Christie’s Rockefeller Center saleroom in New York hosted back-to-back sales last Thursday, May 12th, kicking off a string of very successful auctions between Thursday and Saturday. There were actually a trio of sales that evening, but I won’t be talking about the $11.5M dinosaur skeleton that followed the two art sales. The sale that started everything off was that of a prominent private collection. The twelve pieces featured once belonged to Anne H. Bass, a prominent investor and philanthropist who passed away in 2020. The small but incredibly valuable collection was set up for viewing at Christie’s in one of the ground floor galleries. The collection’s three paintings by Monet hung in a darkened, semicircular alcove with pale purple and blue lights focused on each canvas to highlight their dominant colors. By the end of the night, the Bass Collection brought in more for Christie’s than many of their hundred-lot sales.
Claude Monet was the star of the show with two of the top three lots at the sale. Monet resided in London between 1899 and 1901, where he completed a series focusing on the Palace of Westminster, the seat of the British Parliament. Looking out the window across the Thames, Monet captured the building at different times a day, in different light and different weather, creating 19 paintings. Several of Monet’s Parliament paintings hang in some of the world’s great galleries and museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, Washington’s National Gallery, and Paris’s Musée d’Orsay. Le Parlement, soleil couchant, rich with the oranges and purples of a British sunset, was estimated to sell for between $40M and $60M. It sold slightly above estimate at $66M (or $75.96M w/p), making it the most valuable Monet Parliament work sold at auction. Though Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Shades of Red) was the most highly-valued work in the sale at $60M to $80M, it sadly deferred to the Monet and took second place at $58M (or $66.8M w/p). I think, by law, it cannot be a prominent private collection if there isn’t a Monet water lily painting present. If I’m right, the Bass Collection is certainly up to code. The last lot in the sale, a Nymphéas by Monet, fell nicely within its $35M to $55M estimate, selling for $49M (or $56.5M w/p).
Of the twelve lots, eight sold above estimate. The only work that may have surprised anyone was Vilhelm Hammershøi’s painting Stue (Interior with an Oval Mirror). Though just a simple interior scene, it’s a very typical work for the Danish impressionist. Estimated to bring in just $2.5M maximum, the specialists seemed to have misjudged interest in the painting as it reached $5.2M (or $6.3M w/p) by the time the hammer came down. Within a little less than an hour, the Bass Collection brought in $313.5M and served as a good opening act for the 20th Century sale that followed.
The 20th Century sale did just as well as the Bass Collection, bringing in $401.5M after all was said and done. The most publicized lot in the sale was a small-scale version of Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. Leutze created three versions, two large and one small. The original work was kept at the Kunsthalle in Bremen, Germany but was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1942. The other large version, measuring a monumental 12 by 21 feet, can still be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The small version sold at Christie’s, a mere 40 x 68 inches, went for $39M (or $45M w/p). Though Washington Crossing the Delaware was the most well-known work at the sale, Pablo Picasso’s bronze bust Tête de femme (Fernande) was the highest-valued lot, valued by Christie’s specialists at $30M to $50M. But despite the experts’ high expectations, it only reached third place at $42M (or $48.5M w/p). The top spot went to Jackson Pollock’s Number 31, which, despite being on the small side for a prominent work by Pollock (31 x 22.5 inches), sold slightly above estimate for $47M (or $54.2M w/p). The sale’s lone Van Gogh followed up close behind at $45M (or $51.9M w/p). Van Gogh created the tree-dotted landscape, entitled Champs près des Alpilles, in 1889 during his stint in Provence. Van Gogh originally gave the work to Joseph Roulin, a railroad postman who became the subject of several Van Gogh’s portraits. The landscape found itself in the hands of several collectors during its life, including the French fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent.
But the next day, the only lot that anyone was talking about was The Sugar Shack by Ernie Barnes, an often-overlooked artist who encapsulated the feel and experience of twentieth-century America in his work. While The Sugar Shack is a good size (36 x 48 inches), the 1976 painting was only estimated to sell for $200K maximum. Perhaps Christie’s specialists neglected to factor in the painting’s cultural significance in their valuation. The Sugar Shack appeared on the opening credits of the Norman Lear sitcom Good Times and was featured as the cover art of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album I Want You. Regardless, I don’t think anyone expected it to reach sixty-five times its high estimate. The hammer came down at $13M (or $15.2M w/p), making it an auction record for Ernie Barnes. The last Barnes work to hold that title sold at Christie’s last November, selling for $440K. In the 20th Century sale, forty-two lots brought in $401.5M, bringing the nightly total to $715M. Only one lot went unsold across the back-to-back sales.