An Insider’s Guide to the Biggest Lots in New York’s $1.5 Billion Spring Art Auction Week

From that Modigliani estimated at $150 million to Jeff Koons's monumental pile of play-doh, here is what to watch out for.

Pablo Picasso, Le Repos (1932). Courtesy Sotheby's.

Art collectors have rarely had more opportunities to buy blue-chip art in a short period of time than they’ve had this month.

Hot on the heels of the record-setting first two Rockefeller auctions, as well as Frieze New York and TEFAF New York Spring, a total of $1.5 billion worth of art is expected to be sold across the three major New York auction houses next week (not counting the dedicated Rockefeller sales, which could bring at least $600 million alone).

While this might sound like a lot—and it is equivalent to the GDP of a small nation—the estimate is just a hair less than the $1.6 billion total achieved in the equivalent series of sales last year.

The growth seems to be continuing on the high end of the market: Roughly 20 lots are estimated above $20 million each, up from 13 last year and five the year before that. These include a blockbuster Modigliani nude expected to sell for at least $150 million—the highest estimate ever placed on a single auction lot.

What does this vast amount of supply mean for the market as a whole? “Estimates don’t seem to be as pushy as they’ve been in the past,” art advisor Todd Levin told artnet News. “Is it strategic on the part of the auction houses because there are so many evening sale lots that have only one or two people bidding? It’s as if they’re giving notice and want to make sure people feel they can actually raise their paddle and have a shot at something.”

Market watchers will have to stay tuned to see if the strategy pans out. Until then, here is what you need to know about the highlights that have experts and collectors buzzing.

Monday, May 14

Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Sotheby’s

Amedeo Modigliani, Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) (1917). Courtesy Sotheby's.

Amedeo Modigliani, Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) (1917). Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Presale estimate: $307.4 million to $378.1 million

Presale estimate last year: $178 million to $251.9 million

Top lot: This 1917 Modigliani nude carries an estimate that is even larger than that for the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction. (Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (circa 1500), which sold for $450.3 million last year on a $100 million estimate.) While this painting is unlikely to exceed that record, it does have a shot at breaking Modigliani’s auction record: the $170.4 million paid by a Chinese billionaire for Nu couché (1917–18) in 2015.

The consignor of this reclining nude is believed to be Irish horse breeder John Magnier, who bought the work in 2003 at Christie’s for $26.9 million. The work has an irrevocable bid, which means it will sell no matter what. And Magnier stands to reap more than five times what he paid just 15 years ago. No wonder the billionaire has a horse named Modigliani—the name has clearly brought him good luck.

Other highlights: Another star lot in the 45-work sale is Picasso’s Le Repos from the coveted year of 1932. The picture, which is estimated at $25 million to $35 million, depicts his so-called “golden muse,” Marie-Thérèse Walter. It last appeared at auction nearly two decades ago, when it sold at Sotheby’s in 2000 for $7.9 million on an estimate of $3 million to $4 million.


Tuesday, May 15

Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale

Constantin Brancusi, <i>La jeune fille sophistiquée (Portrait de Nancy Cunard)</i> (Conceived in 1928 and cast in 1932). Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.

Constantin Brancusi, La jeune fille sophistiquée (Portrait de Nancy Cunard) (Conceived in 1928 and cast in 1932). Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

Presale estimate: In the region of $437.8 million

Presale estimate last year: In excess of $200 million

Top lot: American collectors Fred and Mimi Stafford bought Brancusi’s much-admired sculpture of cruise ship heiress and radical activist Nancy Cunard directly from the artist on a visit to Paris in the mid-1950s for $5,000. Now, that price has gone up an eye-popping 1.4 million percent. It is expected to fetch $70 million, well above the artist’s current $57.4 million record paid for La muse endormie (circa 1913) at Christie’s last May.

Other highlights: For the second time in 10 years, Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition (1916), which the Stedelijk Museum returned to the heirs of its original owner in 2008, is coming back on the block. Most recently, it sold at Sotheby’s in 2008 with a third-party guarantee for $53.5 million (against an unpublished estimate of about $60 million). This time around, the estimate is in the region of $70 million. All told, Christie’s Impressionist and Modern sale will offer a trim 40 lots—but it is expected to generate a much higher total than the equivalent sale last year.


