Art Market Review: The Impressionist, Modern & Contemporary Art Auctions in New York, May 2022

Over nearly two weeks, from 9th-20th May, Christie’s and Sotheby’s sold over 2.5 Billion USD of works of art. Surely a record for any season and certainly the highest figure I have come across in my 23 year career. All the major single-owner collections fared superbly well with the Bass collection fetching 363m USD, the Amman Collection 317m USD and the Macklowe collection (albeit the 2nd tranche) 246m USD. The market is being sustained by two major factors: the flight of wealth to tangible assets in the midst of a war in Ukraine, and the astonishing quality of works coming to market on the back of the vast prices seen in November in NYC. Great auction prices lead to great consignments and thus further great auction prices: ‘twas ever thus.

The collection of Mr and Mrs Thomas Ammann, the famous art dealers with outstanding taste (and market knowledge) came to the rostrum first, on 9th May, in a saleroom purposely made as a TV production set for Christie’s online viewers. The issue with this is the part played by the ‘extras’ in the room – active in-room bidders are made to feel like bit-part payers. There is a feeling that the drama has gone, and the evening sale’s sense of theatre has made way for something dull, staid, and rather cold. I don’t know what the mighty Christopher Burge (unanimously considered the greatest auctioneer of all time) would make of it, but I think he’d be displeased. Ammann’s collection was possibly a little overhyped thanks to the Marilyn (195m USD), but overall, there were few unsold works and the major pieces sold and sold well. Whilst the Brice Marden, ‘For Otis’, and the marvellous Sigmar Polke, ‘Filzschleife’, failed to find a buyer the other post-war Americans fared very well with more great prices for Basquiat, Mary Heilman and my favourite work of the sale: Cy Twombly’s ‘Untitled’ of 1955 (21m USD). The Warhol ‘Shot Sage Blue Marilyn’ was the talk of the week as it had been publicly touted as a 200m USD picture. The fact it made 195m USD was somewhat seen as a failure, which is incredible, and goes some way to show that expectations of this market are as crazy as the price for a silkscreen that doesn’t come close to the ‘Death and Disaster’ series in terms of art historical importance.

The Bass collection, for me at least, was to be the best part of the week and the atmosphere in the room was noticeably more excited than during Ammann’s collection. Nothing from this little collection had been seen in years and it had not been bandied around the market at all (quite a rarity). For a twelve-lot sale it garnered huge attention and embodied arguably the perfect Impressionist, Modern and Post-War group with work ranging from Monet at his best to peak-period, red, Rothko(s). The Degas ‘Petite danseuse de quatorze ans’ (Little Dancer) was the first of the edition to be up for sale since 2015 and surpassed that previous result by 16m USD in making 41.6m USD. I do fear that one day the truth behind these sculptures will raise its head – they were never meant to be cast and Degas never authorised their making! The sale showed us that the contemporary artists of the moment may grab the headlines but still, even now, the work that international collectors desire are the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist titans. Monet’s ‘Westminster’ made the hefty price of 76m USD and his Nympheas, a stunning example, made a cool 57m USD. However, given that collectors have been queuing up for these smaller ‘Nympheas’ it didn’t make the price I expected. With a single sale of 12 lots garnering 363m USD the results confirmed that the market was as strong as ever and the lack of Russian bidding and China’s omicron crisis was not going to affect prices. 

The multi-owner sale that followed Bass fared well too with great pieces on offer from a wide range of sources. Ernie Barnes’s ‘The Sugar Shack’ made a staggering 15m USD and there was a fierce bidding battle in the room. He is an average artist, but I understand the hype – his work is easy to hang and appeals to the kind of new collector that steers clear of the likes of Kara Walker and Kerry James Marshall. The Met sold their Picasso Cubist ‘Tête’ (understandably as they have two!) for a stunning 48m USD, a wonderful thing but that price was a little bit of a surprise. Pollock, as expected, did well and I thought that ‘No. 31’ was a genuinely outstanding picture worthy of the price, 54m USD. It will do much to allay fears that top end AbEx work would fall prey to the rise of the more figurative uber-contemporary market.

The Contemporary market does, in many cases, baffle the trade where auction prices are consistently higher than the prices in galleries. Where this has been normal for many primary market artists (Jennifer Packer and Mark Bradford for example) we are now seeing vast results for mid-career artists with a secondary market too. It is almost as if the kudos from buying at auction lifts the price over and above the ‘gallery-wall’ value. 

