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Contemporary Day Sales Heat Up NYC

November 21, 2019
Frank Stella titled Gray Scramble IX (Single) c. 1968 – 69

Frank Stella titled Gray Scramble IX (Single) c. 1968 – 69

While the weather may have been brutally cold last week in New York, I spent last Thursday and Friday warm and cozy at my desk watching some remarkable results of the Contemporary Day sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Both auction houses had morning and afternoon sales, with basically no break in-between, offering almost 560 lots of which close to 88% found new owners.

While there is lots to talk about, let’s just go over some of the highlights and a few surprises. Christie’s was first up with 255 lots for sale, and selling a grand total of $117.1 million (they surpassed last year’s sales total of $92.97 million), a record total for a contemporary day sale. Top lots were all from the morning session; taking first place was a work by Frank Stella titled Gray Scramble IX (Single) c. 1968 – 69, estimated at $2-3M which sold for $4.3M ($5.16 w/p). Second place went to the cover piece by Joan Mitchell titled Terrain Vague which had a$2.8 – 3.5M estimate and sold for $3.7M ($4.46 w/p). Rounding out the top three was a hanging sculpture by Ruth Asawa, Untitled (s. 387) c. 1955, which was estimated at $700-900K that almost quadrupled the high estimate when it fetched $3.4M ($4.1M w/p).

As it turns out, several women artists set record prices during this auction, including Ruth Asawa for the aforementioned piece, Julie Curtiss (Pas de Trois that sold for $423K -est. $100-150K), Carrie Mae Weems (Kitchen Table Series – executed in 1990 and printed in 2003 – that sold for $237.5K – est. $100-150K), and Mary Corse (DNA Series, 2016, $435K -est. $300-400K). As for some surprises in this sale, a work on paper by Jean Dubuffet titled Personnage (buste) sold for $105K (131.3 w/p) on a $15-20K est. and another work on paper by Willem de Kooning, Untitled, was expected to make between $150 – 200K and hammered down at just $42K ($52.5K w/p).…guess someone really wanted to get rid of it! Works by Alexander Calder, Simone Leigh, Isamu Noguchi, and Takashi Murakami did not manage to find a new home.

Wayne Thiebaud, Ripley Street Ridge

Wayne Thiebaud, Ripley Street Ridge

Now onto Sotheby’s sale – I was amazed as I watched sale prices fly by their estimates, 25 of the first 30 lots easily met or beat their estimates, and this resulted in a grand total of $101M for the 304 lots offered. The first two lots in the sale were by Ruth Asawa, they set the stage as the prices soared! Both were hanging sculptures – Untitled (S. 422) surprised the auction room selling for $1M ($1.22M) on a $150- 200K estimate, and Untitled (S.256)  which carried a $200-300K estimate garnered $720K ($884K w/p)… a great way to start.

The top lot in the sale was by Wayne Thiebaud, Ripley Street Ridge that sold for $2.75M ($3.32M w/p) surpassing the $1.5 – 2M estimate. Again, Joan Mitchell took second place with Saint Martin La Garenne IX (1987) which was estimated to bring $1-1.5M and garnered $2.4M ($2.9 w/p). And in a very close third place was a gold-plated sculpture (in 12 parts that represent each of the traditional Chinese zodiac animals) by Al Weiwei, titled Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (no.6/ed.8). It hammered down just shy of the $2.5- 3.5M estimate, selling for $2.35 ($2.84 w/p).

The big surprise here was a work by Michael Armitage,  a Kenyon-born artist that made a big hit at the Venice Biennale.  His work, The Conservationists (2015) was purchased by a collector in 2015 and is the first piece by Armitage to hit the auction market.  The consignor must be skipping to the bank as the price flew by it’s $50-70K estimate as it hammered down at $1.25M ($1.52 w/p). An additional surprise was that works by Banksy and Basquiat failed to find buyers.

By the end of the fall auction week in New York over $1.4B of artwork sold,  while this is an impressive amount of art,  it was actually down from last year’s fall sales that totaled $2B;  probably due to the lack of blockbuster material available at auction, with a few exceptions.