Art Market

KAWS Continues Market Rise at Phillips and $50-Million Rothko Sells at Sotheby’s

Nate Freeman
May 17, 2019 6:00AM

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

The final evening sales of the New York auction “gigaweek” saw works by Francis Bacon and Mark Rothko sell for $50 million at Sotheby’s, while earlier in the night Phillips had its low-energy sale buoyed by rabid bidding for a KAWS painting of SpongeBob SquarePants—which ended up selling for more than six times its high estimate.

Sotheby’s capped off a week of auctions with a post-war and contemporary evening auction that hauled in a total of $341.8 million, with fees. The hammer total of $291.5 million was ahead of the low estimate of $244.6 million but fell short of the high estimate of $351.4 million. The auction failed to match the last such evening affair on York Avenue, when $362.5 million worth of work was sold in November 2018 ($314 million in the post-war and contemporary art sale and $48.5 million in a special sale of works from the collection of David Teiger immediately prior), but it managed to beat the equivalent sale a year ago, when $284.5 million worth of art was sold.


The sell-through rate on Thursday night was a solid 88.9% and midway through the sale a new record was set for Lee Krasner, as Robert Mnuchin—who 24 hours earlier placed the winning bid on Jeff Koons’s Rabbit (1986) at Christie’s to make him the world’s most expensive living artist—placed a $10-million bid ahead of the guarantor, who was bidding through Sotheby’s senior specialist Saara Pritchard. With fees, the price was $11.65 million, more than doubling the previous Krasner record of $5.5 million.

At a press conference following the sale, Sotheby’s senior vice president David Galperin said the ambitious pricing of the Krasner was based on the level of interest and helped with the house’s goal of “recalibrating the records of women artists.”

Pritchard was the underbidder on another of the night’s electric, record-breaking works: Barkley L. Hendricks’s double portrait Yocks (1975), which eventually went to Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Asia, Yuki Terase, for a $3.1 million hammer, or $3.74 million with fees. The previous record for the late artist, whose market has skyrocketed in the last year, was $2.17 million.

The most raucous lot of the night also set a record. When Dana Schutz’s Civil Planning (2004) hit the block, the full-throated shouts of bids from specialists trying to reach higher than their colleagues and bidders in the room were so loud auctioneer Oliver Barker joked: “It sounds like Trump’s dinner party in here!” (The auction’s start time was pushed back 15 minutes because of traffic caused by the U.S. Secret Service blocking off streets in Midtown for the president’s visit to Manhattan for a fundraising gala.)

The Schutz eventually sold to the vice chairman of Sotheby’s fine arts division, Brooke Lampley, for a $2 million hammer—five times its high estimate. With fees, the total came to $2.4 million, beating the $980,000 record for Schutz work established a few hours earlier at Phillips, just a nine-minute motorcade ride away on Park Avenue.

Top Lots, Sotheby’s

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1960. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Francis Bacon, Study for a Head, 1952. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

  • Francis Bacon’s Study for a Head (1952) was bought for a $44 million hammer, well ahead of its $30 million high estimate, and with fees the final price came to $50.4 million. It was purchased by a dealer in the middle of the salesroom who was speaking into a cell phone, and he held off a slew of hard-charging Sotheby’s specialists, including Amy Cappellazzo, David Galperin, David Schrader, and Bame Fierro March. The small painting, which is one of Bacon’s famed “Screaming Pope” works, came from the collection of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis. The Seattle philanthropists bought the work in 1975 and loaned it out very rarely in the subsequent decades. At the press conference following the sale, head of contemporary art Grégoire Billault appeared to reference Koons’s record-setting reflective metal rabbit, which sold at archrival Christie’s on Wednesday, saying of the Bacon: “This one was not shiny, it was not happy, but it was one of the best works I’ve seen in my 20 years at Sotheby’s.”
  • Mark Rothko’s Untitled (1960) sold for a $43.75 million hammer, captured by Cappellazzo, and with fees the total came to $50.1 million. Some competition from Sotheby’s Asia chairman Patti Wong helped push the work over its $35-million guarantee, though the Chinese bidding wasn’t fervent enough to overcome the client on Cappellazzo’s phone. The work was a rare example of a major museum deaccessioning a blockbuster work—the painting came from SFMOMA, which was selling the work to raise funds in order “to make great strides in diversifying the collection,” as the museum’s senior curator of painting and sculpture Gary Garrels put it when the consignment was announced. Beating the guarantee has to be considered a win for Sotheby’s, and while the work fell short of the Rothko record by more than $35 million, it was the most expensive Rothko sold since No. 10 (1958) was purchased at Christie’s in May 2015 for $81.9 million.
  • Another Bacon, Study for Portrait (1981), sold to the client on the phone with Billault for a $12.5 million hammer, or $14.5 million with fees. That total barely edged out the low estimate of $12 million and failed to truly excite the salesroom. It was one of the six works consigned by the Gerald L. Lennard Foundation Collection, which sold for a total of $45.1 million. The funds will go toward supporting the foundation’s various causes, which include the visual arts as well as healthcare and environmental concerns.

Other major lots included Christopher Wool’s Untitled (1990), which sold to the client who placed an irrevocable bid speaking on the phone with Billaut. With fees, the price was $14 million. Willem de Kooning’s Untitled X (1975) was captured by a client on the phone with Patti Wong for a $10.8 million hammer price, or $12.6 million with fees.

