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Sotheby’s Contemporary Day Sale Goes Digital

May 28, 2020
Christopher Wool - Untitled (P70)

Christopher Wool – Untitled (P70)

Each year, the June newsletter typically features a review on the major auctions in New York – the Contemporary and the Impressionist at Sotheby’s and Christie’s… as I am sure you know or would expect, those auctions did not take place… yet. In the meantime, Sotheby’s, like many companies, has given a little extra push to their digital operation. While the Sotheby’s Contemporary Online Day sale and Impressionist & Modern Online Day sale were shells of the usual in-person day sales, they still performed fairly well by the numbers, which is a relatively encouraging sign for the art market in such turbulent times.

The Contemporary sale featured 117 lots… just for comparison, the normal day sale that took place in May last year featured 354 lots. The top price achieved in the online offering was for a work by Christopher Wool… I feel like the bulk of his work is Untitled (P70) but this one resembled more of a fancy Ikea headboard than what I am used to seeing by the artist. The work sold on one bid for $1.22M on a $1.2-1.8M estimate… I went ahead and backed out the premium, so the bid that met the reserve was just $1M even. Turns out the lot was guaranteed, and an irrevocable bid was arranged prior to the sale, so no competition for the “star” lot of the sale. The same work was last sold at auction in 2012… where it was oddly featured in the Evening sale, with a lower estimate of $600-800K, but achieved nearly twice the price at $2.04M. A work by Brice Marden was just behind at $1.1M on a $700-900K estimate… this one garnered 8 bids and did not come in with a guarantee – a more honest auction result. Rounding out the top three was Yoshitomo Nara’s Witching, which sold for $740K on a $600-900K estimate.

Brice Marden - Window Study No. 4

Brice Marden – Window Study No. 4

In addition to these nice prices, there were a handful of lots that performed well based on their estimates… notably, a work by Matthew Wong sold for more than four times its $10-15K estimate, topping $62K. A work by Elaine de Kooning, the wife of Willem de Kooning, was estimated at $6-8K and attracted 19 bids before it sold for $25K – I have a feeling the name helped with this impressive result more so than the work itself. Other significant interest was seen for a gouache by Calder which attracted 24 bids on its way to selling for $162K ($40-60K estimate), and a work by Larry Poons which climbed to $100K (est. $30-40K)  through 17 bids.

There were also some poor performances in the mix… a work by Basquiat – more of a doodle or sketch – was estimated at $180-250K but only achieved $125K from one bidder; more than 30% below estimate. A work by Carroll Dunham attracted a few bids but still fell short of the $300-400K estimate as the buyer took it home for $250K. Of the five works that failed to sell, only one had a considerable impact on the bottom line – a work by Lisa Yuskavage with a $250-350K estimate.

Yoshitomo Nara - Witching

Yoshitomo Nara – Witching

Looking at the bigger picture, this auction showed some strength in the lower to mid-level of the Contemporary market, which was what the sale predominantly consisted of… nearly two-thirds of the lots achieved prices below $100K, with a 96% sell-through rate. Fifty of the works sold above estimate, which strengthened the results.  The auction total represented 94% of the high-end of the overall estimate, bringing in $13.7M on an expected $10.2-14.6M. That figure represents the highest total for an online sale at Sotheby’s, more than doubling the previous record, and pushing Sotheby’s online sales over $100M for the year!