Overview of key week in NY auction calendar



Sotheby’s and Christie’s prayers appear to have been answered, at least partially. After one of the most important weeks in New York’s prestige sales calendar (4-12 November), some of the results were stunning, but several missed their targets. Here is a brief overview of the week’s highlights

Historic but disappointing results at Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s set a new historic record, taking more than 1 billion dollars in turnover during the week. The opening sale was the first in a series of four to sell off the famous collection belonging to Alfred Taubman, the American billionaire and Sotheby’s former chairman. That sale alone (of 77 Modern and Contemporary masterpieces) generated $377 million including fees, a result that was nevertheless disappointing compared with expectations and the unsold rate was too high at 39%. And yet… the works in the sale were literally “pre-sold” since Sotheby’s has guaranteed to Alfred Taubman’s heirs a minimum total of over $500 million from the four sales in the series.

Frank STELLA: the first Taubman sale did however set a major new record for the American artist Frank Stella: Delaware Crossing (1961) fetched $13.69 million including fees, twice the previous record for the artist whose work is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum (until 7 February 2016).

Cy TWOMBLY absolutely dominated the Contemporary art sale on November 11 with his Untitled (New York City) from 1968 fetching $70.5 million. The new record was particularly satisfying for Sotheby’s because Twombly’s previous record (a million less) was set by Christie’s last November (2014). Twombly’s broad canvas is now worth more than Picasso’s blue period La Gommeuse, which fetched $67.5 million at Sotheby’s on 5 November.

At Christie’s…

On Monday 9 November there were impressive new records for Lichtenstein and Modigliani at Christie’s. The Modern art sale, entitled The Artist’s Muse, was organised in much the same spirit as Looking Forward to the Past in May 2015 which generated a new world auction record for an artwork when Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (version O) fetched $179.4 million.
Looking Forward to the Past generated a total of $705.9 million – the third best total in the history of public auctions – with 34 of the 35 works finding buyers. The Artist’s Muse sale was an equally impressive session in terms of the masterpieces on offer, but not so impressive in terms of results: the evening’s total of $491 million was disappointing with nearly 30% of the 34 works remaining unsold.

Roy LICHTENSTEIN’s Nurse (1964) sold for the staggering sum of $95.365 million, burying the artist’s previous record of $39 million! This is one of the largest increases of the year, proving once again that Contemporary American art is one of the hottest segments in the market.

Gustave COURBET’s auction record acquired an additional $10 million with his , and of unprecedented quality for the auction market) fetching $15.28 million. However Christie’s was hoping to generate closer to $25 million.

Amedeo MODIGLIANI: Christie’s management were no doubt relieved by the new record for the Italian painter’s Nu couché (1917-18) having guaranteed the work at $100 million. Nu couché is a very special work indeed, an absolute trophy in the history of Modern art and one of the most famous works of the 20th century. It had remained in the same Italian collection for 30 years. The bidding went for $75m to $100m in seconds and the hammer fell at $152 million after nine minutes of excruciating tension.
In the end, Modigliani’s Reclining Nude was purchased for $170.4 million including fees, becoming the second most expensive artwork ever sold at auction in the world after Picasso’s above-mentioned Les Femmes d’Alger (version O) in May earlier this year. The new owner is the Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian, chairman of Sunline Group, whose fortune is estimated at $1.38 billion by Forbes magazine.

Some additional records on the following days:
Christie’s could have done better with the Artist’s Muse sale, but fortunately other records were set during the following days, including for Lucio Fontana, Louise Bourgeois and Lucien Freud.

Lucio FONTANA’s auction record now stands at $29.17 million with Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio (1964), a large ovoid perforated canvas. This is the second time a Fontana work has fetched more than $20 million this autumn.

Louise BOURGEOIS’ giant spider fetched $28 million. This represents a substantial accretion for her bronze Spider measuring over 7 metres wide and edited in 6 copies. Another very similar version held the artist’s record at $10.7 million for four years (Christie’s New York, 8 November 2011). So Louise Bourgeois’ record has gained more than $17 million in four short years!

Lucian FREUD: another price jump for the British artist whose nude Benefits Supervisor Resting (150.5 x 161 cm, 1994) fetched $56.1 million. Seven years ago a nude from the same series, featuring the same model on an even larger canvas (151 x 219 cm) in a better composition, sold for 23 million dollars less (Benefits Supervisor Sleeping fetched $33.6 million including fees at Christie’s on 13 May 2008).

BALTHUS and Yoshitomo NARA also raised their records, but only to the level of the low estimates. Christie’s had hoped for better results from its prestige Contemporary art sale that posted a 20% unsold rate (53 lots sold).

In view of these exceptional results, it is clear that the world’s wealthiest buyers consider the high-end art market as a refuge from financial market uncertainty. However, these exceptional results cannot mask the fact that certain sections of the art market are under-performing. In fact, a number of masterpieces failed to reach their low estimates and some important works remained unsold, including works by star signatures like Christopher WOOL or Mark ROTHKO.