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New York Spring sales: behind the trophy works

Attention was mostly focused on a few dramatic 8-figure trophy works during this year’s Spring auctions in New York. Although they accounted for a significant portion of Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips’ respectable results, they only represent the tip of the iceberg. The art market is currently experiencing a period of great renewal that brought its share of interesting discoveries, disappointments and speculative movements last week. 

Jeff Koons standing next to his Rabbit sculpture, which sold for $91 million at Christie's last week

Most of the works that caused a lot of ink to flow were presented at Christie’s evening sale last Wednesday. Indeed, Robert Rauschenberg’s $88.5 million seminal early painting “Buffalo II“ and Jeff Koons’ $91 million much talked about “Rabbit“ Sculpture accounted for a third of Christie’s impressive total of $538.9 million. The latter even allowed Koons to dethrone David Hockney as the most expensive living artist, a title he had already earned in 2013 with his $58.4 balloon dogs sale.

Christie’s other major sales include Andy Warhol’s $53 million “Double Elvis“, Louise Bourgeois’ $32 million Spider, Roy Lichtenstein’s $31 million iconic “Kiss III“, and Frank Stella’s $28 million record-breaking “Point of Pines“. 

Although not as publicized as Koons’ rabbit, Sotheby’s also had a remarkable collection of important works on sale this year such as Francis Bacon’s masterpiece “Study for a Head“ from his pope series, which was acquired for a whopping $50.3 million, and Mark Rothko’s Untitled painting which sold on behalf  of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) for $50.1 million. 

Mark Rothko's untitled painting was acquired for $50.3 million at Sotheby's

However Sotheby’s revenue went nowhere near Christie’s, although it reached a respectable total of $342 million. Other remarkable sales that evening included a $14 million letter painting by Christopher Wool, a $4 million head drawing by Basquiat – exhibited at the Fondation Louis Vuitton –  a record-breaking $3.5 million target painting by Kenneth Noland and Ed Rusha’s $8.2 million work titled “I Tried to Forget to Remember“.

As for Phillips, it grossed $100 million during its evening session thanks to a few valuable works such as KAWS’ Spongebob painting which sold for $5.9 million, a $9.5 million self-portrait by Basquiat and a $10.2 million late painting by de Kooning. However, Mark Bradford’s “Helter Skelter II“ sold for a relatively disappointing $8.5 million compared to the first part of the painting, which was acquired for a record-breaking $12 million last year. 

But these important prices apply only to a handful of trophy works, which creates the misperception that the market is in full expansion. The truth, in fact, is more complex as the enthusiasm for million-dollar artworks may have been caused by the current economic climate. Indeed, president Trump’s tax cuts for America’s top 1% households and stock market volatility have convinced a large number of collectors and investors to spend their extra cash on art, which has the reputation of being a safer bet than other financial assets. 

Ed Ruscha's $8.2 million painting became his second all-time record at auction

And yet, despite these impressive results, auction houses are not at the height of their financial health as Sotheby’s reported a $7.1 million loss for the first quarter of 2019. In fact, the art market is entering a new era of deep renewal where no one really knows what is going to happen.

In this context, speculative movements are increasing as a new generation of artists is now entering the auction rooms, thus causing prices to fluctuate in the short term, even for well-established figures. The best example might be George Condo, whose market has dropped significantly in the last few months after reaching an all-time high last year. Almost a dozen of his paintings were presented at auction in New York with mixed results: his highest performing work reached $1.8 million, but it could have easily been sold for twice this price last year... And we are still very far from his $6.2 million record, made during Christie’s evening sale in May 2018. This proves that the market is increasingly looking for new blood to satisfy its great appetite.

Nicolas Party's Landscape painting sold for a remarkable $608,000 at Phillips

Nicolas Party is clearly one of the new prodigies of the art world: the 39-year-old Belgian artist, whose Magritte-like colorful paintings were presented at auction for the first time last year, sold one of his works for a whopping $608,000 at Phillips. Painters like Michael Ray Charles, Harold Ancart and Josh Smith also belong to this category of newly successful artists.

Although Some observers rightfully pointed out that female artists only represented 5% of the global revenue generated by the 3 main auction houses, the latter were over-represented among the new generation of rising artists. For instance, the 43-year-old American painter Dana Schutz realized one of the greatest successes at Sotheby’s last week with a $2.4 million painting that sold for 6 times its high estimate, thus breaking her personal record. Another work signed by the artist was acquired for $980,000 at Phillips, as well as a drawing which sold for twice its high estimate at $250,000. 

Dana Schutz's $2.4 million painting broke the artist's record at Sotheby's

Among these new artists, painters like Sarah Crowner, Christina Quarles or Jordan Casteel drew attention with their aesthetically fascinating 6-figure works. The first presented a colorful painting made with sewn pieces of canvas, that was acquired for a remarkable $137,500 USD, whereas Quarles and Casteel, who are both African American female artists in their early 30’s, sold a painting for respectively $275,000 and $325,000 at Phillips and Christie’s. 

Amy Sherald's "Innocent You, Innocent Me" was acquired for $350,000 last week

Other emerging female artists who achieved high prices last week are Shara Hughes, who sold a painting for more that 6 times its high estimate at $125,000 and Amy Sherald – famous for her portrait of Michelle Obama – who was making her auction debut with a remarkable $350,000 painting. Mickalene Thomas, who is a more established African American painter, also realized her best performance at auction yet by selling a stunning painting for $495,000 at Christie’s.

Another important point to mention is that almost all these rising stars are figurative painters, which confirms the renewed interest of the market for figuration over abstraction. This new trend, alongside the enthusiasm for artists from visible minority groups, was very clear this year.

However, The dark side of it all is the speculation that derives from the stellar rise of this new artistic scene. It seems that we are now entering a new era of volatility, where skyrocketing careers can easily fall in a short period of time, thus attracting speculators looking for easy money. Combined with the almost indecent prices achieved by trophy works last week, the ingredients of a financial bubble are now present. 

Mickalene Thomas broke her auction record with this painting, which sold for $495,000 at Christie's

Despite these threats, it is the first time in years that such a numerous, cohesive and brilliant generation of young artists with interesting views on today’s society  is being discovered. This phenomenon generates a great deal of market opportunities, as some of these people will undoubtedly become the next stars of auction sales.



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