Preview: The May Auctions in New York: 8th-18th May 2018

The main feature of this auction season is unquestionably the sale of the outstanding Rockefeller collection which provides four days of auctions from 8th-11thMay. To pick out one highlight is nigh on impossible, but I suggest everyone keep an eye out for the price of Paul Gauguin’s La Vague (1888) which is jaw-droppingly good. There is no better Gauguin of that style and period to have appeared on the market in my career. However, there is a plentiful bounty of great pictures to satisfy the market and these are my other highlights from the Rockefeller and multi-owner sales.

Picasso’s Fillette à la corbeille fleurie of 1905 is similar to the Garcon à la pipe that beguiled the art world when it came to sale from the Greentree foundation in 2004. That work made 104m USD and I think this picture may close in on such a price. The elongated dimensions are tricky but the ambience of the work is fabulous. The circus girl, with flowers in her hand and that discomfiting, nervous, glance which highlights Picasso’s brilliant technique.

La Vagueby Gauguin I touched upon earlier and it remains the best of the bunch – it is a Japanese-print inspired masterpiece. I doubt it will touch the heights of When will you marry me? which sold for 300m USD privately three years ago but a big, big price is pretty much guaranteed.

Buying from a sale such as this Rockefeller series is a tricky business. The provenance stands out insofar as the buyer is purchasing a slice of American history just through the link of the family name to the paintings offered. I fear that prices will be terribly high because the competition for that provenance will lead to over-competitive bidding. Auction is a great platform to sell works like this but buying in this environment is not going to see value for money. Buying at auction requires a huge amount of cold, hard, self-discipline to ignore over-anxious bidders and, if necessary, to stop bidding when the price gets out of reach.

In the multi-owner sales there are a number of great works that will not have the same kind of exposure afforded to Rockefeller. However, there is one notable exception: Modigliani’s Reclining Nude. This jewel was unveiled amidst great fanfare to the press in Hong Kong by my old colleague Simon Shaw of Sotheby’s. Hong Kong was an interesting choice and took away from the US glare of the Rockefeller sales. It is also worth noting that the last record for a Modigliani was in New York in 2015 when another Nude was bought for 170m USD by a Chinese buyer: Liu Yiqian. Sotheby’s has managed to secure the picture from Mr John Magnier, a stud-owner from Ireland and a very canny businessman. The painting was acquired for 27m USD in 2003 and is now presold (via an irrevocable bid) and offered at a staggering 150m USD. The highest estimate for a painting in history.

Sotheby’s are also offering a wonderful 1932 Picasso albeit at a strong estimate of 25m USD low estimate. This dove-tails nicely with the Picasso show at Tate Modern celebrating 1932 as his ‘peak’ and I think it will sell well in light of the recent successes for early 30s Picasso oils.

Christie’s multi-owner Impressionist and Modern Art Sale exhibits a strong selection of works but I think that the shadow of the Rockefeller auctions could see prices remain within relatively decent levels. A superb large Malevich is to be offered which was acquired in the low point of the Debt Crisis in late 2008. It was a sale that I recall well as the art world rejoiced in its success. The Malevich sold for 60m USD back then and now it will be fascinating to see who raise their hand. Russian collectors have been quiet of late but surely a major collector will not resist the lure of such a prize.

The Day Sales are hidden away at the end of the week and will see the best value. Highlights include a huge number of wonderful Leger oils being offered at tempting prices at Sotheby’s, a delightful Monet pastel at Christie’s at 250,000-350,000 USD and the most sublime little Tanguy work on paper also at Christie’s: a snip at 12,000 USD low estimate.

In the Contemporary field the main highlights surround the most remarkable Play Doh sculpture (1994-2014) by Jeff Koons offered at 20m USD. The construction of the piece is a work of art in itself as the aluminium colour blocks are piled one top of the other. It has been pushed very hard by Christie’s so that will be an intriguing price to watch.

At Sotheby’s my favourite work is the Franz Kline Green Cross (1956). His work is not in the same price league as many other ‘9th Street’ artists yet I firmly believe him to a be titan of 20thCentury painting. Green Cross is offered at 6.5m USD which is likely a quarter of the Koons!

I hope you enjoy the auction season and TEFAF New York too. Best of luck of you are bidding and remember to use an advisor when spending significant sums, as there are countless pitfalls to negotiate during the collecting process.