Art Market

Black Artists Shatter Multiple Records in $392.3 Million Sotheby’s Sale

Nate Freeman
May 17, 2018 5:20PM

Kerry James Marshall, Past Times, 1997. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s brought in $392.3 million over two sales Wednesday night, bouncing back from its tepid Impressionist and modern art evening sale on Monday. The $284.5 million post-war and contemporary art sale had a stellar 95.8 percent sell-through rate by lot, compared to just 71 percent at the Imp/mod sale, and it was preceded by a white-glove sale of 26 lots from the collection of Morton and Barbara Mandel, which brought in $107.8 million. The $284.5 million total was a 10.87 percent decrease from last May.

The post-war sale was defined by high marks set for a number of African-American artists, who dominated the evening after years of being underrepresented in evening sales—an indication of changing tastes and increasing institutional support through shows such as “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” a blockbuster at London’s Tate Modern last year, which comes to the Brooklyn Museum in September. On Wednesday, Kerry James Marshall, the subject of a celebrated traveling retrospective that came to the Met Breuer in 2017, quadrupled his past record when Past Times (1997) sold for $21.1 million.

Another sale highlight was a 12-by-12-foot work by the market’s top-selling African-American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat. The artist’s Flesh and Spirit (1982–83) sold for $30.7 million with fees, even if the $27 million hammer was below the $30 million pre-sale high estimate—nowhere close to the $110 million spent on an untitled Basquiat at Sotheby’s a year ago, but enough to make it one of the night’s top lots. There were also records for Barkley L. Hendricks, the black portraitist who died in April 2017, when his Brenda P (1974) sold for $2.1 million with fees; as well as Njideka Akunyili Crosby, the 35-year-old MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant winner whose work incites bidding frenzies whenever it comes up at auction. Her Bush Babies (2017) sold for $3.3 million. In total, there were records set for 15 artists.

Akunyili Crosby’s was one of the 42 works that artists and their galleries had Sotheby’s sell to benefit the Studio Museum in Harlem, helping to bring it closer to completing a $175 million capital campaign for a new David Adjaye-designed building, which will begin construction this fall and has a projected 2021 opening date. Five of those 42 works were in Wednesday’s evening sale, and the bundle brought in $16.4 million, with the hammer total of $13.75 million nearly doubling the high estimate of $6.95 million. It’s also a bonanza of a fundraiser for an institution—the five-lot sale brought in more than seven times what the 2017 Studio Museum Gala raised last October.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flesh and Spirit, 1982-3. © 2018 Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, NY. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.


“I am thrilled that we were able to get such a great result tonight, and I’m thankful to all the artists who support constructing this building where we can show artists of African and African American descent,” Studio Museum director Thelma Golden said after the sale. “I’m deeply grateful to the artists, and I’m deeply grateful to all of the buyers who understand our mission.”

Taken together, the Mandel Collection sale and the post-war sale were the season’s first test of the contemporary market after the Imp/mod sales that ran Monday through Wednesday, and last week’s sale of Imp/mod masterpieces from the Rockefeller collection at Christie’s. After the sale, Grégoire Billault, head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, said that even if some works did not go as high as the house would have hoped—the Basquiat attracted just two bids, and a drip-on-paper Jackson Pollock with a $40 million high estimate hammered at $30 million after just one bid—the amount of in-room bidding on other lots was cause for confidence in the market.

“What speaks to me the most is when you see a room like this one,” Billault said after the sale.

Asked about the fact that the two big lots of the night failed get to the stratospheric, nine-figure levels seen elsewhere in the auction landscape, Billault pointed to the new records set that evening as an indicator of the house’s focus on sourcing work by in-demand artists who incite fierce bidding wars—even if, as he alluded to, the total haul will probably not beat that at the equivalent sale at Christie’s Thursday night, which is expected to exceed $400 million. Sotheby’s may be closing the gap, but Christie’s has dominated the contemporary sphere for years.

