Monday - 22 December 2014

New York Contemporary sales bring back feelgood factor

19 November 2012Written by Alex Capon

The Contemporary art market rose to a new level last week as both Sotheby’s and Christie’s saw record sales in New York.

It proved to be the most lucrative auction series in history. With Phillips de Pury's sales added, the overall total for the week was $894.4m (£584.6m). 

When added to the $388.2m (£253.7m) from the Impressionist and Modern art sales the week before, the overall amount of money changing hands over the fortnight was a mammoth $1.28bn (£838.3m) - a figure only eclipsed by the sums generated by the flagship auction fortnights in the Big Apple in May 2008 ($1.41bn) and November 2007 ($1.3bn).

The swelling marketplace is generally attributed to a growing band of trophy hunters from a wider spread of countries. But the trickle-down effect saw strong performances among the day sales of lesser works, as those with slightly slimmer wallets also got in on the action as well.

This rise in demand among the super rich for Contemporary art, as opposed to any earlier works, puts it squarely in the sights of those seeking out alternative assets from the sector seen as having the greatest investment potential. The comparatively flatter performance of the Impressionist and Modern auction series the week before underscores this trend.

The higher sums bid during this latest Contemporary art series also appear to reflect the belief that auction prices for certain artists such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline have been running behind those paid in private deals over the last few years.

Sotheby's evening sale of Contemporary art on November 13 generated a hammer total of $331.2m (£216.5m), which was the highest for any auction in the company's history, beating the previous house record of $321m (£172m) set by their Contemporary art sale in May 2008.

This figure however, was surpassed the following night when Christie's November 14 evening sale achieved the highest total for any Contemporary art auction.

Generating $363.53m (£237.6m) hammer, it was the third most valuable sale ever in any category - only the famous 'Bloch-Bauer' auction, which made $437.7m (£241.3m) hammer at Christie's New York in November 2006, and the firm's sale of the Yves Saint Laurent-Pierre Bergé collection, which made a premium-inclusive €373.9m (£332.8m/$483.8m) in Paris in February 2009, have posted higher totals.

Warhol Boost

At their evening sale last week, Christie's saw no fewer than nine lots knocked down for over $10m as a string of major prices came for some of the biggest names in the Contemporary market.

As always at these sales, Andy Warhol loomed large. Here, his Statue of Liberty silkscreen was the top lot, selling to an anonymous phone bidder at $39m (£25.5m), and his 1966 silkscreen portrait of Marlon Brando took $21.1m (£13.8m), also knocked down to an anonymous buyer.

The latter had previously sold for $4.5m (£2.81m) at Christie's New York in May 2003, when it was bought by New York businessman Donald L. Bryant Jr, who was the vendor here. The more-than-four-fold increase demonstrated the huge growth in the market in the last nine years and shows how quickly the Contemporary sector has bounced back from the major downturn in 2008 and 2009.

Among the eight artist records set at the sale were new auction highs for Jeff Koons at $30m (£19.6m) and Jean-Michel Basquiat at $23.5m (£15.4m).

Also attracting hefty competition at Christie's was a Franz Kline abstract which took more than four times the previous record for the artist, which had been achieved only 24 hours earlier at Sotheby's. The untitled work from 1957 was deemed the most important example of his energetic black-and-white canvases to have appeared at auction for a generation.

It was estimated at $20m-30m, and the vendor had been issued with a guarantee by the auctioneers. Drawing multiple bidders at the sale, it sold at $36m (£23.5m) after a five-minute competition, again to an anonymous telephone bidder.

Rothko at Sotheby's

Meanwhile, Sotheby's evening sale on November 13 saw seven lots make over $10m (£6.56m), as American abstract art, in particular, fuelled unprecedented levels of bidding. These included the top lot of the sale, Mark Rothko's No.1 (Royal Red and Blue), which sold to a phone buyer for $67m (£43.8m) against a $35m-50m estimate. Only Rothko's Orange, Red, Yellow, which took $77.5m (£50m) at Christie's New York in May, has made more for the artist at auction.

The latest Rothko also took ninth place in the top ten lots ever sold at auction.

The work itself was over 9ft (2.74m) high and was one of eight oils on canvas from 1954 selected for Rothko's landmark solo show at the Art Institute of Chicago in the same year.

Eight lots from the collection of Milwaukee couple Sidney and Dorothy Kohl added $89.9m (£58.8m) to Sotheby's total. The consignment included Jackson Pollock's  Number 4, 1951, a trademark drip painting on canvas. Estimated at $25m-35m, it was subject to an 'irrevocable bid' before the auction, meaning it was always going to sell. On the night, however, a number of bidders took it past its low estimate and it also sold to a phone buyer at $36m (£23.5m).

This was an auction record for the artist, although works by Pollock have changed hands privately for substantially more.

From the same source was Willem de Kooning's Abstraction from c.1949, which took $17.5m (£11.4m), also selling on the phone, and Clyfford Still's 1948-H, which sold to an American private buyer below estimate at $8.75m (£5.72m).

From a separate source was one of Francis Bacon's screaming pope paintings, which had been in the same private collection since 1975. Dating from c.1954, it was one of the earlier versions of the artist's 45 works relating to Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X.

Estimated at £18m-25m, it attracted four bidders before being knocked down to a phone buyer at $26.5m (£17.3m). Only one other version has made more, a 1962 study that sold for $47m (£23.5m) in the same rooms in May 2007.

£1 = $1.53

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