On Thursday, November 17, Christie’s New York hosted their 20th Century evening sale, featuring works from many schools and styles, from impressionist to expressionist to surrealist to pop art. Though it was an impressive array of modern masterworks, unfortunately the sale did not do as well as many had expected (w/p = with buyer’s premium).
The top lots that night featured a tie at the top. The portrait of Beatrice Hastings by Amedeo Modigliani was featured early in the sale. It’s a work with all the recognizable features of a Modigliani portrait, particularly the elongated features, almond eyes, and the use of yellows, reds, and browns. It was last sold at auction at Christie’s New York in 2002 for $4.2M w/p. The second of the two, featured more towards the middle of the sale, was an untitled work by Mark Rothko. Created in 1969, the painting was only exhibited once, at Atlanta’s High Museum in 1989. Both the Modigliani and the Rothko sold for $15M (or $17.5M w/p), falling within their respective estimates of $12M to $18M and $15M to $20M. Following up not far behind was an untitled work by the American abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell. This was one of the fourteen works featured from the collection of Roger Sant, founder of the AES Corporation. The painting sold for $12M, falling within a $10M to $15M estimate.
There weren’t many surprises in the sale, but it did end with a bit of a bang thanks to our old favorite: the king of surprises nowadays, the American artist Ernie Barnes. Back in May, at a Christie’s 20th Century sale, The Sugar Shack by Ernie Barnes sold for $13M (or $15.3M w/p), sixty-five times what anyone expected. Since then, Barnes’s work has become increasingly desirable, blowing away expectations left and right. Of course, the last work featured in Thursday’s sale was no different. One-on-None, one of Barnes’s basketball works, was given an estimate of $80K at most, which it easily smashed when the hammer came down at $750K (or $945K w/p), or over nine times what the house specialists had predicted.
While the sale had many great successes, the auction could have done better overall. This was due in part to one unsold lot. Many had traveled to attend the auction in person to see Willem de Kooning‘s Untitled III. The seller obtained the enormous abstract expressionist painting, a 70 x 80 inch oil-on-canvas created around 1978, directly from the de Kooning family. Christie’s specialists predicted that the work could have sold in excess of $35M. However, after only a few minutes of bidding, interest began to plateau at around $27M. It was a great surprise when the auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen brought down the hammer and announced that it would be a pass. The de Kooning was one of three lots that went unsold that night, along with a Hans Hoffmann work and a Paul Gauguin painting. Apart from the unsold de Kooning, the number of lots sold below estimate also led to the sale’s underperformance. Out of sixty-nine available lots, twenty-eight (41%) sold below estimate. The same sold within estimate, while ten lots (14%) sold above estimate. The sale brought in $255.5M when it was predicted to make at least $285.3M. All in all, not the best day for Christie’s.