Consistently strong prices for new artists, and notably female and black artists, was great news. Christie’s boasted such marvels as Lynne Drexler’s ‘Herbert’s Garden’ selling for over 1.5m USD and whose work seems a glorious 1960s ‘contemporary’ take on the multi-textured, multi-coloured landscapes of Gustav Klimt. LeeLee Kimmel is also a gem with her sprightly and colour-filled take on abstraction in the manner of Dubuffet – the large painting that adorned the entrance made a staggering 277,000 USD. It is lovely to see abstraction and texture in contemporary art these days.

Phillip’s had their best auction ever with the inclusion of Mr Maezawa’s Basquiat which was bought for 56m USD in 2016 and sold for 85m USD – a nice earner for a vital collector who already owns other examples of Basquiat’s finest work. The Japanese textile billionaire has proved that Art at the top, top level can be a good investment. Also worth a look at the Picasso, lot 14 – ‘Figures et Plante’ which made over 10m USD. Not anything remarkable for a 1930s Picasso until one realises that this Boisgeloup-period painting is a meagre 18 by 24cm. I hope the buyer read the cataloguing!

Sotheby’s had a great set of sales on York Avenue with the mighty Macklowe collection fetching a total of 922m USD over two sales in two separate seasons. There were notable highlights and specific favourites were the Lichtenstein, ‘Mirror #9’ (6m USD), Rothko’s dark and moody Untitled work of 1960 (48m USD) and the elegant Agnes Martin ‘Early Morning Happiness’ of 2001 which fetched 10m USD. The breadth and depth of quality in the collection was staggering indeed.

In the Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening sale a Warhol ‘Elvis’ of 1963 made 22m USD and for a work that is only vaguely ‘unique’ it really does show the staggering depth of the Warhol market. A large and vibrant Hockney Canyon picture from 2017 made 11m USD; which is astonishing in light of their mixed critical reception, even now. It seems his market is being carried by the vast results for his brilliant 1960s output. Although on paper the result for the Bacon ‘Pope’ study was strong at 46m USD I felt that the painting deserved more for its rarity. Francis Bacon of that type and calibre is more important and far more special than the countless portraits and triptychs that dominate the market.

The NOW evening auction of cutting edge contemporary 21st Century work was a wonderful sale and with only 24 lots was perfectly curated. Anna Weyant’s John Currin-like painting opened the auction and made 10 times its estimate at 1.6m USD. Then Christina Quarles – an artist of unique ability in conjuring bizarre, composition-led, bodily entanglements. The paint on ‘Night Fell Upon Us Up On Us’ (2019) was barely dry but still her picture fetched 4.5m USD. Tracey Emin’s ‘You are there now’ smashed its estimate range with a price of 819,000 USD. The works shown in her exhibition at the Royal Academy in London were quite brilliant and I am pleased that the market is as strong for her painting as ever. So much in this sale was good and I would urge everyone to take a look, not for the results necessarily, but to see what the future holds for us – it looks bright!

Finally, the Sotheby’s Modern Evening Sale and the house’s vast, 400m USD crop of artist megatrons: from Picasso to Schiele to Monet. Picasso’s ‘Femme nue couchée’ was bought by Amy Cappellazzo for 67.5m USD and it was one of the finest pieces in the season. Painted in 1932 Picasso depicted Marie Therese Walter in a number of different guises in the months leading up to his retrospective at Galerie George Petit. This sculptural masterclass is vast and yet intimate: a great piece of early 20th Century Modernism. The major Impressionist work was the Venice scene by Monet entitled ‘Le Grand Canal et Santa Maria della Salute’ which fetched 57m USD and had come from the biennale opening where it was marketed and instagrammed as thoroughly as Sotheby’s could have hoped. The price was in keeping with the Bass collection but I do wonder if Monet had been rarer this season the final price would have been towards 100m USD. Other key results saw Cezanne’s ‘Clairière’ make 41m USD, Matisses’ gorgeous still life make 15m USD and a striking 1950 Riopelle fly through its estimate range to make 1.7m USD. There were a few issues with the lower value items but the unsold rate was low and Sotheby’s will be pleased.

Despite the quantity of work available these sales did very well. There seems a great appetite for top end works of art and for fresh to market works of all styles and prices. As ever, please do use an advisor when spending significant sums – there are major pitfalls when buying at auction that can be avoided with decent advice. 

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