From a Broadway Producer’s Picasso to a Record-Smashing Ruscha, Here’s Your Guide to the Top Works in the $1 Billion Fall Auction Season

High-price masterpieces are in short supply and estimates are down almost 40 percent from last year. But there's still plenty to look out for.

David Hockney’s Sur la Terrasse (1971). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

The biggest auctions of the year are looking a bit quieter than usual. 

As auction houses prepare for a marathon run of sales in New York next week, their lineups lack the firepower from prestigious estates and private collections that drove high totals in years past. This time around, evening sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips are expected to bring in as much as 39 percent less than last year.

In November 2018, combined presale estimates ranged from $1.5 billion to $1.8 billion; this year, that range has dropped to $911.3 million to $1.3 billion. The week also boasts one less sale than last year, when the blockbuster collection of the late travel magnate Barney Ebsworth had its own dedicated evening auction that raked in just under $318 million at Christie’s. 

The drop is particularly concentrated at the top; trophy lots are in short supply. While the November 2018 season offered 22 lots estimated at or above $20 million each, this season only boasts five (three at Sotheby’s and two at Christie’s, all but one of which are in the contemporary evening sales). 

During a walkthrough of Christie’s offerings, a contemporary specialist characterized the consignment-getting process this season as being on a “picture-by-picture” basis, compared with previous seasons, when collections and estates were won outright. And the head of Christie’s Impressionist evening sale, Jessica Fertig, may have been alluding to just that while also managing expectations when she described the upcoming auction as “a sale of gems—small works at approachable price points.” 

Another sign that the auction houses may be mining new territory to bolster the bottom line is the addition of artists who have never appeared in evening sales before, including established but undervalued names such as African American artists Charles White and Alma Thomas, who are included in the Christie’s evening sale. Thomas’s work—which was previously owned by disgraced comedian Bill Cosby—is poised to shatter her existing $740,000 auction record if it makes its $2.2 million low estimate.

Alma Thomas, A Fantastic Sunset (1970). Image courtesy of Christie’s.

“There’s a fresh conversation this season and it’s going to be exciting to see the effect it has on the market when it comes time for everyone to raise their paddles,” said Jean-Paul Engelen, Phillips’s co-head of 20th-century and contemporary art.

This season also marks the first time Sotheby’s is operating as a private company since being acquired by French-Israeli telecom magnate Patrick Drahi. The $3.7 billion deal was finalized in recent months and there have already been major management changes—though auction experts say it’s too soon to tell how the new ownership structure will impact dealmaking. While the auction house will now be less beholden to shareholders in its efforts to secure top lots, “no one wants to be the first person to lose money under Drahi,” one expert told us.

Experts were almost universally cautious about making too many pronouncements about the lack of high-priced works this season. We are well within the typical band for these marquee New York sales,” said August Uribe, Sotheby’s head of Impressionist and Modern art in New York. “It’s important to remember that our perennial challenge is sourcing great works rather than selling them—when we are able to bring great pictures to market, the demand is absolutely there.”

Onlookers agree. “Auction expectations have been skewed by a few blockbuster sales over the past several seasons,” attorney and art law specialist Thomas Danziger told Artnet News. “The best thing that could happen to the auction houses in any given sale season is that a few big collectors are felled, but that just didn’t happen this year.”


Monday, November 11

Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale 

Pablo Picasso, <i>Femme dans un fauteuil (Francoise) (1949). Image courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Pablo Picasso, Femme dans un fauteuil (Francoise) (1949). Image courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Presale estimate: $148.3 million to $219.2 million

Presale estimate last year: In excess of $304.7 million

Star lot: Pablo Picasso’s Femme dans un fauteuil (Françoise) (1949), estimated at $12 million to $18 million

What to know: The picture, an homage to Picasso’s lover and companion Françoise Gilot, is described in the catalogue as “a baroque fantasia of twisting, circling, enveloping, organic forms.” The consignor’s family acquired it at Sotheby’s in May 2000 for $3.3 million, according to the Artnet Price Database, giving this lot the chance to make a 445 percent return if it hits its high estimate. Among other highlights in the sale is a later Picasso “mousquetaire” painting, Buste d’homme (1968), from the collection of the late Broadway producer Terry Allen Kramer, which carries an estimate of $9 million to $12 million. The work was last offered at auction in 1993 by the reclusive collector Stanley Seeger, when it sold for $596,500. Other Impressionist classics on the block include works by René Magritte, Fernand Léger, Amedeo Modigliani, and Claude Monet.


Tuesday, November 12

Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale

Claude Monet, Charring Cross Bridge (1899–1901), from the collection of Andrea Klepetar-Fallek, is expected to fetch $20 million–30 million at auction. Courtesy of Sotheby's New York.

Claude Monet, Charing Cross Bridge (1903), from the collection of Andrea Klepetar-Fallek, is expected to fetch $20 million to $30 million at auction. Courtesy of Sotheby’s New York.

