Auction Blotter: Kenny Scharf Shatters Records, Elizabeth Peyton Drops the Mic, and More Highlights From New York’s Day Sales

Which artists were crowned the new rising stars of the art market during the annual midseason sales? Read on to find out.

Auctioneer Sarah Krueger presiding over the New Now sale at Phillips. Photo courtesy Phillips.

Last week, right in the middle of Armory Week madness, Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips held their spring contemporary art auctions, adding to the glut of fresh work on the market. And while these mid-season sales might not command the red-carpet rollout of the New York evening auctions in May and November, they still help predict who the next market darling will be and offer a gut check on the state of the market for new art.

Combined, the three houses sold $64.2 million worth of contemporary art last week, up just over 5 percent from last year’s total. But enough about the overall numbers: Here are a few of the specific highlights. (As usual, all prices include the buyer’s premium unless otherwise noted.)

 

SCHARF SOARS

Kenny Scharf, LOVE (1982). Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

The collection of the late businessman Richard L. Weisman, consigned to Christie’s last year, contains a number of important works, including a series of athlete portraits he commissioned from Andy Warhol. Last month, one such portrait of Muhammad Ali sold for $6.3 million in London. But while that one was quite the ado—and it ended up being the biggest price tag of the evening—few onlookers had high expectations for a kitschy Kenny Scharf from Weisman’s collection, a large acrylic and spray paint on canvas called LOVE (1982) that depicts Fred Flintstone and his wife, Wilma Flintstone, as squiggly snail creatures staring into each other’s eyes. Estimated to sell for $30,000 to $50,000, the work was rocketed to a final price of $525,000, more than twice Scharf’s previous auction record (which, oddly, was for another Flintstone painting).

 

HAUSER EFFECT

Simone Leigh, DECATUR (COBALT) (2015. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

There are plenty of reasons to believe in the market power of Simone Leigh, the sculptor who has in the past two years won the Hugo Boss Prize, stole the show at the Whitney Biennial, and installed a larger-than-life work on New York’s High Line. But the most obvious reason to go all in on Simone Leigh is the fact that she’s now repped by the global powerhouse Hauser & Wirth, who poached the artist from her New York gallery Luhring Augustine, as well as David Kordanksy Gallery, which used to rep her in LA. (A show at Kordansky scheduled for this month is going ahead as planned.) The representation was announced in January, and last week, the first work to come to auction since that news broke was on the block at Sotheby’s. The porcelain and terra cotta sculpture was estimated to sell for $80,000, but instead went for $337,500, a new record for the artist. Notably, her top seven auction prices were all set within the past year, and her top three are all from this series. It seems fair to assume this is just the beginning for Leigh’s market.

 

PARTY CRASHER

Nicolas Party, Untitled (Landscape) (2013). Photo courtesy Phillips.

Some noticed that the work of painter Jonathan Gardner, with its figuration deeply indebted to surrealism, bears more than a passing similarity to that of market phenom Nicolas Party. Not making any accusations here—just saying if you like Party, you’ll probably like Gardner. And so when a 2014 painting was slotted as lot one in Phillips’s New Now sale, many expected it to ride the surrealist-figurative wave and crest above $100,000, marking an impressive auction debut. And crest it did, more than quadrupling the high estimate of $30,000 to make $125,000 with fees. A few lots later, that number was topped by another artist: none other than Nicolas Party. While the work on paper—which was originally sold to benefit the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago—was only supposed to sell for $80,000, it ended up finding a buyer for a ripe $237,500.

IS THIS IT?

Elizabeth Peyton, Julian (2004). Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

Perhaps a very vigilant fan of New York City rock legends the Strokes was bidding at Sotheby’s last week. We say this because Elizabeth Peyton’s Julian (2004)—a portrait of the band’s lead singer, Julian Casablancas—was estimated to sell for $40,000 and instead went for $193,750. It’s the latest in a string of strong prices for works on paper by Peyton, who last year had an acclaimed show at the National Portrait Gallery in London, where her chic portraits of scruffy rockers and movie heartthrobs were installed between the paintings of English nobility and kings. Her record for the medium, set in November, is $300,000. That’s a major shift from October 2018, when another Peyton work on paper of Casablancas on stage, mid-croon, sold for just $57,006 at the contemporary art day sale at Sotheby’s London. Seems like it’s time to cue up “Last Night.”

 

FIGGIS FLIES

Genieve Figgis, PIANO LESSON (2014). Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

Two works by the Irish artist Genieve Figgis appeared in the Sotheby’s Contemporary Curated sale last week, and they were both first sold by Bill Powers, who runs the space Half Gallery. (The name refers to the size of its original location, a small nook on Forsyth Street, but now Half Gallery is a full-size space on E. 4th Street, which opened last Saturday with a show of new work by Tanya Merrill.) Both performed well, extending the streak that began when a pair of her works in the Hong Kong sales in November sold for big numbers—one just over $300,000, the other just over $200,000. Last week, Figgis’s Piano Lesson (2014) fetched $100,000, while Gang of Clowns (2016) sold for $87,500, both well over their high estimates.

 

TRIBUTE TO TILTON

Jeff Sonhouse, Inauguration of the Solicitor (2005). Photo courtesy Phillips.

Two of the most anticipated lots in the New Now sale were placed next to each other in the lineup: a painting by the late, great Noah Davis, and a work by Jeff Sonhouse, who has been gripping the auction world since his 16-part painting, Bubonic Bling (2002) sold for $162,500 at Phillips last November. The two were bonded by a common dealer: both were originally sold by a gallery run by Jack Tilton, the trailblazing gallerist who died in 2017. Last week, the work by Sonhouse on the block was much smaller than the previous one—it is a diptych rather than a 16-panel piece—but it still sold for $162,500, the exact same figure as his record. The painting by Noah Davis, meanwhile, saw bidding spurred by his widely celebrated show this year at David Zwirner’s Chelsea space, and it more than quadrupled the high estimate of $80,000 to end up at $400,000.

 

CAN’T GET ENOUGH CURTISS

Julie Curtiss, Redfaced (2016). Photo courtesy Christie’s.

The prices for Julie Curtiss seem to have slightly leveled off in the first part of 2020; last month, a painting estimated to sell for $156,617 at the Phillips New Now sale in London ended up going within spitting distance of its estimate (a rarity for Curtiss) at $179,457. Then at Christie’s New York last week, the Curtiss painting Redfaced (2016), which features a character with a long, witchy hand covering her face, sold for $162,500 on a high estimate of $80,000. And while that’s a down-tick from the $423,000 achieved for a Curtiss painting at Christie’s in November, think about this: the consignor of last week’s work bought it at a show at Field Projects, where work was selling for just $1,350.


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