Christie’s Small But Mighty 21st-Century Sale Reached $100 Million, Aided by Larry Gagosian’s Covert Bids and a Strong Showing of Women Artists

An early Jean-Michel Basquiat painting was the top lot of the night.

Auctioneer Georgina Hilton selling the top lot, Jean-Michel Basquiat's El Gran Espactaculo (The Nile) (1983) at Christie's evening sale of 21st century art in New York on May 15. Image courtesy Christie's.

Christie’s 21st-century art auction this evening was a small affair of just two-dozen lots, but it brought in big spenders, and raked in nearly $100 million total.

One of the 27 lots was withdrawn, a Jeff Koons painting from his “Gazing Ball” series, Velázquez Infanta Maria Teresa, which had a low estimate of $800,000. And another painting, Julien Nguyen’s Kill Bill: Volume 3, barely reached its $100,000 low estimate—a surprise given the heated competition the artist’s work usually sees.

Otherwise, strong sales edged the auction’s total to $98.8 million, just surpassing the high end of Its $67.9 million to $98 million overall estimate (revised to account for the withdrawn Koons). And there were plenty of high notes for the night, including robust bidding for the eight-figure star lot by Jean-Michel Basquiat, plus nine new auction records, including five for women artists which were surprisingly well represented for an evening sale.

“It was a great night for Christie’s and a terrific start to the May sales,” Thomas Danziger, an attorney who frequently represents clients buying and selling at auction, told Artnet News. “Tonight’s Christie’s sale is important because it sets the mood for many sales to come over the next 10 days. It’s one sale where the other two auction houses put competition and any feelings of schadenfreude aside and root for a big win for the auction market itself.”

In keeping with the post-pandemic trend, the sale saw intense competition from bidders on the auction house’s online platform Christie’s LIVE. All the action was deftly overseen by auctioneer Georgina Hilton who skillfully kept the sale moving at a rapid clip.

Diane Arbus, A box of ten photographs of New York scenes (1970). Image courtesy Christie's .

Diane Arbus, A box of 10 photographs of New York scenes (1970). Image courtesy Christie’s .

In all, records were set for artists Robin F. Williams, Vojtech Kovarik, Simone Leigh, Danielle McKinney, El Anatsui, Peter Saul, Rebecca Ackroyd, Diane Arbus, and William Eggleston.

A total of three lots were guaranteed, all backed by third parties, including the top lot of the night: Basquiat’s massive El Gran Espactaculo (1983), painted when the artist was just 22 years old, and one of three large-scale canvases he executed that year. It last sold at auction for $5.2 million in 2005, when the buyer was fashion icon Valentino Garavani. Tonight’s (unpublished) estimate was approximately $45 million.

Hilton opened the bidding on the Basquiat at $40 million and it quickly climbed in $1 million increments. Along with interest from two Christie’s specialists on the phone banks, there was competition coming from at least one bidder in the room as well, all through the high $40 million and $50 million bidding marks.

The in-room bidder turned out to be mega-dealer Larry Gagosian, who, despite being seated in the audience, used a subtle relay system with a Christie’s staffer to convey his bids to Hilton, which caused some confusion among seasoned auction observers. (Artnet News confirmed Gagosian’s participation as an underbidder following the sale.)

In the end Gagosian, did not take home the work he was presumably chasing for a client. Instead, it was hammered down for $58 million, or $67 million with premium, to a client on the phone with Vanessa Fusco, Christie’s head of evening sale. It now ranks as the fourth-most expensive Basquiat painting at auction. The artist’s record is $110.5 million, set in May 2017.

Cecily Brown, Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned) (2013). Image courtesy Christie's.

Cecily Brown, Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned) (2013). Image courtesy Christie’s.

“What’s fascinating about it, is that it’s one of the most narrative Basquiat paintings,” said Alex Rotter, chairman of Christie’s 20th- and 21st-century art departments, after the sale. “I’ve been thinking about this painting for 15 years.”

The second-highest price of the night was $6.7 million for Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned) (2013) by Cecily Brown, who is currently the subject of a hit retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bidding was solid if not frenzied, after the action was opened at $4.2 million, against a low estimate of $5 million. The work was eventually hammered down for $5.5 million to a Christie’s specialist bidding for a client, and bumped up very close to the artist’s current auction record of $6.8 million, paid for Suddenly Last Summer at Sotheby’s in New York in May 2018.

Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkin (1993). Image cou

Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkin (1993). Image courtesy Christie’s.

A signature Yayoi Kusama pumpkin painting, another artist having a moment in New York with a Instagram-viral show at David Zwirner, was the third-highest selling work at $4.9 million. Pumpkin (1993), was also guaranteed by a third party, though it’s not clear who won it given the $4 million to $6 million presale estimate. It hammered at $4 million to a client of Salome Tan Bo, a Christie’s executive based in China.

Among the records set was a new high for Simone Leigh, when Stick, a life-size bronze, sold for $2.7 million, surpassing the current record of $2.2 million set at Sotheby’s last year.

Louise Bonnet, Interior with Orange Bed (2021). Image courtesy Christie's.

Louise Bonnet, Interior with Orange Bed (2021). Image courtesy Christie’s.

One eager and active buyer in the room snapped up at least three lots by some of the more cutting-edge artists included in the sale, including Louise Bonnet’s Interior with Orange Bed (2021) for $403,200; Miriam Cahn’s Was Mich Anschaut, 02.10.2016 (2016), which was included in a Reina Sofia show in 2019, for $176,400; and Danielle McKinney’s We Need to Talk (2020) for $201,600.

Two records for iconic photographers were set, one for Diane Arbus whose box set of 10 well-known photographs, privately published in1970, sold for just over $1 million. And Eggleston’s famous close-up image of a tricycle, Untitled (1970), sold for the same price, on an estimate of $1 million to $1.5 million.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
  • Access the data behind the headlines with the artnet Price Database.