Presale estimate: $186.8 million to $265.8 million

Presale estimate last year: $283.9 million to $393.4 million

Star lot: Claude Monet’s Charing Cross Bridge (1903), estimated at $20 million to $30 million

What to know: This painting has been in the collection of Holocaust survivor Andrea Klepetar-Fallek since 1977, when it was purchased from Galerie Beyeler in Basel. Klepetar-Fallek and her fourth husband, Fred Fallek, had a tradition of gifting artworks to one another on their birthdays, and this was considered the jewel of their collection. Although it is not from one of Monet’s most coveted series—that distinction goes to his Japanese bridges, his paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, and the “Water Lilies”—Sotheby’s vice chairman Brooke Lampley says the picture “is perhaps the greatest Charing Cross Bridge painting by Monet ever to come to the market.” Like many of his best-loved series, it combines natural phenomena (like fog over the Thames) with evidence of industrial transformation (smoke emanating from a train engine). “These pictures were radical contemporary art when they were first exhibited in 1904,” Lampley says.

Other highlights include a Gustave Caillebotte painting, Richard Gallo et son chien Dick, au petit-gennevilliers (1884), which has never come to auction before and is estimated to sell for $18 million to $25 million. (It carries a third-party guarantee and is therefore certain to sell.) Paul Signac’s vibrant seascape La Corne d’or (Constantinople) (1907) is estimated at $14 million to $18 million and also backed with an irrevocable bid.


Wednesday, November 13

Christie’s Postwar and Contemporary Evening Sale

Ed Ruscha, Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964). Courtesy of Christie's.

Ed Ruscha, Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964). Courtesy of Christie’s.

Presale estimate: $270.3 million to $397.8 million

Presale estimate last year: In excess of $327.1 million

Star Lot: Ed Ruscha’s Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964), estimated at $30 million to $40 million

What to know: The Ruscha—which some have identified as the best consignment of the season—is poised to set a new auction record for the artist as soon as it hits its low estimate. The current record of $30.4 million was set five years ago at Christie’s for Smash (1963). This time around, the house is giving the Ruscha the full star treatment, creating a bespoke room for display as it did last season for Jeff Koons’s shiny Rabbit. This one is complete with benches, curved walls, and a continuous loop of music from the era when the painting was created. Collectors Joan and Jack Quinn acquired the work directly from Ruscha in the early 1970s—a fact that will only add to its luster for eager bidders. 

David Hockney is also front and center at Christie’s again after his record-setting sale last year, with Sur la Terrasse (1971), a sun-drenched picture of his former lover and muse Peter Schlesinger standing on a terrace with his back turned to the viewer and gazing over the Marrakesh cityscape. The portrait marked the decline of the relationship and Hockney cast himself as a kind of sad, invisible voyeur. With an estimate of $25 million to $45 million, this painting is expected to bring in less than half of last year’s Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1974), which fetched $90.3 million.  


Thursday, November 14

Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Willem de Kooning, Untitled XXII (1977). Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Willem de Kooning, Untitled XXII (1977). Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Presale estimate:  $213.7 million to $300.3 million

Presale estimate last year: $278.4 million to $375.9 million

Star lot: Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XXII (1977), estimated at $25 million to $35 million

What to know: This rare de Kooning is being offered by art dealer Robert Mnuchin, father of US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, on behalf of an undisclosed seller. Although the estimate range lags behind the current de Kooning record, $66.3 million set three years ago for a painting from 1977, it would place it among the artist’s top five auction records, according to the Artnet Price Database. It also comes with an irrevocable bid from a third party, ensuring that the painting will sell. The consignor acquired it from Mitchell-Innes and Nash gallery in 2003, back when it was one of roughly 100 de Kooning paintings that the gallery priced between $500,000 and $3 million while representing the artist’s estate for a few years after his death.

Meanwhile, Mark Rothko’s Blue Over Red (1953) is one of five lots expected to bring in more than $20 million this season. It carries an estimate of $25 million to $35 million and last appeared at auction at Christie’s in 2005, when it sold for $5.6 million. Other top lots include works by Clyfford Still, a stripe painting by Brice Marden, a Piero Manzoni “Achrome,” and a 2014 painting by Kerry James Marshall.


Thursday, November 14

Phillips 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Ring (1981). Image courtesy Phillips.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Ring (1981). Image courtesy of Phillips.

Presale estimate: In excess of $92.2 million

Presale estimate last year: $100 million to $142 million

Star lot: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s The Ring, estimated at $10 million to $15 million

What to know: The painting depicts a boxer standing in the ring with his fists raised and clutching a spear. The similarity of the figure to a Basquiat self-portrait from that year has led some experts to believe that the artist was depicting himself. And although 1982, not 1981, is the most desirable year for Basquiat, Phillips notes that the work was painted at a time when the artist “found unprecedented levels of critical and commercial success: by the end of 1981, Basquiat stood victorious.”

Another highlight is a Joan Miró painting, Paysan catalan inquiet par le passage d’un vol d’oiseaux (1952), that has not been shown in over six decades and was last seen in 1953 as a highlight of a major postwar survey at Galerie Maeght in Paris and Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. While Phillips is usually the destination for newer, younger contemporary fare, it has been edging into Modern territory in recent years—and appears to be continuing in that direction. 

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