Last night, there were times sparks flew at Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art auction. I am sure that the auction room’s staff were a bit nervous since a weird snowstorm hit New York City in the late afternoon and caused some of the worst traffic the city has ever seen (I can vouch for that since it took us about 4 hours to go 19 miles). The sale started a little late, but the room was full, and the bidding, at times, was spirited.
I am pretty sure most of you know this (it has been all over the news), the top lot of the evening was David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures). British billionaire Joe Lewis was the seller (he bought the painting from David Geffen in 1995) and it was offered without a guarantee or reserve. What? Really? Seemed a little odd given its projected value – but I am sure there is more to the story. The painting also had its own 100 plus page catalog and carried the always informative ‘Estimate Upon Request’, but the whisper number was in the range of $80M. Bidding quickly reached $70M and then slowed until the winner paid $80M hammer ($90.3M with the commission – w/c). That was not only an auction record for the artist, but for any living artist (the previous record was held by Koons for one of his sculptures – $58.4M) – poor Koons.
Coming in a distant second was a rather dark Mark Rothko from 1962 – Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum). The work’s provenance seems to suggest that it was sold through the artist’s estate in 1970 and somehow ended up back in the estate’s possession a few years later. It was then acquired by the de Menil’s in 1979. Estimated to sell in the $35-45M range, the work hammered at $32M ($35.7M w/c). This was a long way from his 2012 record price of $86.6M; but I bet you the sellers were still very happy.
A large Richard Diebenkorn titled Ocean Park #137 (one of about 145 works from a series the artist worked on for 20 years) came in third at $19.8M ($22.6M w/c – est. $18-22M). The sellers, Mary Tyler Moore and Dr. S. Robert Levine, purchased the piece back in 1988. The artist’s Ocean Park series are among his most sought-after and Ocean Park #126 (sold in May 2018) holds the artist’s auction record at $23.9M. In fact, his top ten auction prices are all from the series.
Rounding out the top five were Francis Bacon’s Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing (est. $14-18M) and Basquiat’s Discography Two (est. $20-30M); both coming in at $19M ($21.7M w/c).
With all the press the Hockney has generated, one might conclude that the upper end of this market is booming, but that is not necessarily the case. There were plenty of works that failed to find buyers, among them Nauman’s Run from Fear, Fun from Rear (est. $3.5-5.5M), Frankenthaler’s Red Square (est. $3-5M), Alberto Burri’s Bianco Plastica M1 (est. $4-6M), de Kooning’s Figure in Landscape I (est. $4.5-6.5M), and Peter Doig’s Untitled (Silver Pond Painting) ($5-7M).
By the end of the long evening, 41 of the 48 works offered sold (85.4% sell-through rate), and the total take was $311.87M ($357.6M w/c). The low end of their estimate range was $314.1M, so at the hammer, they fell just short; but with the buyer’s premium, they were comfortably above. Looking a little closer we see that 15 sold below, 13 within, and 13 above their estimate range giving them an accuracy rate of 27%. The fact that more than one-third of the works sold below their range and 7 did not sell, shows there is a little uncertainty and those 22 works did not stir much, or any, real interest.
Oh, one final fun fact … the main catalog weighed in at 5.4 lbs!