“We are not the biggest in terms of volume, but we are the more relevant,” he said. “We want to be the one who really has their pulse on the market, and read the next move in the market.”

The five works benefitting the Studio Museum in Harlem opened the post-war and contemporary sale. First up was a Mark Bradford that hammered at $5.8 million, or $6.7 million with fees, double its $3 million high estimate. It was followed by Julie Mehretu’s Conjured Parts (Dresden) (2017), which sold for $3.3 million with fees, again doubling its high estimate of $1.5 million; and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s An Assistance of Amber (2017), which sold for $550,000 with fees to the client on the phone with Jackie Wachter, a vice president in the contemporary department at Sotheby’s. After the sale,  rap producer and collector Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean told Artsy that he purchased the work by Yiadom-Boakye. The suite was rounded out by a Glenn Ligon that sold for $2.3 million, and the record-breaking $3.3 million work by Akunyili Crosby, who releases very few works on the primary market. Her last solo gallery show, at Victoria Miro in London in 2016, had 18 institutions on the waiting list trying to buy a work. Her prices on the primary market can be $100,000 or less, but because of the demand, auction is one of the only options for collectors who want to skip the waitlist.

Jackson Pollock, Number 32, 1949, 1949. © 2018 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Bush Babies, 2017. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Right after the five-work Studio Museum suite came Marshall’s Past Times, which was included in his traveling retrospective. Auctioneer Oliver Barker, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, opened the proceedings at $6 million, already ahead of the artist’s auction record of $5.04 million. That record was set last November at Christie’s, when 15 bidders battled over a work consigned by the industrialist Jay Jordan, who was flipping the painting after buying it at a 2015 charity auction for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago for just $750,000—a nifty profit for the flip.

On Wednesday night, after Barker’s chandelier bids on the Marshall work, Amy Cappellazzo, chairman of Sotheby’s fine art division, came in at $8 million. Wachter offered $8.5 million, then sparred with Cappellazzo until post-war and contemporary vice president Courtney Kremers came in at $14 million. Wachter returned the lob and offered $15 million, Kremers went up to $15.5 million, and they went back and forth up to $18 million. At that point, a bidder in the room came in at $18.25 million, which Wachter beat at $18.5 million. It hammered there.

Billault would not divulge any information about the buyer, but when asked about Marshall’s Past Times, Swizz Beatz told Artsy, jumping with excitement, that it was “going to his friend’s house,” which narrowed it down to roughly hundreds (or maybe thousands) of people with whom Swizz has collaborated in the hip-hop and art communities. Swizz said the buyer would reveal her or himself at some point.

Auction world and gallery sources indicated that the purchaser of Past Times could have been Jimmy Iovine, a music producer and co-founder of Beats Electronics. Iovine has built an art collection with Wachter—who won the lot—as his advisor, buying work by artists such as Mark Grotjahn, David Hammons, and Ed Ruscha. Iovine has hung Basquiats and Warhols at his house in Holmby Hills, the posh Los Angeles hamlet, and this year, he gifted a work by Mark Bradford to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art after purchasing it at the museum’s 2017 Art + Film gala. And he is indeed a friend of Swizz Beatz, who performed at his wedding to Liberty Ross in 2016.

Or perhaps it was another music mogul: Standing in the aisles, I observed Swizz Beatz receiving a Facetime call from a number listed as “DIDDY” after the record price for Marshall was set. He got out of his front row seat to take it, and then proceeded with a series of vigorous fist pumps for the viewer on the other end of the video call. Sean “Diddy” Combs—who had Swizz Beatz produce songs on his 2010 concept album Last Train to Paris, and who is also a collector who works with the advisor Maria Britovisited Sotheby’s on Tuesday.