No lots reached such heights hours before at Phillips, where the house’s evening sale of 20th Century and Contemporary Art grossed a total of $99.93 million with fees. The hammer total of $85.3 million was above the low estimate of $76 million, but well below the high estimate of $109.7 million. And yet, by essentially hitting the $100 million mark, the third-place house helped erase the memories of its low haul of $88 million in November 2018. But Phillips was still far off from the $131.6 million it raised in last year’s equivalent May sale.

The proceedings in the Park Avenue salesroom were often a bit sluggish as the house had guaranteed the entire opening 15-lot suite of works from the collection of Miles and Shirley Fiterman—and the works often sold on a single bid, making for a stale atmosphere that longed for a bidding war.

But beyond the Fiterman collection suite, new records were set for the artists Tomoo Gokita, Nicolas Party, and Dana Schutz (a very short-lived record). The excitement really came with the KAWS. The white-hot artist’s THE WALK HOME (2012) depicts SpongeBob SquarePants screaming with his arms in the air, the trademark KAWS double-X gracing his eyes; with it being 2019 and all, this is a picture that multiple people are willing to spend millions of dollars on. After bidding from senior specialist Kevie Yang, deputy chairman Jonathan Crockett, deputy chairman Jean-Paul Engelen, and head of private sales Miety Heiden, deputy chairman Robert Manley swooped in and secured the KAWS for his client with a $5 million hammer. With fees, the price came to just under $6 million—more than four times what a phone client paid two lots earlier for a classic work by Alexander Calder, whose grandson Sandy Rower abruptly got up and exited as the KAWS bidding went higher and higher.

Top lots, Phillips

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

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Self Portrait, 1983. Courtesy of Phillips.

  • Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XVI (1976) sold for an $8.8 million hammer, just above its low estimate of $8 million, to the gallery director Christina di Donna, who was talking on a cell phone in the center of the room. With fees, the price came to $10.3 million. The hammer came after several long pauses waiting for Kevie Yang to reach a client on the phone, to no avail.
  • Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Self Portrait (1983) also sold to di Donna, who secured it with a $9-million bid. With fees, the price was $9.5 million. (Though the hammer price was the highest of the night, the with-fees figure was lower than the de Kooning due to the structure of the irrevocable bid on the lot.) The hammer price was right at the low estimate, despite the intriguing story behind the work. The painting was consigned by the estate of Matt Dike, a gallery assistant for Larry Gagosian who essentially ended up working as an assistant for Basquiat. After a stint as a popular hip-hop producer, Dike became a recluse and remained holed up in his Los Angeles home during his final decades. Dike kept the work with him until he died in March 2018.
  • Mark Bradford’s Helter Skelter II (2007) only saw one bid, from a client on the phone with Miety Heiden—meaning the work sold to the guarantor. The hammer price was $7.7 million, below the $8-million low estimate, and with fees it was $8.4 million. That’s significantly less than the work’s companion piece, Helter Skelter I (2007), achieved when it came up for auction at Phillips in London in March 2018—that picture sold for nearly $12 million including fees, which led to a big payday for its consignor, the tennis great John McEnroe. Sources say the consignor of Helter Skelter II was Alden Pinnell—the Dallas collector who is the founder of local exhibition space the Power Station. Pinnell may not have scored the payday that McEnroe got, but it’s safe to assume that the $7.7 million price he’s getting is much, much more than what he paid when he acquired the work through Bradford’s former dealer, Sikkema Jenkins, in 2007.


Mark Bradford, Helter Skelter II, 2007. Courtesy of Phillips.

After these two days of contemporary sales, it’s clear that, while risky, the guarantee is still an oft-relied-upon tool that the auction houses will continue to use. At Christie’s on Wednesday, the two works consigned by David Martinez would have been costly flops for François Pinault’s auction house if they had not been guaranteed. The Phillips sale often felt ho-hum, but the 98% sell-through rate was achieved through a generous use of the guarantee structure. And while Sotheby’s saw more lots fail on the block than the other houses, it was able to stay afloat because of the pre-sale deals that gave some eight-figure works a safety net.

But the real sign that the contemporary market is rolling at a stable—if not gangbusters—pace is the enduring strength of some of the main narratives that have developed over the past year. Some were expecting the KAWS bubble to burst, but then a painting of SpongeBob went for more than six times its high estimate. Some were expecting the market explosion for artists of color to get dialed back, but Sotheby’s saw works by Barkley L. Hendricks, Charles Gaines, and Rashid Johnson all smash the artists’ previous auction records. And some were expecting the little bunny at Christie’s—which was notably presented sans guarantee—to get passed over by collectors looking for big Koons, not small Koons. But now Koons is once again the world’s most expensive living artist.

Perhaps some will be expecting such upward trajectories to flatline before the November 2019 sales. But, at least for now, these trends kept on course.

The New York sales end on Friday with the post-war and contemporary day sale at Sotheby’s.

Nate Freeman

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Sotheby’s post-war and contemporary art evening sale in November 2018 totaled $362.5 million, but that sum included $48.5 million from the same evening’s sale of works from the collection of David Teiger. The November 2018 Sotheby’s post-war and contemporary art evening sale totaled $314 million. The text has been updated to reflect this.