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The May Marquee Sales – An Overview

May 30, 2024
A silkscreen print showing red and orange flowers against a green grass background.

Flowers by Andy Warhol

The May Marquee Sales, a significant series of auctions that spotlighted the New York art market earlier this month, have concluded. This event marked a crucial period in the art market, spanning a whole week and featuring eleven sales between the two major auction houses (w/p = with buyer’s premium).

Between May 13th and May 18th, it was almost like everything was up for sale in New York, from nineteenth-century Impressionist to Contemporary art. Christie’s and Sotheby’s were both incredibly busy hosting the May Marquee sales, with these concentrated bursts of activity making up the bulk of the auction houses’ annual revenue. It all started at Sotheby’s on the evening of Monday, May 13th, with their brief contemporary sale called The Now. It served as a prelude to their Contemporary Evening sale, which brought in $201 million (or $234.58 million w/p), giving Sotheby’s specialists a 49% accuracy rate and a 91% sell-through rate. It was mostly dominated by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 work The Italian Version of Popeye has no Pork in his diet, which sold for $27.5 million (or $32 million w/p), making up 41% of the sale’s total. However, a single Richard Diebenkorn painting, estimated to sell for no less than $18 million, failed to generate sufficient interest and ended up going unsold. Had Sotheby’s sold this painting, the results would’ve been even better.

An Impressionist painting of haystacks in a field.

Meules à Giverny by Claude Monet

Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s brought in an incredible amount of money, with Sotheby’s successfully selling 587 out of 693 lots across five sales, giving their specialists an 84.7% across-the-board sell-through rate, as well as bringing in a total of $633.37 million w/p. On the other hand, Christie’s made more money with fewer lots sold. Of the 655 lots to cross the block during the six sales at Christie’s that week, 540 sold, giving them an 82.4% sell-through rate, adding up to $640.2 million w/p. While the contemporary sales at Christie’s are always exciting, the “blue chip” works of art nearly always come from their twice-annual 20th Century evening sales. This is where the week’s top lot crossed the block: Flowers by Andy Warhol, which hammered at $30.5 million (or $35.5 million w/p). The 20th Century sales can be a little confusing, however, since Christie’s tends to shove incredibly different artworks together under the umbrella term of “20th Century”. Canvases by Monet, Caillebotte, and Van Gogh are placed in the same category as works by abstract expressionists like Mitchell, De Kooning, and Frankenthaler, pop artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein, minimalists like Robert Ryman, and surrealists like René Magritte. They may have needed to pad the sale to make it longer and more substantial, filling it with Impressionist and nineteenth-century Modernist art like Van Gogh’s Coin de jardin avec papillon, which came in second behind the Warhol at $28.5 million (or $33.2 million w/p).

A painting of a closeup of bushes and grasses with a butterfly.

Coin de jardin avec papillon by Vincent van Gogh

Sotheby’s, however, hosted sales specifically dedicated to Impressionist & Modern art. The two sales, May 15th and 16th, brought in over 45% of the money made at Sotheby’s that week. The lots were varied, with the Modern Evening sale prominently featuring, in addition to the usual Impressionist masters, many twentieth-century surrealist works by Magritte, Fini, Varo, and others. The day sale, however, featured Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Fauvist paintings alongside modern Latin American art, American Impressionist paintings, and sculptures by Henry Moore and Alexander Calder. Among the works featured in these sales was Meules à Giverny by Claude Monet, which became the second most valuable lot sold that week when the hammer came down at $30 million (or $34.8 million w/p). There was also an incredible surprise in the surrealist masterpiece Les Distractions de Dagobert by Leonora Carrington, which sold above its $12-$18 million estimate at $24.5 million (or $28.46 million w/p — it last sold in 1995 for $476K). 

For fans of Richard Diebenkorn, it was a less-than-ideal week. As I mentioned earlier, his Ocean Park #126 (est. $18 million to $25 million ) failed to find a buyer at Sotheby’s on Monday night (it last sold in 2018 for $23.9M, est. $16 million to $20 million). Then, at Christie’s 20th Century evening sale, his Ocean Park #12, estimated to sell for between $7 million and $10 million, joined Joan Mitchell’s painting Crow Hill as one of the evening’s disappointments.

Even though a few of the more expensive lots did not find buyers, the two sales still brought in over $1.27 billion. No matter how you slice it, that is still a lot of money!