Highlights of the sales at Sotheby’s and Phillip’s de Pury & Company.



On 8 and 9 March, Phillips de Pury & Company and Sotheby’s held their prestige Contemporary Art sales in New York. No million-dollar bids, but strong results confirmed collectors’ appetites for specific signatures.

Cindy Sherman. A safe bet
Cindy SHERMAN generated the best result of the two days of sales with one of her most famous fictional portraits, Untitled Film Still #21 (1/10, 20.3 x 25.4cm), one of which is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A collector from Philadelphia had bought the work directly from the artist and Sotheby’s estimated the work at between $150,000 and $200,000. However, the final bid of $620,000 demolished that price range. The previous day at Phillips de Pury & Company, a more recent work by the artist recorded the best result of that sale: Untitled #426, fetched $370,000. The work carried a particularly wide pre-sale estimate range ($300,000 and $500,000) reflecting the fervent bidding that hot signatures are capable of generating.
Cindy Sherman’s price index has risen 171% since 2007, the year of her two first 7-figure auction results. Since then, five other photographs by the artist have crossed the one million dollar threshold, including (Untitled, 1981, 61 x 121.9 cm) which generated her record of $3.4m at Christie’s in New York on 11 May 2011 gaving her the title of the world’s most expensive Contemporary photographer (Andreas Gursky won the title six months later).

Gerhard Richter. The most valued living artist in the world
These days Gerhard RICHTER is rarely absent from prestige Contemporary art sales. Ranked 8th in the world’s best-selling artists ranked by auction revenue in 2011 (behind Daqian Zhang, Qi Baishi, Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Xu Beihong, Wu Guanzhong, Fu Baoshi), Gerhard Richter is the only living artist in the Top 10 (and is in front of Fancis Bacon and Li Keran). It was therefore not all that surprising to see his oil on paper Montag (1983) fetch $105,000 more than its high estimate, at $455,000.
Like Cindy Sherman, his prices and his records literally took off in 2011; in fact, $100 invested in a Gerhard Richter canvas in 1998 is worth an average of $933 today! On 9 November 2011 – hours after Andreas Gursky has become the Contemporary world’s most expensive photographer – his compatriot Gerhard Richter set a new record of $18.5m for an abstract work from 1997, Abstaktes Bild, at Sotheby’s New York, and just minutes later his canvas Gudrun fetched $16 million against a pre-sale estimate of $5.5m to $7.5m. Alongside these recent records, Richter has gained substantial international exposure from a traveling retrospective exhibition entitled Panorama (Tate Modern in London, 6 October 2011- 8 January 2012, Staatliche Museum in Berlin, 12 February – 13 May 2012, Centre Pompidou in Paris, 6 June – 24 September 2012). This tribute to five decades of creation should provide permanent support for Richter’s price index.
Sotheby’s best results on 9 March included the three safe bets: Alexander CALDER (Wichita Mobile sold for $350,000, 20.3 x 29.2 x 24.1 cm), Hans HOFMANN (Suspended Shapes, $275,000) and Keith HARING (Untitled, $235,000). Phillips’ sale of the previous day attracted collectors with works by Roy LICHTENSTEIN (Brushstroke Still Life with Lamp, $250,000) Dan COLEN (The Son of a White Man (Air Force Pilot-Plantation Owner), $170,000), Dan FLAVIN (Untitled (To Pat and Boo Rohm), $50,000), Andy WARHOL (Vesuvius, $200,000) and Jean-Michel BASQUIAT (Untitled (Skoll), $180,000).

Still relatively unknown, the work of Ruth ASAWA (born 1926) is steadily gaining auction momentum. Her light and poetic sculptures, reminiscent of Isamu NOGUCHI Akari’s lamps, were affordable at less than $10,000 in the 1990s. They have now reached prices commensurate with her talent, such as the $230,000 paid for her Untitled (S.407) at Sotheby’s against an estimate of $120,000 – $180,000.

Besides these highlights, Phillips de Pury & Company is still trying to revive interest in the more contemporary and volatile work of the YBA duo Tim & Sue NOBLE & WEBSTER. After a major rise in demand for their work in 2007, the English duo has been somewhat neglected. However, Phillips de Pury continues to incorporate their important works into its catalogues: on 8 March, the light installation Puny Undernourished Kid/Girlfriend from Hell (3 copies) sold timidly for $200,000 ($50,000 under its low estimate). In 2007, at the height of the market, Phillips attempted to sell the same piece for twice that price … failing despite the fervor of the moment.
Another disappointment proving that the excesses 2007-2008 have left traces was Takashi MURAKAMI’s acrylic Eye Love SUPERFLAT (2004) that was bought in against an estimate of $400,000 – $600,000. In 2008, smaller works from the same series (100cm vs. 150cm here), fetched between $340,000 and $360,000.