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Contemporary Art… Wait No, 21st Century Art At Christie’s… Uhh, Except The Basquiats (And Others)

May 13, 2021
Basquiat - In This Case

Basquiat – In This Case

The spring auction season is upon us, with the big houses holding their Impressionist & Modern and Post-War & Contemporary sales. Christie’s being the annoying entity they are, decided to change the structure of their sales; now they feature a 20th Century Sale and a 21st Century Sale, so Contemporary is on its own, and Post-War works are now lumped in with Impressionist & Modern… I guess we will not be evaluating their sales based on prior years as they are no longer comparable – can always count on auctions to bring clarity to the market (if there was a way to notate sarcasm, I would do it here). Also, last I checked 21st Century means post-2000 so why are we sliding in works by Basquiat and others?? Just call it Contemporary Art and let’s move on!

Larva Labs - 9 Cryptopunks

Larva Labs – 9 Cryptopunks

So, up first was Christie’s 21st Century Evening sale and it saw very mixed results… a few select works made really nice prices (compared to their estimates), and the cover-piece absolutely demolished its estimate, which more than made up for the poor performers. The aforementioned cover-piece, Basquiat’s In This Case, was expected to bring “in the region of $40M.” With several interested parties, the bidding quickly climbed to more than double their expectations – the winning bid was $81M, or $93.1M with premiums. This work last sold at auction in 2002 to the Gagosian Gallery for just under $1M ($999.5K)! Jumping into second was the evening’s lone NFT… Larva Labs’ Cryptopunks have been a hot item in the NFT game for the past couple of months, and this lot featured 9 of them. To be perfectly clear, these are not unique or special Cryptopunks – just 9 random ones being sold together as a single lot, though they were minted back in 2017; well before NFT mania. This grouping saw some spirited competition, which pushed the price up to $14.5M, or $16.9M with premium… they had only expected the bunch to sell for $7-9M. Rounding out the top three was another work by Basquiat – Untitled (Soap). This one found a buyer at $11.2M ($13.1M with premium) on a $10-15M estimate.

Basquiat - Untitled (Soap)

Basquiat – Untitled (Soap)

The next highest lots were underwhelming… the 4th highest price was paid for a sculpture by Martin Kippenberger expected to bring $10-15M. The full size sculpture of a man, clothed, and facing the corner of the room, saw bidding sputter out at $8M ($9.5M w/p). Following that was a guaranteed work by Kerry James Marshall, and I assume it went to the guarantor as it hammered at the low end of the $6.5-8.5M estimate; add in the premium and that brings the work to $7.5M.

Kippenberger - Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself

Kippenberger – Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself

As mentioned, there were a few other noteworthy performances… a work by Rashid Johnson hammered at $1.6M on a $200-300K estimate (433% above estimate); Dana Schutz’s The Fishermen hammered at $2.45M on a $400-600K estimate (308% above estimate); and a work by Joel Mesler titled New York, New York (painted in 2021) found a buyer at $220K on a $40-60K estimate – why is this even in the evening sale??

A handful of works had rather poor showings… an Abstraktes Bild work by Richter could not find any bidders after it topped out at $5.8M ($6.9M w/p), which was 36% below estimate. I am surprised it actually sold as the estimate was $9-12M – I’ll bet the seller was not too pleased. A lesser lot also saw a winning bid well below estimate – Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #150 was expected to bring between $600-800K but hammered at just $420K ($525K w/p). There were an additional 8 works that went below estimate, along with one outright failure – a George Condo with a $1.5-2M estimate topped out at $1.3 and went unsold.

When the dust settled, the sale generated a combined hammer price of $186.8M, and $211.2M once you factor in the buyer’s premiums. They were expecting between $131.1-175.3M so they easily topped their target… but as is often the case, it is a tale of one lot; in this case the Basquiat (ay, that rhymed). With a hammer price exceeding the estimate by more than $40M, it pads the overall number quite a bit. Without that one lot, we would be looking at a sale of $105M ($120M w.p) on a $91M-135M estimate… that is a much more accurate representation – mixed results, in the middle of the estimate with 14 works above estimate, 14 within estimate and 10 below estimate as well as one unsold. As I stated earlier, it is hard to compare to previous years – the last true Spring evening sale was back in pre-pandemic 2019 and that included pricey post-war works, which totaled more than $538M. Certainly was better than last year though, which was cancelled; glass half full.