This November, the art market officially turned the page of the covid era in New York. The three main auction houses cumulated an eye-popping global revenue of $2.185 billion in major art sales only. The emerging scene was not the only beneficiary of the auction frenzy, far from it. The top-end of the market also renewed with its pre-crisis level—especially during the much publicized Macklowe sale organized by Sotheby’s—with many international collectors investing in once American-dominated blue chip artworks. To help you navigate this busy month, we have prepared you a summary with the highlights of the sales, as well as our thorough anlysis of the market this Fall.
1. The event of the month: The Macklowe sale
When Sotheby’s won the fight against Christie’s to sell the Macklowe collection, the press stated that it would become the highest-grossing auction for a private collection in history. The first part of the sale—the second will take place in May, 2022—brought in an outstanding $676 million, making it already the most expensive set of works ever auctioned by Sotheby’s, and the second one after Christie’s Rockefeller $832 million sale in 2018. There is little doubt that it will eventually surpass this record.
The 35-lot auction took place on Monday, November 15, at the start of a busy week of major contemporary and modern sales organized by Sotheby’s. As a consequence, unlike previous years, Christie’s had to move its own sessions a week before to differentiate from its rival. This strategy paid off as Sotheby’s took the spotlight with the Macklowe auction.
Among the top lots, a rare and colorful Rothko painting from the early 1950s—his most sought-after period—was acquired for $82.4 million. It became the priciest work sold that night as well as Rothko’s second all-time auction result. The Rothko was closely followed by Alberto Giacometti’s bronze sculpture « Le Nez », which was sold to 31-year-old Hong Kong crypto billionaire Justin Sun for $78.4 million hammer—$68 million hammer, i.e. $2 million below its low estimate. Jackson Pollock completed the podium with a $61.1 million painting—not even from his most valuable dripping series—thus breaking his auction record. One can hardly imagine the phenomenal price a painting from his top series could fetch at auction.
One of the highest returns on investment for a recent painting was undoubtedly the Cy Twombly painting. The couple had purchased this piece from one the artist’s latest series back in 2007 for $5 million at Gagosian—a very expensive price for a work acquired on the primary market at that time. Last week, it was acquired for a whopping $58.8 million, thus rewarding the risk the collectors took. In the same price range, a classic Warhol painting from 1962 representing nine portraits of Marilyn Monroe fetched $47.3 million. Twombly and Warhol had two more paintings for sale that night, and both were acquired above $20 million.
Other notable works included a one-of-a-kind Picasso sculpture reminiscent of the cubist era. The work fetched $26.2 million, thus becoming his second best auction result for a sculpture. It was closely followed by two $24 million paintings: a beautiful abstract canvas by Willem De Kooning and a remarkably modern large-scale piece from 1976 by Philip Guston. Last but not least, the Canadian-American minimal artist Agnes Martin shattered her previous record with a $17.7 million canvas. Both the Guston and the Martin went to Asian bidders.
II. Other blue chip artists are back on track too
The contemporary blue chip segment—composed of living artists whose works regularly sell above $1 million—also performed very well during the two-week auction marathon.
It was the case at Christie’s 21st century Evening sale, which inaugurated the art season in New York. Several artists from this category broke their auction records such as Barbara Kruger, who sold a rare 1984 work for $1.17 million—her first time above $1 million at auction—or Peter Doig, whose 1990 work “Swamped” was acquired for an impressive $39.8 million. The market of Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman, two artists who belong to the same generation as Kruger and Doig, were back strongly after years of stagnation. Both of them renewed with their 2010s prices by selling a few million-dollar photographs. For instance, an artwork from Prince’s cowboy series was acquired for a satisfying $3 million, while one of his word paintings fetched $3.6 million. Lastly, The top lot of the sale was a large Basquiat painting, which however sold under the low estimate for $40 million.
Christie’s 20th century evening sale had a few interesting works from the contemporary blue chip segment too. A still life by Alice Neel fetched $2.3 million, her second all-time auction result. It was followed by a series of eight-figure works by big names such as Gerhard Richter, who sold a large abstract canvas for $27.2 million. Among them, A portrait of Basquiat by Andy Warhol was acquired for $40.1 million. The next lot was a classic Ed Ruscha word painting from 1967, which sold for a slightly disappointing $20 million. Last but not least, two paintings by Cy Twombly and Willem de Kooning fetched respectively $32 and $14.5 million.
