Contemporary art defies the market…



The art market is proving its extraordinary capacity for surprise. After the very disappointing Impressionist & Modern sales in New York, the outlook for the Contemporary and Post-War Art sales was not particularly good (Auctioneers were over-optimistic…). However, the results were anything but lacklustre. With a combined total of $529m, the sales generated $20m less than a year earlier, but $200m more than the aggregated results of 2008 and 2009.

For once, Phillips de Pury, kicked off the proceeding with a sale that was admittedly less optimistic than the one concocted by the Philippe Ségalot last year, but nevertheless with a total revenue target of $66m to $92m. They missed their target generating only $57m.
but they generated a higher number of million-plus results (19) than ever before. Despite the scant interest in Cy TWOMBLY’s Untitled (2006) with only one bidder, the work fetched $8m signing the second best-ever auction result for the recently deceased artist. Richard PRINCE’s Nurses seem to have recovered their market attraction since Runaway Nurse (2006) sold for $6m in a price zone that none of his works have seen since 2008!

Christie’s was aiming for a total range of $220 and $302 but only managed $193m. However with 85% of the 66 lots finding buyers, the sale posted a much better sold rate than their previous week’s Impressionist & Modern sale. Although buyers were not very enthusiastic for a Francis Bacon estimated at between $12m and $18m, all of the sale’s star lots were acquired including the famous « I Can See the Whole Room!…and There’s Nobody in it! » by Roy LICHTENSTEIN which fetched $38.5m, a new record for the American Pop artist. After Phillips’ offer of a work by a recently deceased artist the previous evening, Christie’s successfully managed to set a new record for Louise BOURGEOIS who died late last year. Her giant Spider generated $9.5m, twice the artist’s previous record.
Another significant new record was set for Andreas GURSKY who not only signed his best-ever auction result at $3.8m with Rhein II (1999) but also dethroned Cindy SHERMAN who has held the all-time record auction result for a photo for the past 6 months.

At Sotheby’s, for the second time in a fortnight, the sale’s success was once again assured by four major results. This time it was four works by an extremely rare artist on the secondary market, Clyfford STILL (only 16 offered over the past 16 years). In total the four works generated $101.5m. The most expensive of the four (1949-A-No. 1) generated a new record for the artist at $55m!
The rest of the evening was equally exciting with a new record for Gerhard RICHTER with Abstraktes Bild (1997) acquired for 18.5m, clearly popular at the moment since his previous auction record was set just a month ago in London! Only seconds later, another painting by the German artist entitled Gudrun sold for $16m, his second best-ever auction result! The Canadian artist, Joan MITCHELL also signed a new record becoming the world’s most expensive female Post-War artist when her Untitled (c.1960) was acquired for $8.25m, substantially above its estimated $4-6m range.
The high estimates do not appear to have put buyers off as 85% of Sotheby’s lots of the 66 lots found buyers.
However, Sotheby’s missed the hammer range on a couple of extremely dear lots, notably Mark ROTHKO’s Untitled (Plum and Dark Brown) for which they had hoped to generate at least $8m (none of Rothko’s works over a square metre have generated less than $8m in the last 12 months).
Fears of a Francis BACON price meltdown after the failed sale at Christie’s the night before were quickly dispelled when Sotheby’s hammered excellent prices for three out of a total of four Bacon works in its catalogue. The three works all sold within their estimated ranges, generating a total of $21.35m.

Lots of records and a number of exceptional results while financial markets are in a state of aggravated crisis and States are going bankrupt… the art market is showing a somewhat irreverent resistance to the current economic upheavals.