This summer, the 3 main auction houses Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips had to reinvent themselves in order to survive the global health crisis that has been raging for months. And Although their global revenue for the traditional May evening sales in New York – which were postponed to late June and July – have dropped by half compared with 2019, there were surprisingly good results on two segments of the market: the high-end paintings and the young speculative artists. This is all the more surprising that these two segments are usually the ones that suffer the most in times of crisis. And yet, this trend was later confirmed during Christie’s unprecedented « ONE » digital auction and Hong Kong July sales. Hence, we prepared you a summary of the 3 auction sessions that marked the last two months.
1) The New York Sales
The star of New York evening sales was undoubtedly Francis Bacon’s « triptych inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus », which was acquired for $84.6 million at Sotheby’s auction, above its $80 million pre-sale high estimate. There were a few other examples that demonstrated the surprising dynamism of the high end market during this sale, such as a beautiful drawing by Basquiat, which broke the artist’s record for a work on paper with a remarkable $15.18 million, and a $28.74 million painting by Clyfford Still. The other surprise of the night was Matthew Wong’s painting « The Realm of Appearances ». The young prodigy, who tragically passed away last year, made the greatest auction performance of the year so far with this work, which was acquired for a stunning $1.8 million, thus multiplying its low estimate 30-fold. The last time we saw anything similar was last November, with a Michael Armitage painting that sold for $1.52 million, well above its $50,000 low estimate.
Although a bit less eye-catching, Sotheby’s contemporary day sale had a few interesting lots too. At the top end of the market, there was a remarkable Keith Haring canvas that sold within its estimate at $2.42 million. A $2.66 Condo painting was also acquired on this session, along with a $2.72 million Robert Ryman which topped the sale. On the mid-market segment, a few paintings by young artists recorded good performances, such as a $250,000 painting by Derek Fordjour, who broke his auction record with it. Blue-ship artists were also honored such as Keith Haring, who almost tripled his low estimate with a remarkable $692,000 drawing and Ed Ruscha, who multiplied his low estimate 4-fold with a $400,000 work on paper from the 1970’s.
The last major event of this end of June at Sotheby’s New York was the Ginny Williams Collection evening sale. The late American business woman had accumulated a remarkable collection of works by some of the most celebrated female artists of the 20th century throughout her life, and it was the perfect to sell them, as the market has been increasingly valuing women these last few years. Thus, some of them achieved high results that evening, such as Lee Krasner who made her second all-time record with a $9.03 million painting, or Joan Mitchell, who sold 3 remarkable paintings between $6 and $9 million. But the highest performance was undoubtedly made with Helen Frankenthaler’s painting « Royal Fireworks », which was acquired for almost 4 times its low estimate. Last but not least, a 1979 black and yellow Infinity Net by Yayoi Kusama sold above its high estimate for $1.16 million.
Phillips also brought in satisfying results in New York this year with a $41.1 million evening sale dominated by mid-market high-performing lots from the new generation of artists. Take Lucas Arruda for instance, who multiplied his low estimate more than 4 times with his second highest sale, or Matthew Wong, who confirmed his auction frenzy with the sale of a $848,000 painting – a 14-fold rise from its low estimate. Furthermore, 3 other artists broke their auction records during the sale: Titus Kaphar, whose untitled portrait was acquired for $187,500, Christina Quarles who sold a remarkable $400,000 canvas, and Ali Banisadr with a $572,000 painting. Among the newcomers, Robert Nava made his auction debut with a $162,500 painting, while Otis Quaicoe multiplied his low estimate 12-fold thanks to a $250,000 portrait. On the other side of the spectrum, there were only a handful of expensive works presented that night, such as a $11.06 million Joan Mitchell canvas or a $9.25 million Basquiat.
Phillips’ morning and afternoon sessions were more disappointing. There were only a few interesting pieces among a multitude of minor works. However, artists like Nina Chanel Abney or Shara Hughues made great performances with a $175,000 and $150,000 canvases respectively. And, once again, Matthew Wong attention during the afternoon sale with a $187,500 piece.
2) Christie’s ONE auction
Christie’s ONE auction was the most innovative initiative carried out by the 3 main auction houses. This digital session, which took place simultaneously in Paris, Hong Kong, New York and London on July 10th was broadcasted live using streaming technology on Christie’s online platform. Collectors from all around the world started bidding at 11:30 a.m. in the New York time zone on both modern and contemporary works, during a session that lasted for nearly 4 hours. It was a real success, as the sale brought in an impressive $421 million.
