The Stories behind the 7 Works with the Highest Estimates at Next Week’s New York Auctions

New York’s November auction week—a marquee event on the art market calendar—always boasts a stellar roster of works for sale, and this year is no exception. Without question, market observers will be looking to the results of these sales as a litmus test of the market’s economic health. And while the very top of the market, represented this week by several prime lots, isn’t where auction houses make the bulk of their sales, it is where they make headlines—when a single painting goes for eight, even nine digits. So what makes a work of art worth tens of millions of dollars? We spoke with experts from Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips to learn more about the remarkable works estimated to be the most expensive at next week’s evening auctions. (Some works’ estimates are only available upon request, a designation generally reserved for the priciest of pieces. At this price range, all the pieces on this list come from a series or artists widely represented in museums.)

Edvard Munch, Pikene på broen (Girls on the Bridge) (1902)

Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale

Monday, November 14

Estimate: Available Upon Request

  • Edvard Munch, Pikene På Broen (Girls on the Bridge) (1902). Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

    Edvard Munch, Pikene På Broen (Girls on the Bridge) (1902). Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Munch’s Pikene på broen (Girls on the Bridge) is a “a barnstorming painting in every single way,” said Michael Macaulay, head of contemporary evening sales in New York. Painted during what the Expressionist artist called “the unhappiest, the most difficult and yet the most fateful and productive years of my life,” the work is one of Munch’s masterpieces. Measuring approximately 40 x 40 inches, it depicts a landscape and bridge in the town of Åsgårdstrand, where a gaggle of girls are engaged in a private conversation, as Macaulay said, pushing the viewer’s eyes away even as the work’s swirling composition pulls our gaze inward. “There are three things that really strike you about it when you see it firsthand. The first is the scale,” Macaulay said of the piece. The second is the vivid color, “pinging off the surface,” and third is “the urgency of the brushwork,” he explained. “You get a sense of how Munch created this composition, with a sort of vivacity, dynamism, and urgency. He was compelled to make this painting, there’s no hesitancy about it.” One of several variations on this scene created by Munch, this specific work has been offered three times at auction, in 1980, 1996, and 2008; each time it set a record price.


Willem de Kooning, Untitled XXV, 1977

Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Tuesday, November 15

Estimate: Available Upon Request

  • Willem de Kooning, Untitled XXV, 1977. Image: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2016

    Willem de Kooning, Untitled XXV, 1977. Image: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2016

Untitled XXV was painted during 1977, during one of de Kooning’s most prolific periods. The work is one of 20 large so-called “Pastoral” paintings created that year, as the artist mused on landscapes, particularly on light and how the world is reflected in bodies of water. “What’s so amazing in person with this painting is that it almost moves when you look at it because there is such a buildup of paint on the surface,” said Kat Widing, specialist in postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s. Never wholly abandoning representation for pure abstraction, the work was created “in typical de Kooning fashion,” Widing explained. “He would work, strip away, rework, and kind of layer his paint. So there’s this beautiful push and pull of color and both form and texture.” A painting like this coming up at auction is something of a rarity since most of the pieces from the series are held by institutions, including MoMA, the Guggenheim, and other museums across the world. Christie’s previously auctioned the painting in 2006, when it set a record for the most expensive postwar painting sold at auction, going for $27,120,000.

Claude Monet, Meule, 1891

Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale

Wednesday, November 16

Estimate: Available Upon Request

  • Claude Monet, Meule, 1891. Image: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2016

    Claude Monet, Meule, 1891. Image: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2016

An iconic work, Monet’s Meule is one in a series of 25 paintings of grainstacks by the French artist, the first to come to auction in nearly two decades. But interest in the piece can be attributed to more than market rarity. The work represents “a pivotal moment in Monet’s career, where he first starts dedicating himself to painting the same subject over the course of time under varying atmospheric conditions to explore any impact of light and weather,” said Brooke Lampley, international director and head of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s. “And it’s really that exploration that leads him to the radical abstraction of landscapes that would become so incredibly influential in the history of 20th-century art.” Visually, she describes the piece as “incredibly sumptuous,” with all the tender evocations of light and color one expects from Monet. The piece’s provenance is an added attraction, as it was once owned by Mr. and Mrs. Potter Palmer, notable Chicago collectors of Impressionist art. “The surge in appreciation for late Monet and the incredible rarity of grainstacks combines to create a unique desirability in this object,” said Lampley.


Gerhard Richter, Dϋsenjäger, 1963

Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Wednesday, November 16th

Estimate: $25,000,000–35,000,000

  • Gerhard Richter, Dϋsenjäger, 1963. Image courtesy of Phillips.

    Gerhard Richter, Dϋsenjäger, 1963. Image courtesy of Phillips.

