A Review of the Impressionist, Modern & Contemporary Art Auctions in New York: 11th-14th May 2021

Across the board, from a 100m USD Picasso to a 11,000 USD Heckel work on paper the auctions last week performed as well as ever. The astonishing range of work put together by Christie’s and Sotheby’s made for a fascinating few days in which the new department bodies at Christie’s (20th Century separated from 21stCentury) had their first NYC chance to perform. Bidding stretched across every time zone through mammoth auctioneering sessions in which London colleagues were feeling jetlag by Friday afternoon having been leaving the salerooms at 4am! The main items of note were the 103m USD paid for Picasso’s 1932 ‘Marie Therese’ painting, a Banksy selling for 13m USD (underbid in cryptocurrency) and two Basquiat paintings that made over 50m USD each. Overall, it was a stunning week for the art world and for lovers of Impressionist painting as much as Contemporary.

Christie’s opener, the 21st Century Evening Sale, showed the depth of bidding in the Contemporary market with astonishing results for Amoako Boafa whose wonderful ‘Blue Pullover’ fetched 625,000 USD. Although, initially, his work was being written off in favour of more political artists these colourful, Schiele-derived, paintings continue to make huge sums. Mark Bradford, the titan of the contemporary scene in the US saw his ‘Amendment #1’ sold for over 5m USD. There was a world record for Rashid Johnson’s marvellous ‘Anxious red painting December 18th’ which made nearly 2m USD. Johnson’s recent show at Hauser & Wirth in London really opened him up to the international market and his paintings and mosaics are quite brilliant in their claustrophobic intensity. One price that disappointed was the Adrian Ghenie which scraped through at 2.7m USD – ‘Burning Books’ was a fabulous, intense, work but perhaps his market is overheating. However, unquestionably the star of the show was ‘In This Case’ by Jean-Michel Basquiat. His market shows no sign of stopping and 93m USD was a vast sum. This was the last ‘Head’ painting of the three (executed in 1981, 1982 & 1983) to come to public market. The other two are in major collections including the Broad in LA.

The Christie’s 20th Century sale saw works from Seurat and Monet to Mitchell and Calder offered. However, the main event was the sale of the 1932 monumental oil by Pablo Picasso, depicting his muse Marie-Therese Walter, which realised 103m USD. 1932 was arguably the artist’s peak when preparing for his major retrospective at the Galerie Georges Petit that same year. The pictures and sculptures painted in Boisgeloup in the first 6 months of 1932 remain some of his most alluring paintings. ‘Femme Assise pres d’une fenetre’ fetched 103m USD: a big figure but merely the 5th highest public price for the artist’s work. Another wonder from the sale was a very, very rare 1920s Piet Mondrian ‘Composition: No. II, With Yellow, Red and Blue’. The work was not marketed with an estimate, but it sold for 26m USD. Despite the cracking to the surface (a bit of a problem for works of such uniform paint texture) I thought it deserved more. I am sorry to say that, to my eyes, the Claude Monet ‘Waterloo Bridge’ was slightly too thinly painted for the eventual 49m USD it fetched – it goes to show the allure of these big names as the opportunities to own their work start to wane significantly.

Over at Sotheby’s the results were equally stunning. The Sotheby’s jewel was their single-owner collection of post-war American art from the estate of Mrs John L. Marion, wife of the former Sotheby’s Chairman. The sale was, for me, as good as I can remember and yet the majority of her extraordinary collection had been gifted to institutions (The Kimble Art Museum & the Museum of Art Fort Worth received 150 works of art from her collection!). There are too many highlights to mention in the sale, but the Kenneth Noland ‘Rocker’ was a perfect ‘target’ painting and deserved its 4.2m USD; Clyfford Still’s ‘PH-125 (1948-No. 1)’ was awesome and soared to over 30m USD; Warhol’s ‘Elvis 2 Times’ made 37m USD. Overall the sale was a success but perhaps not the financial romper stomper expected. Diebenkorn’s ‘Ocean Park #40’ (27m USD) is perhaps his greatest painting and it made less than half a ‘Beeple’. Sometimes the art world is hard to fathom.

The main Evening sale at Sotheby’s was a settled affair with a notable result for Robert Colescott and his brilliant ‘George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook’ (illustrated). Such a painting is proving vital to the current re-evaluation of Art History and is a tremendous break from much high-end, derivative, cartoonish, nonsense on the market at present. I was disappointed not to see this in the flesh above almost every other painting in the sale. It was great to see Kerry James Marshall fetching over 500,000 USD for a work on paper too. Cy Twombly’s ‘Untitled (Rome)’ realised 42m USD: Action painting/scratching/enscribing at its finest but the top result was a Basquiat – for his Versus Medici, fetching 51m USD. Painted in 1982 ‘Versus Medici ‘sums up the motif-laden, visceral, angry work of this young artist in the glare of a brand-new symbiosis between the street art of Samo (his alter ego) and the Madison Ave. temples of commercial high art. How he would love to know how worshipped his work has become, not only by the market but the Art world in general.

In the Impressionist and Modern Art Sale at Sotheby’s there were a handful of truly knockout results but overall, it was a very even sale that went according to expectations. The top result was a splendid, highly coloured, Claude Monet ‘Nympheas’ which sold for over 70m USD. Picasso, again, performed well with a 1940s oil on board (I thought it panel) painting depicting Françoise Gilot selling for 20m USD. Chagall, Degas and red-hot-fashionable Leonor Fini all made splendid prices too. There was one slight concern which was for the stunning Paul Cezanne ‘Nature Morte: pommes et poires’ (19m USD) which scraped through at 6m USD below the low estimate. But, overall a good sale and one with few surprises.

Last week really highlighted the strength of the market and the huge upside, for the houses at least, in there being no art fairs of note in the last 12 months. The next sale series will be in June and July and hopefully we shall see galleries staring to open and art fairs starting to fare in the near future. As ever, do use an advisor when buying works of art of significant value and, most importantly, stay safe!

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