at a recent Christie’s preview, some of the specialists asked nervously, “What’s the new space look like up at York Avenue?” (Staff at each house seldom dare utter the name of their archrivals.) Well, sorry Rockefeller Center, but OMA’s Shohei Shigematsu has turned the 1920s cigar factory Sotheby’s calls home into a deeply attractive place to look at art, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the two-story atria meant to host monumental works in museum-quality spaces. One such work is installed there right now: William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s La Jeunesse de Bacchus (1884), an 11-foot-tall, 20-foot-wide stunner of a painting that hasn’t been exhibited since 1985.

The enormous painting is Bouguereau’s finest work to ever come to market, and if it gets a single bid it will smash his current record of $3.5 million, set in 2000—it’s estimated to sell for $25 million to $35 million. Bouguereau may not be as well known as other artists in the Sotheby’s sale, but in the span of a few minutes of bidding, he could become something of a household name. There’s a reason it took this long: The painting of nymphs frolicking at a bacchanal has been in the artist’s family since its creation, only leant to exhibitions a handful of times in the last century. But now that it’s on view, La Jeunesse de Bacchus has been swarmed by visitors to the revamped Sotheby’s building on York Avenue. During a recent visit, it attracted more gawkers than the Claude Monet haystack painting (estimate $55 million) or the Mark Rothko consigned by SFMOMA (estimate $35 million to $50 million). See it before it could go back into private hands for another 135 years.

Robert Rauschenberg, Buffalo II (1964), at Christie’s Post-war and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on May 15th

Robert Rauschenberg, Buffalo II, 1964. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Robert Rauschenberg has always had a bit of an antagonistic relationship with his secondary market. He was present at Sotheby Parke Bernet for the landmark 1973 sale of work from the collection of taxicab baron Robert Scull, and watched as his “Combine” work Thaw (1958)—which he’d sold to Scull for $900—was auctioned off for $85,000, or nearly $500,000 when adjusted for inflation. When he realized the value had increased almost 100 times over, Rauschenberg approached Scull after the sale and, giving him a shove, told him: “I worked my ass off just for you to make a profit.”

Now, the Rauschenberg market is about to be reset again, this time by Buffalo II (1964), expected to sell at Christie’s for between $50 million and $70 million, which means it could triple the current record, set when Johanson’s Painting (1961) sold for $18.6 million at Christie’s in May 2015. Buffalo II comes from descendents of Robert and Beatrice “Buddy” Mayer, who was the heiress of the Sara Lee cake fortune, and built up a formidable collection of Pop art—an estimated $125 million worth of which has been consigned to Christie’s this season. And like Scull did in 1973, the Mayer family will benefit greatly from market foresight—Buffalo II was bought from Leo Castelli for $16,900, which means the sale could represent a 300,000% increase in value over the decades.

Willem de Kooning, Untitled XVI (1976), at Philips 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on May 16th

Willem de Kooning, Untitled XVI, 1976. Courtesy of Philips.

Phillips is the younger, hipper little sibling to the set of fighting twins that is the Christie’s–Sotheby’s duopoly, and accordingly the house has a sterling reputation for cultivating the careers of young contemporary artists new to the market. Tauba Auerbach was in her early 30s when Untitled (Fold) (2010) sold for a record £1.1 million ($1.8 million) during an evening sale at the London salesroom in October 2014, and next week at the Philips 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, the in-demand young artist Nicolas Party will be making his nighttime auction debut with Landscape (2015), which is estimated to sell for between $100,000 and $150,000. But increasingly, Phillips seems more intent on playing in the big leagues—that is, selling old work by dead masters for a whole lot of money.

Last year in London, for instance, it sold Pablo Picasso’s La Dormeuse (1932) for £41.8 million ($57.8 million), more than double the high estimate, and coasted to the top-grossing sale in its two centuries of auctions. While there’s nothing in next week’s sale that will outpace that Picasso, a mid-career Willem de Kooning work, Untitled XVI (1976), has an estimate of between $8 million and $12 million and could very well help to convince consignors of classic work to hand their treasures over to the Phillips team. Also helping is the recent appointment of David Norman as the house’s chairman of the Americas, part of what a press release described as evidence of “the increasing importance of the Modern Art category to the company’s global growth strategy.” There’s no doubt that Norman has the right resume. When he was a vice chairman at Sotheby’s, he helped lead the teams that sold both the first $100-million painting and the first $100-million sculpture.

Lee Krasner, The Eye is the First Circle (1960), at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale on May 16th

Lee Krasner, The Eye is the First Circle, 1960. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Though she was long overshadowed by the mammoth reputation of her husband, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner’s market has been rising steadily since 2003, when Celebration (1960) quadrupled its pre-sale estimate at Christie’s and sold to the Cleveland Museum of Art for $1.9 million, nearly 10 times her previous auction record of $198,400. Her record currently stands at $5.5 million, set when Shattered Light (1954) doubled the high estimate of $2.5 million at Christie’s in November 2017.

Now, Sotheby’s believes Kransner’s The Eye is the First Circle (1960) can vault her into what’s thus far an unfortunately small club: women artists whose works have sold in the eight-figure range. That club currently counts just Georgia O’Keeffe, Louise Bourgeois, Joan Mitchell, Berthe Morisot, Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova, Agnes Martin, and, as of last June, Jenny Saville. But when this gigantic Krasner painting sells—and it will sell, as it’s guaranteed by an irrevocable bid—for between its low estimate of $10 million and the high estimate of $15 million, Krasner will get a new auction record, and a new market powerhouse will be established.

Nate Freeman
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019