It comes as no surprise that market stalwart Richter is responsible for three of the works expected to earn the highest prices next week. But Jean-Paul Engelen, worldwide head of contemporary art at Phillips, has high praise for Düsenjäger, which he says is “the most striking and the most art historically important Richter this week.” The piece, expected to top out Phillips 20th-century and contemporary evening sale on Wednesday, was painted early in Richter’s career (it is No. 13A in his catalogue raisonné) while he was in West Germany and had only just begun his famous “Photo Paintings.” The piece’s subject, a fighter plane, is filtered through Richter’s trademark blur, evoking Europe’s numerous wars and continued militarization. But the piece is also personal, with ties to Richter’s youth and the bombing of Dresden, his birthplace. The emphasis on a fighter jet, a tool of war, “plays on this duality, our fascination with objects like this, which at the same time also bring death and destruction,” said Engelen. Richter created eight paintings with planes, four of which are in museums. In 2007, this piece went for $11.2 million, a record at the time for the artist. In Engelen’s estimation, the piece stands out, even among Richter’s other quality works. “It’s undeniably a masterpiece,” he said.

Gerhard Richter, A B, St. James, 1988

Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction

Thursday, November 17

Estimate: $20,000,000–30,000,000

  • Gerhard Richter, A B, St. James, 1988. © Gerhard Richter, 2016. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

    Gerhard Richter, A B, St. James, 1988. © Gerhard Richter, 2016. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

As Macaulay tells it, Richter’s A B, St. James (1988) entered the collection of Steven and Ann Ames through a combination of judicious collecting and a stroke of good luck. The work is one of five panoramic horizontal “London paintings” that Richter showed in a 1989 exhibition at the city’s Anthony d’Offay Gallery—a show that the collectors attended. “They were desperate to acquire one of the paintings but when they saw the exhibition all the paintings had already been sold,” Macaulay said. As they were about to leave London, Anthony d’Offay called and said the purchase of one of the paintings had fallen through. “They bought it immediately,” Macaulay said. And it has stayed in their collection ever since. Among similar pieces in the series, this is the only one not in the collection of a major museum. “It’s unusual in this overt drama, this total tonal polarization, this very dramatic dark green, almost black, streaking down the surface,” Macaulay said. “The whole series was inspired by the architecture of London—the tower of London and Westminster Abbey.” And while the work is clearly abstract, and Richter wasn’t painting from life, in the work’s composition and drama one can find “something of that grandeur” that can be found in London’s architecture.

Gerhard Richter, A B, Still, 1986

Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction

Thursday, November 17

Estimate: $20,000,000–30,000,000

  • Gerhard Richter, A B, Still, 1986. © Gerhard Richter, 2016. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

    Gerhard Richter, A B, Still, 1986. © Gerhard Richter, 2016. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Richter’s A B, Still (1986) comes from an important moment in his oeuvre. “When you look at the group of works Richter made in 1986, they consist of these large-scale, dramatic gestures. It characterizes a number of the best works,” said Macaulay. From a market perspective, this holds true: The record price for a Richter was set by an abstract work painted in 1986 ($46 million at Sotheby’s). That year marked a significant step in the development of his abstract technique, which is characterized by the use of a squeegee that he uses to move, smear, and streak paint across the surface of a work. A B, Still exemplifies that technique. Bought by Steven and Ann Ames at auction in April 1991, the piece has been in their collection for 25 years. Its title also differs from the majority of Richter’s abstract works, which go under the moniker Abstraktes Bild. It is also a testament to the fact that not all of Richter’s abstract work can be lumped together. “I often find with modern and contemporary art, because of its extreme diversity in the last 50 or 60 years, audiences generally—myself, we all do this—are quick to identify and categorize works,” Macaulay said, of both this Richter and A B, St James, which are sometimes seen simply seen as abstraction. “There can be a hesitancy to assess paintings on their individual merits and to really get under the surface of the quality of a work. And with these two abstract paintings—and I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot—these two really are exceptional.”

Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait (Fright Wig), 1986

Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction

Thursday, November 17

Estimate: $20,000,000–30,000,000

  • Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait (Fright Wig), 1986. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

    Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait (Fright Wig), 1986. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Portraits and images of Warhol—which can be found on everything from museum walls to tote bags—are something most of us have seen before. But ubiquity isn’t synonymous with comprehension. As a mode of self-expression, the self-portrait was repeatedly utilized by the notoriously insecure Warhol—and Self-Portrait (Fright Wig) is not an exception so much as the opportunity to think more deeply about what it means to pose before a camera. “You look at his face, you look at his eyes and his cheeks and his mouth and there’s an extraordinary honesty and quite courageous nakedness about these paintings,” said Macaulay of the series to which Fright Wig belongs. The piece itself is dramatic. “The screen is perfection, the black and white heightens the sense of cinematic quality, the scale is engulfing,” Macaulay said. “You’re standing in the presence of greatness, confronting this man who is so critical to generations of subsequent artists in the 20th century.” Though powerfully influential, Warhol’s life was cut short: Just a few months after creating this work, he died unexpectedly at 58 from complications related to gallbladder surgery.

—Isaac Kaplan