A Review of the Sotheby’s & Christie’s Auctions in New York: 9th-19th November 2021

Over the last two weeks the art market saw an upward price recalibration not seen since the mid 1980s and the Japanese hoovering of Impressionist collections at auction. Over the course of ten truly unprecedented days over 2.5 Billion USD-worth of art changed hands. We saw both the Cox and Macklowe collections change the shape of the art market landscape as both houses recorded record results. The winners were pretty much ubiquitous, with everything from great Cezanne to the most insignificant of day sale ‘back-catalogue’ fodder making vast prices. To give some idea of the money made by Sotheby’s: the Macklowe collection was rumoured to be guaranteed at 690m USD (whereby Sotheby’s contractually pay a set price no matter what the result in exchange for significant upside over that amount) and yet in one sale alone they nearly made the entire guarantee. This was a deal that was hard won, and Christie’s will be kicking themselves for not pushing harder. So, despite the hyperbole these were the main takeaways:

1) Top lots, at many tens of millions, seem not to be great money-makers but rather a method of securing other consignments and selling sales as a whole.

2) The difference in bidding patterns between 5m and 15m-USD lots was similar – there are seemingly more buyers at eight-figures than ever before.

3) Blue chip names, from Picasso to Monet to Cezanne to Rothko, still command a premium despite a perceived change in tastes to more Contemporary artists.

4) There is no stopping top class post-war female artists with Frankenthaler, Mitchell and Krasner flying high. Indeed, at Phillip’s a very late, 1992, Joan Mitchell fetched 12m USD.

Christie’s main event, the Cox sale, made 332m USD and was a wonderful collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pictures that would have been the stalwart of a late 90s evening sale. In the current NFT-buying market we were a little concerned that tastes had changed, and this would be to the significant detriment of the Cox offerings. We need not have worried and Christie’s pulled out some seriously impressive prices for Van Gogh, Monet and even Gustave Loiseau made over 700k USD (Impressionist and Modern Art Day sale’s ‘meat and drink’). The top price in the sale went to VG’s ‘Cabanes de Bois…’ which fetched 71m USD and was a delightful St-Remy scene from 1889. Other strong works were the best Berthe Morisot I have seen – ‘Fillette portant un panier’ (5.3m USD and her second highest auction result) and a showstopper Cezanne which made 55m USD. One piece that I hoped would fly was a Caillebotte (though in poor condition) of real art-historical importance, ‘Jeune Homme a la Fenetre’, it made 53m USD but considering its status I had hoped it would fetch more.

Over the next few days buyers were more and more emboldened with stunning results throughout the sales. Christie’s Post-war and Contemporary Art Evening Sale saw nearly 420m USD sold through multiple big prices. As seen in the Cox sale the Impressionist works fared well with Monet’s ‘La Mediterranee’ (offered for private sale in the build-up) fetched 7.1m USD and Cezanne’s ‘Quatre pommes’ made 5m USD from a come-get-me estimate of 2.5-3.5m USD. Warhol’s Basquiat portrait brought 40m USD – a wonderful image of a fashionable artist by a fashionable artist – i.e. a marriage made in heaven. Picasso’s large ‘Femme accroupie’ brought 25m USD – clearly derived from Picasso’s Algiers works I thought it was a bit scrappy for that kind of figure, but it was priced in relation to the great subject rather than the calibre of the painting itself. An OSFA client’s Arshile Gorky of 1936-37 made the top price for a pre-1940s work at 5.2m USD which was a super result for the artist whose works have been few and far between in recent years. Cy Twombly’s market shows no sign of abating with an untitled piece from 1961 fetching a cool 32m USD. American post-war was a huge winner over the ten days of auctions. If there was one interesting result in this auction it was the pulling power of decent, 1920s Leger. Fernand Leger had been over-pushed until recently and the market had had enough of 10-15 paintings coming up every sale series. As his market was perceived to fall fewer came up for sale and as such the prices for his best work are returning to the levels we saw in the early 2010s. Leger’s ‘La Femme a sa toilette’ made nearly 5m USD from a 1.5-2m USD estimate.

The Contemporary Evening sale was a 40 lot sale with a 220m USD result – quite something for a group of works only produced in the last 21 years! There were multiple great prices but the highlights included Nicolas Party’s work ‘Landscape’ which fetched 3.3m USD, Peter Doig’s ‘Swamped’ that made nearly 40m USD and a wonderful Mark Bradford, ‘The Next Hot Line’, which made nearly 6m USD. Banksy had a relatively quiet result with a Van Gogh conversation piece that still made 14.5m USD. Perhaps he is being pushed to levels that make big collectors consider their options – Banksy? or Monet or Richter? It’s not a hard decision in my view. On that note the Beeple result – 28m USD for ‘HUMAN ONE’ was not surprising and underlines his stratospheric rise in acclaim amongst crypto cognoscenti.

After some truly outstanding day sales (where 80m USD is now the norm) Sotheby’s got their turn to offer the other big collection: Macklowe. Sotheby’s had announced the sale of this remarkable collection months before and I was not the only person to question the sense in some of the estimates which seemed extremely strong. An admittedly large, but 2007, Cy Twombly for 40m USD? A vast 690m USD guarantee (the largest ever by some margin)? In normal times this would have been madness but given the current availability of funds and the staggering calibre of the sale it now looks like the best decision in Sotheby’s history. When Willem de Kooning’s ‘Untitled XXXIII’ made double its estimate there was a great sense of relief from the Sotheby’s leadership team as they knew that bidding would be deep. Although the phones in Asia were busy it was a really international group of bidders from remarkably different backgrounds: the world’s most significant NFT collector, Justin Sun, bought the Giacometti ‘Le Nez’ for nearly 80m USD. Yet the whole sale performed well and just shows the depth of bidding in that 5-15m USD range.

The following Evening Auctions were incredibly strong with outstanding prices for the likes of Romare Bearden, Roy Lichtenstein, Philip Guston, Cecily Brown (whose market had an amazing week) and Alexander Calder. Such a diversity of tastes straddling so many different periods gave a good example of the depth of bidding throughout the major sales. I only recall one significant surprise: an unsold Basquiat with the main image a head drawn on paper laid on canvas – this medium is tricky to keep in good order and I can understand any bidding reticence. Lisa Brice, the young US artist who showed at the 2017 Salon 94 exhibition, that proved such a storm, had a wonderful painting ‘No Bare Back, after Embah’ which fetched a stunning 3.16m USD. There was a fervent desire for great female artist’s work and a real interest in painting in particular. 

Overall, it was a week of high prices and deep bidding from Asia, Europe and the US. Overall, I thought the market was keen on classic painting, keen on quality and keen on a modicum of investment risk. It was a fascinating week!

For all significant future acquisitions or sales please do use an advisor as there are many pitfalls to be avoided when dabbling in the art market.

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