Auction Review: The New York Impressionist, Modern & Contemporary Sale Week: 13th-17th May 2019

Despite anxiety over the amount of work being placed on the market over one week, this season saw tremendous results across the board. From Kaws to Monet the market is stronger than ever for fresh-to-market works of art. As with all markets: great prices lead to great supply and the quality on offer this season was almost unprecedented. Given there was no vast single owner sale catalogue in the manner of a Whitney or a Ganz the kit on offer was simply superb.

At Christie’s on Monday night the sale of several works from the collection of S.I. Newhouse went up for auction including a Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) not seen on the market since I was an intern at Sotheby’s in 1999. The Still life had made 30m USD then and now doubled in price to 60m USD. I thought Bouilloire et fruits would make more having seen the work in the flesh, but it still shows that an academic subject matter in a painting of deep art historical importance still commands a premium – good news for the art lover in general. Newhouse’s Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) Arbres dans le jardin de l‘asile was less impressive but, as a highly-prized St. Remy work, still garnered a mighty 40m USD.

Other great prices were from the collection of Drue Heinz with the Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) portrait of Lunia Czechowska fetching 25m USD and a large Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Une Terrasse a Grasse, that made 20m USD (a world record for the artist). I hope the Bonnard price was linked to the stunning retrospective at Tate Modern in London. Bonnard was prolific but I think even his late work is a strong buy in light of the resurgence of the Impressionist/Post-Impressionist market this year.

Over at Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art Evening sale on 14th May was the main highlight of the week and the top price of the season: Claude Monet’s (1840-1926) Meules of 1890 which fetched a jaw-dropping 110m USD. There are very few of this series left in private hands and along with the great waterlilies they stand out as one of his career peaks. It was frustrating to see the work in the preview gallery exhibited in a room with a concrete floor and no discernible thought by the architect as to the usual exhibiting conditions of such a painting in real life. However, it was a masterpiece and deserved the market recognition it received. Another big result for the sale saw a large, and slightly silly in my view, late Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) entitled Femme au chien which colleagues of mine seemed to admire but I think 55m USD was double the right price. In fact, late Picasso did very well overall with the large Mousquetaire a la pipe going to Asia for 21m USD (although, apparently, bought on the irrevocable bid). I wonder how the Asian market will react to the tariffs in the US – it will make for tricky times amongst the houses given their propositioning of Asian wealth in recent years.

In the Contemporary sales there were numerous big prices at Christie’s and the major work was the S.I. Newhouse Jeff Koons (b. 1955) Rabbit which made 91m USD. Controversial it may be but in light of the KAWS (b. 1974) painting making 17m USD in Hong Kong recently nothing about the contemporary art market surprises me these days. Jeff Koons is a good, nay potentially great, artist but this sculpture was an editioned work of 3 and the fact it was a 1986 sculpture does make this price utterly eye-watering. In a season where a gorgeous 205 cm. squared Richard Diebenkorn ‘Ocean-Park’ painting goes unsold at 12m USD it all makes for fascinating cross-examination. A large Spider by Louise Bourgeois was one of the gems with these amazing pieces having a positive, maternal feel to them entirely imbued by the artists working method (reels of cotton wound around a spool and vastly enlarged) which neuters the potential terror of the form: it made 32m USD.

Perhaps my favourite work of the week was a Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) painting/screenprint that I saw at the Tate retrospective of his work in 2016: Buffalo II. This painting was the seminal precursor to the 1960s Pop Art years and fetched 88m USD. It is a truly great work and on a par with the Monet in terms of genre-defining import.

Over at Sotheby’s the major works all performed well, with the Francis Bacon Study for a Head (1909-1992) of 1952 making 50m USD and the beautiful Mark Rothko also fetching 50m USD. The Sotheby’s sale was not in the same class as Christie’s but overall, they will be delighted with the results. Interestingly the best work by an American in their sale was a Lee Krasner (1908-1964), The Eye is the First Circle, which fetched the world record price of 11.6m USD. It was a 1960 oil of real class and I hope it leads to other great prices for one of the great female artists of the century.

Looking forward to June I fear the auctions could be a struggle since the business-getting period is so, so limited. Having said that I would recommend you keep your eyes peeled and use an advisor when buying significant items of significant value.

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