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!
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.
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.
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.