As for Christie’s contemporary day sale, a handful of interesting works sold for a good price, such as a remarkable $2.5 million Basquiat drawing and a series of diamond paintings from the 1960s by Kenneth Noland. They were all acquired between $250,000 and $562,500—an excellent result.
One week later, Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale had a few exceptional pieces to offer. One of the first lots was a spray painting from the 1990s by Christopher Wool. Although the artist’s word paintings underperformed at auction recently, this particular canvas broke the record for the spray series by selling for $13.2 million. At the same sale, two paintings by Cecily Brown entered the artist’s podium for her priciest works at auction. They both sold above $6 million, thus proving that the artist’s market returned to growth after a year of stagnation during the pandemic. As for Romare Bearden, the late African-American saw his prices surge during the sale. For the first time, two of his canvases were acquired above $1 million.
Sotheby’s contemporary day sale was a success too, with interesting lots breaking new records for blue established artists. For instance, Pat Steir recorded her second best auction result with a $1 million painting. A few lots later, a landscape painting by Alex Katz fetched $988,000, his record for this type of artwork. As for Richard Prince, one of his Instagram portraits was acquired for an impressive $625,000, his best result yet for this more recent series.
Although Sotheby’s modern evening sale only presented a handful of postwar works, some of them reached impressive prices. The first of them was a gorgeous black and red masterwork from 1961 by Pierre Soulages. It was acquired for a record-breaking $20.1 million, thus propelling him into a new elite category of legendary French artists from the same era. As a matter of fact, only a handful of big names—Yves Klein, Jean Dubuffet and Nicolas de Stael—can now compete with the master of black. Last but not least, Alexander Calder recorded his second best auction result for one of his famous mobiles that fetched $19.7 million.
III. The emerging scene keeps rising
This November, the emerging scene continued its momentum. Young artists once again generated record-breaking prices, thus earning Phillip’s its highest-grossing sale to date. Indeed, the auction house’s evening auction brought in an exceptional $138 million revenue. The first lot of the sale was a painting by 40-year-old American painter Shara Hughes. The artist, whose prices have been rising steadily for the past few years, broke a new record following her previous $1.2 million result in London last month. This time, her work was acquired for a whopping $1.5 million. And yet, it was not even the only million-dollar work of the sale for the emerging scene. Indeed, five other paintings from young artists were acquired within this price range: a $3.9 million Amy Sherald portrait, a $1.4 million Matthew Wong canvas, a $4 million large-scale digital painting by Avery Singer, a $1.4 million Emily Mae Smith and a $1.7 million urban landscape by Nicolas Party. Not far from these prices, Ewa Juszkiewicz, Jadé Fadojutimi and Titus Kaphar all sold paintings between $700,000 and a million dollars.
Despite a rather disappointing morning session, Phillips presented a few more interesting works from newcomers during its afternoon auction. Among them, two artists, Jerrell Gibbs and Ben Sledsens, made their remarkable auction debut with a $126,000 and a $226,800 work respectively. A more established artist from the emerging scene, Rashid Johnson also performed very well during that sale with a $403,200 mid-sized wood painting.
This Fall, Sotheby’s separated its contemporary evening session into two sales: the regular evening auction which has already been mentioned, and a new sale titled “The Now”, which gathered the hottest new stars of the market. Numerous new auction records were set that night, the first of which is Lisa Brice’s unbelievable performance for a $3.2 million painting—more than 15 times its $200,000 low estimate.
The second lot was a record-breaking $927,500 Maria Berrio painting—not bad for an auction debut—directly followed by a $2.2 million large-scale paper work by Toyin Ojih Odutola—by far her best result to date. Other records included a gorgeous $746,000 Hernan Bas landscape, a $685,500 Christina Quarles painting and a large-scale “We Are Not” canvas by Adam Pendleton—a series currently on view at his major MoMA solo show “Who Is Queen?”—which was acquired for a satisfying $504,000. Last but not least, Rashid Johnson confirmed his auction prestige with a $1.1 million Anxious Man painting.
