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Sotheby’s New York Contemporary Evening Sale

May 14, 2024
An abstract painting of a nude man crouching down on a board.

Portrait of George Dyer Crouching by Francis Bacon

This month’s sales at New York’s auction houses had a decent start last night at Sotheby’s with back-to-back contemporary sales. Things started at 6:30 pm with a short sale called The Now, featuring established giants and the best new artists today, or what Sotheby’s called “the masters of today and tomorrow.” It was a rather successful prelude to the larger Contemporary Evening sale, mostly featuring works by the greats of twentieth-century art like Warhol, Basquiat, and Thiebaud. The expected star of the evening was Francis Bacon’s Portrait of George Dyer Crouching. Last November, Christie’s hosted a 20th Century sale that featured another Bacon titled Figure in Movement. It is meant to be another portrait of George Dyer, Bacon’s friend and lover, who committed suicide in 1971. While Bacon created Figure in Movement after Dyer’s death, the portrait offered at Sotheby’s on Monday night was made at the peak of their relationship in 1966, three years after the two met in London. Though expected to be the sale’s biggest star, the Bacon also turned out to be the sale’s biggest disappointment. With an estimate range of $30 million to $50 million, Portrait of George Dyer Crouching hammered at $24.5 million (or $27.74 million w/p).

Next up was one of the four paintings by the American abstract expressionist giant Joan Mitchell. The four Mitchell works available at Sotheby’s were created at various points in her career, ranging from 1955 to 1989. One of them, entitled Noon (created in 1969)  measures nearly six-and-a-half by eight-and-a-half feet. Sotheby’s specialists noted that Mitchell created Noon around the same time she moved to Vétheuil, a small town on the River Seine just west of Paris. Claude Monet once lived there as well, featuring the town and the surrounding countryside in many of his works. However, that is not where the connections to Monet end. Art historians have previously investigated the influence that earlier artists like Monet and Matisse had on Mitchell’s work. Her move to Vétheuil seemed to have greatly impacted her use of color and form, with some calling works like Noon “a grand botanical abstraction.” Noon ended up selling for $20.5 million (or $22.6 million w/p), just slightly above its $20 million high estimate and far above its last selling price of $9.8 million w/p at Christie’s New York in 2016.

An abstract painting of different patches of color, mainly green and blue, against a while canvas background.

Noon by Joan Mitchell

Finally, there was one of the two works by Lucio Fontana featured at the sale. Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio consists of an oval-shaped canvas pierced many times and painted bright yellow. These holes in the canvas and the ragged shapes they sometimes made were Fontana’s attempts to push the boundaries of abstraction at a time when American abstract expressionists like Pollock, Mitchell, Rothko, and Frankenthaler dominated the art world. Fontana punctured and slashed the canvas itself, creating shapes and textures that were not possible with just paint. The painting is part of his La fine di Dio series, consisting of thirty-eight works made between 1963 and 1964, all with the same egg-like shape. It last sold at Sotheby’s London in 2003 for £1.37 million w/p (or £2.4 million now). On Monday night, it sold for $19.7 million (or $22.9 million w/p), becoming the third most valuable Fontana work ever sold at auction.

With sales mostly consisting of high-value lots, there are often few surprises. However, Monday night ended with a bang for the final lot, an oil painting by Yayoi Kusama called The Pacific Ocean. Sotheby’s specialists gave it a presale estimate range of $1 million to $1.5 million. Within thirteen seconds of bidding, the Kusama exceeded its high estimate when someone in the telephone bank bid $1.7 million. After one minute and 10 seconds, the $2.5 million bid was placed. The $3 million bid came after two minutes. The bidding’s frequency slowed down after that, but with multiple interested parties, it dragged on. Finally, after just under seven minutes of bidding, the hammer came down at $3.8 million (or $4.66 million w/p), over two-and-a-half times the initial high estimate.

An egg-shaped canvas painted yellow with a series of rough holes punctured into it.

Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio by Lucio Fontana

In the end, the contemporary evening sale didn’t do too badly. Out of 35 available lots, 17 sold within their estimates, giving Sotheby’s a 49% accuracy rate. Additionally, nine lots (26%) sold below estimate, while six (17%) sold above. A total of three lots (9%) went unsold. The entire sale brought in $201 million (or $234.58 million w/p), just slightly under the total presale low estimate of $217.6 million the sale might have made within its estimate had the Bacon not sold below estimate. Additionally, one of the three unsold lots was a 1984 Richard Diebenkorn painting expected to sell for at least $18 million.