A Review of the New York Impressionist, Modern & Contemporary Art Auctions: 11th-15th November 2019

It was business as usual this term as all the auctions continued to make vast sums in the Big Apple last week.  The New York sale totals were mightily impressive with the total changing hands at Sotheby’s and Christie’s over 1.2 Billion USD. Given there was no powerhouse single-owner collection offered by any of the auction houses (aka Rockefeller, Newhouse etc.) that was a considerable achievement. There is no sign of the market weakening in the face of Brexit or the China/US trade issues and, it appears, the art world glides along smoothly – especially in the Contemporary Art sphere.

Yet the full story is not quite so simple. Many of the lots were sold pre-sale with only a few heated battles in the auction house rooms during the evening sales. The number of works bought through a guarantee from the auction house or an irrevocable bid (IB) from a third party was as high as I can recall. Buyers are being patient: when a great piece appears then the top collectors will be bullish in their chase. A classic example was the price made for the outstanding Clifford Still work at Sotheby’s, ‘PH-399’, which fetched 24m USD from an estimate of 12-18m USD. Clifford Still of that calibre does not appear often, perhaps once a year at auction, and the eventual bidder was thus prepared to persevere.

Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art evening sale saw few surprises with great sums made for the top works: Monet’s ‘Charing Cross Bridge’ made 28m USD and the stunning Caillebotte ‘Richard Gallo…’ fetched nearly 20m USD. That said, the Tamara de Lempicka ‘la Tunique Rose’ work sold to my neighbour for 13m USD (surreptitiously on the phone with Sotheby’s Russia rep Irina Stepanova) which was a massive price for a good but saccharine artist I had considered deeply out of fashion. 

The Sotheby’s Day Sale was solid but not spectacular and far too large. Over 360 lots in total made the saleroom a stale and bored place to be for six hours! I think a fair amount of quality (specifically Picasso works on paper) undersold due to the size of the sale. It is time to bring back significant mid-season sales where Brasilier and Cassigneul can be offered and given space away from 3m USD Monet paintings.

The Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Evening Sale was very encouraging as there was little in the sale of real showboat class. The top lots were the Magritte ‘le Seize Septembre’ which made 20m USD and the Boccioni ‘Forme uniche…’, posthumous but lovely, that fetched 16m USD. Lots of bidding for two such works was a great sign. There were clearly some nerves in the build-up to the sale and it was clear that Christie’s were keen to lower reserves and sell the works through IBs presale in as many cases as possible.

The Christie’s Day sales were smaller than Sotheby’s but did well with solid sell-through rates all things considered. Great prices were seen in a ‘Menagerie’ sale where Pompon and Bugatti sculpture results surprised many, me included.

The Contemporary & Post-War sales are now overtaking the Impressionist and Modern sales almost every season and there were some staggering results. The biggest price of the week came at the Rockefeller where Christie’s Ed Ruscha ‘Hurting the Word Radio #2’ fetched a Warhol-esque 52.5m USD. There were also astonishing results for Warhol’s ‘Muhammed Ali’, 10m USD, in a clever single-owner feature (from the collection of Richard L. Weisman) of various sportsmen depicted by Warhol in 1977.

Sotheby’s had several crackerjack pieces in the form of a Willem de Kooning of 1977, ‘Untitled XXII’, which made 30m USD, the aforementioned Clifford Still and a Mark Rothko Blue over Red which sold to an IB at 26.5m USD.

This was a great sale series for Women artists with Joan Mitchell’s staggering ‘Plowed Field’ making 13m USD and some superb prices for Helen Frankenthaler too. Indeed, one of the finest works in the whole sale series was Frankenthaler’s 1967 canvas ‘Untitled’ in the Evening sale which fetched 1m USD – a great price for a late 60s picture. 

The Paris sale will be upon us soon (3rd – 6th December) and then back to London for the Spring auctions in early February.

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