Both Christie’s evening and day contemporary sale presented interested lots from young artists. New records were even set during the evening for a $3.3 million Nicolas Party—although it was a tax-efficient charity auction—a $2.5 million Anxious Men painting by Rashid Johnson, and a $468,750 Issy Wood velvet painting. But the greatest rise above the low estimate was for a $870,000 painting by newcomer Hilary Pecis—an impressive price compared with her $60,000 low price limit.
New artists performed quite well too during Christie’s day sale. For instance a small Loie Hollowell volume canvas fetched $687,500. The latter was not the only small work that performed well : a 24-inch (60 cm) portrait by Claire Tabouret sold for a record-breaking $500,000, while an even smaller Sarah Sze canvas was acquired for a whopping $300,000.
IV) Our analysis
·Innovative auction house strategies
Sotheby’s struck a great blow this season with the Macklowe sale followed by a series of successful contemporary and modern sessions. The auction house also came up with an innovative marketing strategy by splitting its contemporary evening sale into two different entities, the first of which was the successful “The Now” sale. This smart move allowed Sotheby’s to promote the most market-friendly part of the evening, with great results given the outstanding prices reached during the sale.
This season, it was also very clear that estimations have become a tool for auction houses to meet their needs. On the one hand, most emerging artists have very low estimations—such has Shara Hughes, whose record-breaking $1.5 million painting had a $250,000 low estimate even though a similar canvas had fetched $1.2 million a month ago, both at Phillip’s—to encourage buyers to bid without a clear idea of the price.
On the other hand, at the top end of the market, low estimates are often very close to the guaranteed price, which is a way to reassure prestigious clients. This was very clear during the Macklowe sale, where an important part of the most expensive lots sold slightly above their low estimates—the $78.4 million Giacometti with a $70 million low estimate was the perfect example.
Last but not least, there were more charity auctions this November in New York than ever. For this type of sales, the rise above the fair market value is tax deductible for American clients, which attracts much more buyers to bid for an artwork. As a matter of fact, auction houses make sure to put a strong emphasis on this aspect of the sale before the auction. An example for this was Nicolas Party’s record-breaking $3.3 million painting, whose fair market value may have been $400,000 (mid-estimate).
Young buyers for old artworks
We’ve been insisting a lot on the deep change in collector’s profiles in the past few years as young buyers and Asians are now shaping the market. We already knew the appetite of these new collectors for emerging art. But this November, they also proved that they were willing to buy the priciest trophy artworks.
For instance, while some of the best lots of the Macklowe sale were acquired by Asian buyers—works by Willem de Kooning, Agnes Martin and Gerhard Richter among others—the most talked-about artwork i.e. the Giacometti sculpture was bought by a 31-year-old Hong Kong crypto entrepreneur. Justin Sun—who recently bought a master painting by Picasso—just proved that the best pieces on the market are no longer the privilege of white American collectors.
Apart from Giacometti and Picasso, Sun recently invested in a Kaws painting as well as an NFT by Murat Pak. This rather eclectic choice of artworks demonstrates the broad post-modern tastes of the new Chinese elite. Furthermore, according to a recent Artnet article, the crypto tycoon plans to donate these artworks to his foundation and tokenize them for art lovers to “appreciate it through online and offline channels and get inspiration from it”.
New global market trends
This November in New York, we saw more and more evidence of a fast-fashion trend within the art market, and more especially on the emerging segment. Indeed, an important proportion of new buyers see art as consumers more than collectors. Their purchase decisions are no longer based on a thorough knowledge of art history, and their love for an artist’s work will not prevent them from flipping it at auction. They own fewer pieces from the same artist, with less attachment to the artworks themselves. As a consequence, there is a substantial risk that some artists will see their prices skyrocket and fall as quickly.
The other major evolution in collector’s habits is their willingness to buy works at auction. A few years ago, most buyers preferred to buy works privately in order to remain discreet. The situation has reversed, with auctions generating the highest prices compared with more reserved private sales. The auction frenzy was particularly clear in New York as 93.5% of the lots presented at the main contemporary and post-war sales were sold. And given the unprecedented number of artworks on sale, both the offer and the demand were at their highest this Fall.