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The art market reached a new unexpected high during New York May sales

Despite a troubled international context—both economically and geopolitically—this year’s New York Spring sales were a huge success for the three main auction houses alike. Numerous records were set for hot newcomers and blue chip artists, thus propelling contemporary sales to new highs. This May, Sotheby’s completed the second part of its much talked-about Macklowe sale—which became the priciest collection ever sold at auction—while Christie’s and Phillip’s generated record-breaking results.

These unexpected performances proved once again the resilience of the art market, regardless of the financial downturn of the last few weeks and the Ukraine War. But how long can it last?

“Shot Sage Blue Marilyn”

Christie’s inaugurated the Spring art season this year with the sale of Thomas and Doris Ammann’s collection. The two Swiss siblings became influential art dealers in the mid-1970s when they founded their own gallery in Zurich. During the same period, they started a long-term collection of major contemporary pieces from renowned artists such as Cy Twombly, Robert Ryman, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. When Thomas died in 1993, Doris perpetuated her brother’s heritage until her sudden death in 2021, which eventually led to the sale of the collection.

The most important work of the auction was undoubtedly Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe. “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn”, whose name was given after a performance artist fired a pistol at the five Marilyn portraits from the same series in Warhol’s studio, fetched an outstanding $195 million. It became the most expensive American artwork and the second one from the 20th century—after Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger—ever sold at auction. Despite this extravagant price, the auction house could have reasonably expected more knowing that another work from this series was allegedly sold for around $250 million in private. Larry Gagosian, who won the bidding war for the work in the auction room, could disclose the name of the buyer in the next few weeks.

Anna Weyant's record-breaking $1.5 million painting

Speaking of Warhol’s records, one of his Flower paintings was acquired for $15.8 million that evening, the most expensive price for this series. Among the other important works of the collection were a large-scale Robert Ryman painting that fetched $20 million and two Twombly canvases which were sold in the same price range.

The next day, Christie’s 21st century evening sale offered an impressive selection of contemporary works from rising stars and mid-career artists. The first lot of the sale was a $1.5 million canvas by Larry Gagosian’s girlfriend Anna Weyant. New records were set for numerous other young artists such as Shara Hughes and Ewa Juszkiewicz with a $3 million and a $1.5 million painting respectively—one can argue about the sustainability of this price level for such artworks—as well as Reggie Burrows Hodges and Matthew Wong. The latter even entered a new category in the art market by surpassing $5 million for a large-scale painting. Other notable results included a $884,000 painting by Salman Toor—his second best result yet. The Pakistani-born artist was one of the main auction stars last year, which shows that the market remains strong for high-quality artworks. It was followed by a $1.3 million canvas by María Berrío.

This painting by Salman Toor was acquired for $884,000

Christie's 20th century sale generated a whopping $468 million with a notable selection of prestigious post-war paintings. The top lot of the sale was a $54 million mid-sized Pollock canvas, preceded by a colorful abstract painting by De Kooning acquired for $25 million. But surprisingly enough, the most talked-about lot of the sale was Ernie Barnes’ painting “The Sugar Shack”, which was commissioned by Marvin Gaye who used it as a cover for one of his albums in the 1970s. It was acquired for a whopping $15.3 million, a spectacular rise above its $200,000 high estimate.

Ernie Barnes’ “The Sugar Shack” fetched $15.3 million at Christie's

The last sale of Christie’s week was its day session. It had a few interesting paintings such as two small Wayne Thiebaud ice cream and candy paintings that sold for respectively $4.9 and $3.2 million. Among the other top lots of the sale were a beautiful 1967 drawing by Ed Ruscha that was acquired for $2.4 million—his third best result for a paper work—as well as a $945,000 painting by Derek Fordjour who broke his auction record with it. Last but not least, a 2014 painting by Salman Toor was acquired for a remarkable $819,000, his second result in the same price range this May.

Derek Fordjour's new $945,000 record

Overall, Christie’s marquee May sales exceeded $1.44 billion this year, its best result since 2018, which was already a record-breaking year for the auction house. 50 new artist records were established, the first of which was for Andy Warhol’s Marilyn painting. It would have been enough to make it a historic month for the art market, but Sotheby’s also had a momentous week a few days later.

Sotheby’s first major May sale was the second part of the Macklowe collection, which brought in an additional $246 million dollar to the $676 million worth of art sold last November. It became the highest-grossing sale ever for a single collection with a total of $922 million, thus surpassing Christie’s Rockefeller sale in 2018, which achieved $835 million. The priciest work of this second part was a Mark Rothko abstract canvas from 1960 that fetched a whopping $48 million, followed by a Gerhard Richter photo painting acquired for $30 million. Some of the biggest post-war and contemporary masters were represented during the May sale, such as Twombly, Giacometti, De Kooning, Koons, Lichtenstein and Warhol to name but a few. They all recorded outstanding multi-million-dollar prices.

