The Art Market: Market Review
Exceptional consignments of Old Masters, British paintings and decorative arts are offered in London this month, while New York saw outstanding results in May – including a new record for the most expensive work sold at auction.
Susan Moore, Sunday, 1st July 2012
It was an extraordinary May. In New York, auction records fell so hard and fast it seemed almost as if collectors – or are they mostly investors? – were desperate to claim their stake in an exceptional offering of material. In a fortnight of carefully curated Impressionist, modern, post-war and contemporary art sales which included magnificent estate dispersals, an astonishing $1.42bn changed hands. While that – amazingly – is not a record (higher totals were notched up in 2007 and 2008), this auction season saw Munch’s pastel version of The Scream from 1895 usurp Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932) to become the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction when it realised $120m at Sotheby’s New York on 2 May.
It also saw Rothko’s mesmerising Orange, Red, Yellow (Fig. 1) set a new record for a post-war work of art at auction – $86.9m – at Christie’s New York on 8 May.
No one was surprised that owners had been tempted to offload treasures on to the market this spring, given that a small group of people around the globe are known to pay almost limitless sums for great or ‘iconic’ works of art of a certain kind. The shock of these sales was the discovery that there are now substantial numbers of people out there who are able and willing to dig very, very deep into their pockets to buy what they – and plenty of others – most want. The depth of bidding at all the auctions was often remarkable – as were the sell-through rates. After Christie’s record-beating $388m Post-War and Contemporary Art evening sale, its chairman in the Americas, Marc Porter, confirmed that this ‘is the most popular collecting category we have globally, with the richest and deepest number of buyers.’
The demographic of buyers at Christie’s New York’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale differed in that they came mostly from the traditional markets of Europe and the US. The highlight here was a ‘rediscovered’ and full-size Cézanne watercolour study for his celebrated series The Card Players. Seven preparatory drawings for the series are known to exist, and this one, of 1892–96, had been in the same German-American family for over 70 years, and had previously only been known to scholars through a black and white photograph. As this drawing demonstrates, whether working in oils or watercolour, Cézanne constructed his compositions by laying touches of colour on to white ground. Just three bidders competed for the drawing, which sold on target for $19.1m.
As for the rest of the season, most of the biggest prices were found for post-war art, not least for the American Abstract Expressionists so outstandingly represented in the Pincus collection. This estate sale, secured by Christie’s New York, realised $174.9m, and found not only a new record for the glorious 1961 Rothko, but for Jackson Pollock’s Number 28, 1951 – $23m. Painted in black enamel and silvery grey, it has additions of pourings and drips of white, red and yellow. Another record was found for Barnett Newman’s Onement V of 1952 – an inky blue ground seared by a ‘zip’ of aquamarine – which again soared way over estimate, realising $22.5m.
The whole sale was 99 per cent sold by lot, with 41 works of art selling for over $1m and nine making over $10m. In total, 14 new artists auction records were set, including those for Yves Klein’s FC1 of 1961 ($36.5m), Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (798-3) of 1993 ($21.8m) and Alexander Calder’s 1945 standing mobile Lily of Force ($18.6m; Fig. 2).
Sotheby’s New York’s sale the following evening added records for Roy Lichtenstein, whose Sleeping Girl (1964) fetched $44.8m, and for Cy Twombly, whose Untitled (New York City) of 1970 made $17.4m. Francis Bacon’s Figure Writing Reflected in a Mirror, dated 1976, also fetched $44.8m, the highest price paid at auction for a single panel.
On 11 May, Phillips de Pury New York followed up with another successful offering, this time 92 per cent sold by value. Here, a new auction record was found for a raw and monumental Crucifixion figure executed in characteristically inventive mixed media by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Untitled of 1981 appears to be a powerful collision of disparate but autobio-graphical cultural forces, which draw on Haitian voodoo as well as his Hispanic Catholicism, its skeletal forms a reference to his well-thumbed copy of Grey’s Anatomy. Expected to fetch $8m–$12m, the six-foot-high canvas soared to $16.3m.
Success spilled over into the American art sales too. Sotheby’s New York’s 17 May sale was 98 per cent sold by value and found its highest total in years. Edward Hopper, the master of urban menace, succeeding even in making a ride in Central Park seem fraught with danger. Bridle Path of 1939, yet another worrying de-acquisition by an American museum – the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art – soared over estimate to sell for $10.4m. George Bellows’ altogether lighter 1920 Tennis at Newport, meanwhile, sold on target for $7m.
Another American institution consigned William Roberts’ intense The Chess Players to Sotheby’s London’s sale on 10 May (Fig. 3). Rather like Hopper, Roberts created complex reconstructions of everyday life, rich in atmosphere and incident. Four bidders competed for this canvas of 1929–30, which more than doubled the previous auction record for the artist when it smashed through the million-pound barrier to sell for £1.2m. Other records were found for the still underrated John Craxton whose fine Sleeping Fisherman of 1948 fetched £277,250, as well as for Alfred Wallis and Frederick Etchells.
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