If you only look at the numbers, New York Fall art Auction week was quite disappointing this year. The decline in sales volume was partly due to the reduced supply at the high-end of the market in a context of global economic uncertainty. And yet, the demand was strong for mid-market contemporary works in the six-figure range, as the new emerging scene keeps rising and now regularly achieves solid results at auction. This is good news for the private market in which we operate, as collectors are more prone to sell their works through this mean given the current climate.
Sotheby’s evening contemporary sale brought a total of $270.7 million with fees, more than 25% down from last year’s session, which had generated an impressive $362.6 million. Christie’s evening auction was a bit more satisfying, although it recorded a 9% decline compared with 2018, with $325 million worth of sales. However, Phillips made a great performance last week with a strong $108 million, 22% higher than last year’s $88 million.
These results can easily be explained by the absence of prestigious estate this season as well as the small number of trophy works presented by the 3 main auction houses. Indeed, the lack of mid to long-term visibility in the current economic context did not help, as top collectors were not encouraged to sell their best pieces at auction. Given the length of the process – it usually takes up to 6 months to consign a work for public sales – sellers are more prone to present their pieces in the private market, which offers shorter delays and better retraction possibilities.
And yet, there were a few major works at auction this season, the first of which being a rare early Ed Ruscha painting from 1964 representing the word Radio in yellow letters tortured by metal clamps on a bright blue background. The five-foot canvas, which was presented at Christie’s evening sale, sold for a record-breaking $52.5 million after a bidding war between 3 collectors.
The second most expensive work that evening was a majestic David Hockney painting, « Sur la Terrasse » from 1971, which was acquired for $29.5 million, still very far from the artist’s previous $90.3 million record. There was only a few other works in the eight-figure range at Christie’s, including a $20.5 million Richter photographic painting from 1967 and a big Warhol Electric Chair which brought in $19 million.
As for Sotheby’s, the evening session was dominated by a few Asian clients, one of which bought the top lot of the sale: a $30.1 million De Kooning painting from 1977. It was soon followed by a $26.5 million Rothko painting, also bought by an Asian bidder, and a $24.3 million Clyfford Still abstract composition, which was most likely acquired by Japanese collector Yuzaku Maezawa.
During Sotheby’s evening sale, Alex Katz, an artist we often recommended to our clients in the last few years, confirmed his auction prestige with a $1.7 million painting from 1992, his second all-time record. As for Günther Förg, the late German abstract painter broke his auction record with a $1.22 million palette painting. African-American artists were also honored, as Kerry James Marshall’s stunning composition called « Vignette 19 » sold for an impressive $18.5 million, its second all-time auction record. Norman Lewis and Charles White also performed really well with a $1.8 and $2.8 million piece respectively, which broke both artists’ previous records.
Last but not least, Phillips’ sale was marked by a few major paintings, the first of which being a $15 million Basquiat canvas called « The Ring ». In the seven-figure range, a psychedelic painting by Alberto Giacometti sold for $4.2 million, alongside a beautiful $4.8 million Picasso. The second most expensive work of the evening was a $7.65 million Philip Guston painting.
In the mid-market segment, the new generation of emerging artists was very present this year, with a few recurring names such as Tschabalala Self, Loie Hollowell, Julie Curtiss or Shara Hughes. Indeed, Curtiss and Hughes both broke their auction record, the first one with two paintings sold at Christie’s and Sotheby’s for $423,000 and $400,000, and the second one with a beautiful canvas acquired for $337,500 at Christie’s.
Nathaniel Mary Quinn confirmed his new hype with one of his trademark collage portraits for $168,750 at Christie’s, alongside Jeff Sonhouse and Nicolas Party – another artist we’ve been pushing for more than 3 years now – who both made great performances with six-figures paintings.
As for Lucas Arruda, a young Brazilian artist from David Zwirner’s stable, he made a remarkable auction debut with a $312,000 landscape painting sold at Sotheby’s. The young African painter Michael Armitage made the most outstanding performance by multiplying his low estimate thirty-fold (sic) with the sale of a $1,52 million piece!
More established artists such as Rashid Johnson, Harold Ancart and Katharina Grosse – some of our favorite painters alive – were also honored this Fall. The first one made his second all-time high with a $879,000 painting from his Anxious Men series, while Ancart saw his prices rise with a $475,000 colorful canvas. As for Grosse, she sold a gorgeous spray painting for a respectable $250,000.
As a conclusion, the market remained stable this season despite the current economic situation. The artist we often recommend to our clients actually performed quite well this fall, which shows that the mid-market segment we are specialized in remains dynamic. As for the reduced high-end segment, it could well pick up again next year. Indeed, a few prestigious estate will most certainly bring in impressive results such as the sales of the Macklowe collection next June, which is estimated to $700 million.