Much of the bidders’ attention during the Hong Kong session was drawn to a few master works: a large painting by George Condo which allowed the American artist to broke his all-time auction record – it was acquired for a whopping $6.85 million – and a 1989 abstract painting by Gerard Richter that was sold for $10.22 million. But young artists were also honored during the sale, such as Nicolas Party, who made his second best auction performance with a $1.02 million still life, and Matthew Wong – once again – who sold a $387,006 landscape painting.
In Paris, the most expensive lot was a $7.38 million Jean Dubuffet painting, followed by a beautiful portrait by Amedeo Modigliani, which was acquired for $5.07 million. The second attraction of the sale was the 1950’s Soulages painting that sold slightly above its high estimate at $3.23 million.
As for The London session, it was topped by a $22.52 million Magritte and a $6.15 million Cecily Brown painting. The third most expensive lot was a Baselitz painting from the famous Drinkers series, which was acquired for a respectable $5.82 million, despite a very high estimate – it is the artist’s third all-time auction record.
Last but not least, the most spectacular part of the ONE auction was by far the New York auction, which was marked by a few exceptional top end master works, the first of which being a $46.24 million Roy Lichtenstein work. It was followed by a record-breaking Brice Marden canvas and a Barnett Newman painting, which sold for the same whopping $30.92 million.
The third most expensive painting of the session was the F version of the famous Picasso painting « Les Femmes d'Alger », which grossed $29.22 million. As for Ed Ruscha, the American artist sold one of his most iconic 1960’s painting for a remarkable $22.97 million, as well as a $975,000 work on paper.
Interestingly enough, The geographical distribution of buyers was quite even for this sale, as 37% of the bidders were from the American continent, 38% from Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and 26% from Asia, according to Artnet’s report on the subject.
3) The Hong Kong Sales
Sotheby’s evening Hong Kong auction sale offered a satisfying selection of high end works, from a $14.81 million David Hockney sunflower painting, to a $8.27 million Clyfford Still abstract canvas. Yoshimoto Nara was also very present among the top lots, with 3 paintings above $3 million. Albert Oehlen, who was absent from the New York and ONE auctions, sold a large abstract canvas for a remarkable $2.69 million, closely followed by a $2.49 million painting by Cecily brown.
There were a few interesting pieces by artists that we like during Sotheby’s day auction, the first of which being a $250,000 colorful Harold Ancart psychedelic landscape. Another artist from the same generation, Tomoo Gokita made a respectable sale with a $371,000 portrait that day. More established blue-ship artists were also present during this session, such as Lee Ufan whose From Line canvas sold for $467,000, followed by a $387,000 Gunther Forg grid painting.
Although a bit less interesting, Christie’s evening sales had a few remarkable lots too, such as a series of 3 large Zao Wou-ki abstract painting, which were acquired for respectively $14.76, $6.12 and $4.19 million, and a remarkable $4.35 million large Adrian Ghenie painting. Last but not least, Peter Saul made a great performance with a $322,000 painting, thus doubling his high estimate, as well as Nicolas Party with a $762,000 still life. As for the day session, it was also marked by the sale of a $338,000 Nicolas Party portrait.
Although less important in terms of global income, Phillips’ evening and day sessions were quite interesting for a few reasons, the first of which is Claire Tabouret’s record-breaking painting « Les Déguisements », which grossed a remarkable $451,000 – thus multiplying her low estimate more than 6 times – a few months after her last record in April for a painting sold at a charity auction organized by Piasa in Paris for $224,000 ! It is a great signal for her market which is now once more on an ascending slope. Nicolas Party also performed really well during the evening auction with his third all-time record made with a still life that sold for $762,000.
Given the undeniable quality of the high end lots presented during these 3 summer auction sessions, the market didn’t quite show the worrying signs of recession that we were expecting at the beginning of the lockdown era. On the contrary, we observed a continuity with what was happening back in 2018 and 2019, with the steady rise of the new generation and the dynamism of the top end market. And yet, these satisfying results were made in an exceptional context where the volume of works is lower than usual, given the cancellation of art fairs and the low number of public sales. We still don't know if the market will be able to absorb the supply once it comes back to its pre-crisis level.