Wednesday, May 16

“Raising the Bar: Masterworks from the Collection of  Morton and Barbara Mandel” at Sotheby’s

Joan Miró, <i>Femme, oiseau</i> (1969-74). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Joan Miró, Femme, oiseau (1969–74). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Presale estimate: $72.9 million to $105.3 million

Top lot: Sotheby’s jumpstarts the evening with a pre-auction auction: 26 lots from the collection of Cleveland philanthropists and collectors Morton and Barbara Mandel. The holdings span major movements of the 20th century including Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Pop. One highlight is this later Miro, which is estimated at $10 million to $15 million and reflects the artist’s concern at the time with “reducing his pictorial language to the barest essentials,” according to the catalogue.


Contemporary Evening Sale at Sotheby’s

Jackson Pollock, <i>Number 32, 1949</i> (1949). Courtesy Sotheby's.

Jackson Pollock, Number 32, 1949 (1949). Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Presale estimate: $210.7 million to $289.6 million

Presale estimate last year: $212 million to $278.6 million

Top lot: This Jackson Pollock drip painting has never been offered at auction before, and it comes with a $30 million to $40 million estimate. The painting is rare for a number of reasons: It is one of just 16 drip works on paper plastered on canvas or Masonite. It is also one of the few to incorporate aluminum paint. The work was included in Pollock’s landmark show at Betty Parsons Gallery in 1949 but remains in good condition, according to the auction house, because it has rarely traveled and remained in the same family since 1983. If it performs well, it could exceed the current $58.4 million record for Pollock set in 2013.

Others to watch: Sotheby’s received a last-minute reprieve on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Flesh and Spirit (1982–3), which is estimated in the region of $30 million. The painting is the subject of a recently filed lawsuit by collector Herbert Neumann, 86, the estranged husband of the work’s late owner. But just a week before the sale, a New York State judge ruled he had no standing to make a claim on the work.


Thursday, May 17

Phillips 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Kerry James Marshall, <i>Untitled (Blanket Couple)</i> (2014). Courtesy Phillips.

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Blanket Couple) (2014). Courtesy Phillips.

Pre-sale estimate: $118 million to $173 million

Pre-sale estimate last year: In excess of $107 million

Top lot: The star lot of the evening is Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Flexible (1984), which has an estimate around $20 million. It was consigned directly from the artist’s estate, which will no doubt enhance its appeal in the currently hungry market.

Other highlights: This week will be significant for the market of Kerry James Marshall, who has two major works in evening sales at Sotheby’s and Phillips. Untitled (Blanket Couple) (2014), which carries an estimate of $3.5 million to $5.5 million at Phillips, hasn’t been in a private collection for long—it was made just four years ago and included in an exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery in London that year that focused on “quotidian moments of recreation.” The work at Sotheby’s, Past Times (1997), is being sold by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority in Chicago, which purchased it for $25,000 the year it was made before Marshall was a household name. A star work in the artist’s recent traveling retrospective, it is now expected to fetch $8 million to $12 million.


Postwar and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Christie’s

Richard Diebenkorn, <i>Ocean Park #126</i> (1984). Courtesy Sotheby's.

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #126 (1984). Courtesy Christie’s.

Pre-sale estimate: In the region of $320 million

Pre-sale estimate last year: In excess of $370 million

Top lot: Phillips’s earlier start time should give collectors just enough time to dash downtown a few blocks to Rockefeller Center for Christie’s marquee sale. Among the highlights is property from the Donald and Barbara Zucker Collection, being sold to benefit their eponymous foundation. The top lot of the group is one of 22 bravura works by Richard Diebenkorn. Ocean Park #126 (1984) is estimated at $16 million to $20 million and is poised to break the artist’s current record of $13.5 million.

Other highlights: Perhaps the most fun lot to hit the block all week is Jeff Koons’s Play-Doh (1994–2012), an 11-foot-tall aluminum sculpture expected to sell in the region of $20 million. This marks the first time that a Play-Doh sculpture, one of five unique versions from the artist’s notoriously ambitious and pricey “Celebration” series (each one featuring a different sequence of colors), has come up for auction. The work took around two decades to produce as the notoriously perfectionist Koons fiddled with the medium and refined the production process.

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