Over eight days of auctions the teams at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillip’s will be mighty satisfied with the results of their May sales. Although there is a slight feeling of ‘Indian Summer’ to the contemporary market, the Impressionist and Modern sales fired on all cylinders. Overall, I think the results proved that the art market at the top end is staying bullish despite the bizarre economic conditions (high interest rates and high inflation) in which we are all living. My main takeaway from the week of sales is the return of classic Modernism to the top of the market with some truly extraordinary prices for the likes of Klimt, Van Gogh and, as ever these days, Magritte. There were a few shortened sales with pre-sale withdrawn lots a feature: Sotheby’s contemporary and NOW evening sales had seven lots removed to keep the selling rate artificially high.
The week kicked off with a fascinating pair of sales at Christie’s: a various owner sale giving way to the wonders of yet more of Si Newhouse’s astonishing collection (another tranche having been offered in 2019). Amongst the big prices of the night were a super rare (and hugely expensive) Henri Rousseau that was very hard to judge until seen in the flesh – the size of the work and its wonderful, almost Surreal, ambience was quite mesmerising, and it deserved all of its 43m USD. A very good 1932 Picasso still-life fetched 42m USD and it stood out as the foremost Picasso of the season. I didn’t rate the Lee Miller portrait that Newhouse sold for 25m USD: those bright and flashy pictures lack the elegance of the earlier 1932 ‘Walter’ pictures in my view. There were great results for Georgia O’Keefe with two of her wonderful flower works selling well: ‘Black Iris IV’ for 21m USD and ‘White Calico Rose’ for 13m USD. O’Keefe is flourishing and despite the quantity of works on the market her buying pool is deep. Perhaps maligned in previous years as a ‘pretty but vacuous’ artist – which we all know is a load to tripe – O’Keefe is a real wonder of equal excellence to Wyeth and Hopper. It would be remiss not to mention David Hockney’s market which goes from strength to strength, even further down the spectrum from his portrait paintings. Three late landscapes sold above estimate in this one Christie’s sale totalling 44m USD. The Newhouse sale was filled with great works but the estimates in many cases were ambitious. Despite remarkable successes for a near-perfect Lee Bontecou (a post-war artist seeing a meteoric rise) with her 1959-60 work making 8m USD and a Condo that we underbid to 2.7m USD, the real star of the show was a Francis Bacon Self-Portrait which fetched a stunning 35m USD. Executed in 1969 this work was as good as it gets and perfectly summarises all that is remarkable about Bacon’s view of himself and his art – a devilish concoction of angst and beauty.
Sotheby’s equivalent sales were riveting as they had stronger top lots but perhaps lacked the depth of the Christie’s sales. The Mo Ostin sale was stunning with the Magritte ‘Empire des Lumiere’ the headline act. Although there were rumours about a pre-sale offer of 50m USD I still felt that an all-in price of 43m USD was quite astonishing and goes some way to show the strength of easy-on-the-eye Surrealism. Where over the past few years the likes of Paul Delvaux and Max Ernst’s more challenging work has faded, Magritte has really boomed. The market is after signature work in a signature style over the maddeningly fickle genius of Picabia and Man Ray; who are arguably as vital to the history of art. Also, worth a mention of my favourite Joan Mitchell up for grabs this term with her monumental 1958 oil making 8.1m USD. I am so delighted that female artists from this movement are flying as high as they are – Lee Krasner’s work is also selling for millions and I am waiting for Elaine de Kooning to surf the wave too! In the various owner sale we saw a surprise in the 19thcentury Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi making over 8m USD for the most glorious painting: ‘Interior. The Music Room, Strandgade 30’. The glorious depiction of quiet, the elegance and the compositional beauty made this a wonderful contrast to the wild painterly explosions being offered in the Contemporary sales. Another such beauty was ‘Insel im Attersee’ by the great, great Vienna Seccession artist Gustav Klimt. Making 53 m USD including premium it was a marvel. From the brushstrokes decreasing in size from foreground to back to the aerial perspective so brilliantly balanced – it was full of tricks and Klimt-ian genius. A pretty Paris Van Gogh made 23m USD and I am still bowled over by his prices. This work was small and not even from the much-vaulted Arles period. My gut was around the 15m USD mark, and I suggest that Van Gogh has become a little too rich despite his awesome reputation. His market should temper in the coming years. Monet is still on the money and two solid, but unspectacular pictures made their strong estimates as clients in the far east delight in his dancing depictions of colour and light: Au Cap Martin made 11.5m USD and Palmier a Bordigeramade 5.8m USD.
In the Contemporary sales there was a multitude of riches but the lot that formed the core of the week’s expectations was ‘El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile)’ of 1983, by the ubiquitous Jean-Michel Basquiat. In making 67m USD this painting became his fourth, yes, his fourth, highest price at auction. I wonder when, or even if, his market will turn but for now there is no sign of it abating. There were stunning results across the board for the more established names: Cecily Brown with her ‘Untitled (the Beautiful and the Damned)’ making a mammoth 7m USD. Brown has a show at the Met at present which will give her prices a boost but there is no question she is one of the very finest artists of her generation and these kinds of prices will only become more common. Mark Bradford’s work has long been celebrated but I was a little disappointed with the ‘White Painting’ that was up for sale at Christie’s which made a relatively stale 2.5m USD selling at a hammer price far below the low estimate. This can happen with the contemporary market – where an artist is almost as prevalent at auction than on the primary market. The auctions become awash with work and the prices stabilise. I happen to love his work and hope his prices become more realistic, but don’t plunge, in the medium/long term.
As to the next artists to watch: the Caroline Walker market continues to boom as does Jenna Gribbon’s prices and Danielle Mckinney’s work ‘We Need to Talk’ at Christie’s was being much vaunted too. I do feel that slowly but surely the cartoon art of the past 10 years is slowly starting to slide. The Phillip’s Banksy ‘Banksquiat. Boyand Dog in Stop and Search’ was sold to the guaranteed bid and I didn’t see much else commanding top, top figures from that genre.
Over at Sotheby’s the contemporary sales were dominated by a very good, very enticing, Louise Bourgeois Spider (offered to benefit the foundation at the Itau Foundation) that was sold on the reserve for 32m USD – a record. Her Spiders are wonderful, but Sotheby’s did well to garner such a price. NB. This was sold to the Irrevocable bid and there was zero competition. My favourite piece was a top, top ‘Candy Counter’ oil by the marvellous American colourist Wayne Thiebaud. I am lucky enough to have handled some of Thiebaud’s works and this was the cream of the crop. Being large in scale and the perfect subject saw it thrive at the rostrum and realise a staggering 14m USD. As an aside, Blinky Palermo’s work is causing a stir with several works offered making double their estimates in some cases. Is this a return to Minimalism? I do hope so.
Overall, the auctions were strong for the right works of art at the right, i.e. conservative, estimates and I would always advise caution around the auction market, now more than ever. Use an advisor when spending significant sums and please note that there will be other auctions with other masterpieces just round the corner – there is no rush to buy!