David Hockney, Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica, 1990. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The Marshall work was followed by young artist Avery Singer’s Fellow Travelers, Flaming Creatures (2013), which achieved an artist record—though, to be fair, her work has appeared at auction just once before, at a day sale at Sotheby’s in London last October. Fellow Travelers, Flaming Creatures has a short provenance, as the consignor acquired it in a private sale from a collector who bought it at a summer group show at the gallery Greene Naftali in 2013, three years after the artist graduated from Cooper Union. On Wednesday, it sold to a bidder in the room—said by sources to be Larry Gagosian—for a $600,000 hammer, or $735,000 with fees, 21 times her previous record. The lot was underbid, at $350,000 and then $550,000, by Thor Shannon, a director at Singer’s gallery, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise.

The sale saw not one but two record-breaking sales for David Hockney, subject of a recent retrospective at Tate Britain and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. First, Piscine de Medianoche (Paper Pool 30) (1978) went for a $10.2 million hammer (or $11.7 million) to North and South America chairman Lisa Dennison, surpassing the mark set in this same Sotheby’s salesroom last November, when Woldgate Woods (2006) sold for $11.7 million. That record was smashed not 30 minutes later, when Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica (1990) sold for $28.5 million to an Asian collector on the phone with Sotheby’s Asia chairman Patti Wong, beating out the bidder on the phone with Cappellazzo.

There were a few moments of peril in the otherwise buoyant, upbeat sale. A Yayoi Kusama work from 1962, estimated to sell for $7 million at the low end, failed to attract bidders and became a costly pass. And the two biggest lots of the night, the Pollock and the Basquiat, did not garner more than one or two bids, selling just at the low estimates.

Slotted at lot 14, Pollock’s Number 32, 1949 (1949) is part of a sub-series of drip works on paper that were then attached to canvas or masonite. Only 16 were made, and of those, one is in the Guggenheim. Number 32, 1949 has been in the hands of the same New York collectors since 1983, who purchased it at Robert Elkon Gallery just months after the dealer’s death. Sotheby’s estimated it would sell between $30 million and $40 million, and offered it without the safety net of a guarantee—indicating that either the house could not find one, or just had the confidence that the work on its own would incite a lively bidding war.

It was not lively. After Barker chandelier bid up to $29 million, a single bid by Cappellazzo at $30 million was all he could muster from the phones—and that’s where it hammered.

Yayoi Kusama, Untitled, 1960-2. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The room was holding out for a blockbuster in the Basquiat, which was fresh to market, consigned by the heirs of the collector who first purchased it. Flesh and Spirit—a 12-by-12-foot, two-paneled mammoth of a work—was consigned by the estate of Dolores Ormandy Neumann, who saw the work at Tony Shafrazi’s gallery in New York’s SoHo in January 1983 and immediately had to have it, asking her parents if they could put up the $15,000 to secure the work. They agreed, and Flesh and Spirit lived in her apartment until her death in 2016.

More recently, the work was entangled in a legal pursuit, as Hubert Neumann, the husband of the late collector, sued to stop the sale, claiming that as a spouse, he is entitled to one-third of Dolores’s estate. Dolores’s daughter Belinda argued that, as executor of the estate, she has the right to sell the work if she pleases. Last Tuesday, a judge at the State Supreme Court in Manhattan said the sale could proceed, and that Hubert Neumann, who had been completely disinherited by his former wife, is “a stranger to this piece of art.”

Although the Basquiat was granted permission to the sale, the bidders never materialized. Barker opened at $24 million, the collector Jose Mugrabi offered a bid of $25 million from his seat a few rows back, and then Sotheby’s specialist Bernard Lagrange came in on behalf of the bidder on his phone at $27 million, where it hammered.

Shafrazi was the only other person to ever sell the work, decades ago, and he was there in the saleroom to see it one more time before it was shipped off to its new owner. When I buttonholed him in the Sotheby’s anteroom, on his way out to dinner, Shafrazi talked about the Basquiat, and said that he “thought it would go higher,” but stressed that it’s impossible to predict the value system of collectors today and how much work will go for.

“What is the right price? No one knows,” Shafrazi said, his shock of white hair as big and untamed as Beethoven’s. “The factors are not logical.”

Nate Freeman