This record-breaking painting by Matthew Wong almost fetched $6 million

A few days later, Sotheby’s hosted its two-part evening sale, beginning with the Now Evening Auction. New records were set for rising artists such as Matthew Wong, one week after his performance at Christie’s 21st century sale. This time, one of his paintings was acquired for an eye-popping $5.9 million, not far from a beautiful canvas by a an artist we admire: Christina Quarles. It was acquired for a record-breaking $4.5 million—a strong result for such a young artist. Four other women artists reached their all-time highs during the auction: a sculpture by Simon Leigh fetched $2.2 million, while paintings by Jennifer Packer, Avery Singer and Lucy Bull respectively fetched $2.3 million, $5.2 million and $900,000. But the most expensive work of the sale was a large-scale canvas by Kerry James Marshall which was acquired for $13.5 million, closely followed by a $9.3 million Adrian Ghenie—his second best result at auction.

Francis Bacon's Red Pope fetched $46.2 million

The second part of the evening sale was filled with post-war gems such as one of Francis Bacon’s masterpieces, a large-scale Red Pope from 1962 that fetched $46.2 million—the same work had been withdrawn from a Christie’s sale a few years ago. It was followed by a $38 million board painting by Cy Twombly. Another significant result was recorded for a beautiful yellow Baselitz sculpture acquired for a whopping $11.2 million, enough to break his all-time auction record. In the same price range, a Ruscha painting from 1993 fetched an impressive $18.8 million, his all-time high for a post-1960s canvas. As for Alex Katz, he sold two 1970s portraits for remarkable prices that evening, both around $2.5 million. Sotheby’s marketing strategy behind this partition of the evening sale is a true success, as different types of collectors were able to focus on the younger or older segments.

This Ed Ruscha drawing was acquired for $535,500

Sotheby’s day sale had a few high-quality works. The top lot was a $2.8 million abstract canvas by Helen Frankenthaler, followed by two Joan Mitchell in the same price range. Speaking of women artists, Barbara Kruger recorded one of her best results for a work from the 2000s with a $693,000 recent photomontage. Following her $1.2 million record at Christie’s Thomas and Doris Ammann collection’s sale the previous week, the late American painter Lynne Drexler sold another painting for a remarkable $630,000. Last but not least, Ed Ruscha broke a new record for a work on paper from the 2000s with a recent $535,500 drawing.

This year’s New York Spring sales were a historic moment for all three auction houses. Indeed, Phillip’s recorded its highest-grossing evening sale to date with a global revenue of $225 million. This outstanding performance was mainly due to the presence of a major Basquiat painting among its top lots. The 5-meter-long colorful “devil” painting—which is often described as a self-portrait—was created during Basquiat’s golden year of 1982. Art dealer Adam Lindemann bought the canvas in 2004 and it became Basquiat’s most expensive work when he sold it for $57.3 million to Yusaku Maezawa at auction in 2016. One year later, the latter bought another Basquiat painting for a much talked-about $110.5 million. This May, Maezawa decided to sell the Devil canvas at Phillip’s, where it was acquired for $85 million, thus maintaining its position as Basquiat’s second most expensive work.

Reggie Burrows Hodges broke his auction record with this $730,800 painting

The rest of the sale was mainly composed of important lots by blue chip artists, such as a $20 million Yves Klein blue painting, a $15 million Calder mobile and a $10.5 million rare Kusama Infinity Net from 1959—her best result to date at auction. Rising stars were also represented during the sale. For instance, Reggie Burrows Hodges broke his auction record with a $730,800 painting, not far from a canvas by María Berrío which was acquired for $998,000 million. Fellow women artists Shara Hughes and Amy Sherald confirmed the frenzy surrounding their works with the sale of two paintings around $1.5 million.

Phillip’s day sessions had a handful of interesting lots, especially during the afternoon sale. For instance, a vertical Escape Collage by Rashid Johnson—one of our favorite artists—fetched a respectable $816,500. The afternoon session was also filled with hidden gems from the newest rising artists in the game such as Anthony Cudahy, Katherina Olschbaur, Shaina McCoy, Dominique Fung, They all sold paintings around $80,000, a substantial rise above their high estimates.

Katherina Olschbaur was one of the newcomers who achieved good results at Phillip's

In conclusion, the market was particularly healthy this Spring with an remarkable offer meeting a very dynamic demand. One the one hand, the works for sale were exceptional, from hot new artworks to trophy works. It was fueled by the sale of major collections as well as the commercialization of rare works from very demanded young artists such as Christina Quarles, María Berrío or Derek Fordjour to name but a few. As for the increasing demand, most auctions recorded a high sell rate. As an example, Christie’s 21st century Evening sale was sold out, while Sotheby’s two-part Evening session had a 98% sell rate despite the important number of artworks offered. In overall, the three main auction houses sold for about $2 billion worth of art, a total that does not even include the two major art fairs that took place during the sales in New York: Frieze and TEFAF.

The market showed no sign of decrease despite the recent financial correction at an international level. This can be accounted for by the reaction time between the stock market and the art market. Art’s status as a safe haven for investors is a crucial factor to explain this delay. Furthermore, as collector profiles have dramatically diversified in the recent years, they now have very different exposures to international crises. The one thing we should worry about is China’s aggressive politics on international purchases, especially towards the wealthiest class in its biggest cities like Hong Kong. Could the success of May 2022 be the last dance of a euphoric market? We have always been very cautions about our market predictions, so we hope that we will be wrong this time.



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