The strength of the contemporary art market in recent auction seasons has astounded even the most bullish of observers. Christie’s postwar and contemporary sale last May raked in $495 million in a single evening, a figure that perhaps a decade ago might have represented the bulk of a two-week auction season, including sales of Impressionist art. But the house managed to exceed that figure last November with an even higher evening total of $691.6 million. Price points like $1 million and $5 million used to figure into the total tally for the confirmed masterpieces. But now the market has anointed a new milestone: the $20 million lot.
For example, in its May 13 sale this week, Christie’s is offering no fewer than nine lots with a low estimate of $20 million, picking up where its November sales left off, since in the fall, the house offered 11 lots with a low estimate of $20 million. In total the house is offering 72 lots this week, with the overall sale estimated to make “in the region of $500 million.”
And Sotheby’s has four lots in the same stratospheric price range, not to mention another nine lots with low estimates above $10 million. The highest asking price this week is “in the region of $75 million” for a Francis Bacon triptych, Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards (1984). Bacon’s triptych painting of fellow artist Lucian Freud made history at Christie’s in November when its $142.4 million sale price set the record for the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction.
What’s behind the new “low”?
“It’s really a masterpiece market,” says Sara Friedlander, Christie’s vice president and head of the evening sale. “Buyers are looking for top quality and rare trophy works. Sellers have very high expectations on the heels of what happened at the November contemporary sales. The prices are staggering, so is the quality.”
But it doesn’t necessarily mean that the supply will continue. “This particular sale belies a reality of the market that there is a limited supply of these masterpieces,” says Friedlander. “In 10 years, we will not see a sale like this. There will not be another Barnett Newman for example.”
Friedlander also says the previous, short-lived downturn in the art market in late-2008 through 2009, in the midst of the broader economic recession, may have provided a valuable learning experience for some collectors.
“The global market is just in a place where there is a tremendous amount of security in art as a place to put money,” Friedlander says. “When you think of missed opportunities in 2008, so many people who were nervous about the market or had ‘trigger’ anxiety looked back regretting the Calder, the Rothko, the Warhol they didn’t buy. Those people will not make that mistake again.”
Below, the lots in the newly colonized $20 million-and-up stratosphere.
Christie’s Postwar and Contemporary Evening Auction, Tuesday, May 13.
2. Warhol’s Disaster paintings account for his two highest auction prices—including $105.4 million at Sotheby’s New York this past November for Silver Car Crash. The Pop artist was way ahead of his time with this series, exploring the darker side of American life with images of racism, social unrest, violence, and death.
3. Love them or hate them, Koons’s shiny multimillion dollar sculptures—and wealthy buyers who scoop them up—are everywhere. You can expect to see even more of his work at the Koons retrospective opening at the Whitney Museum on June 27. Prepare for a building-wide finale of an exhibition in the Whitney’s Marcel Breuer building uptown before the museum’s much-anticipated move to a new building in the Meatpacking District in 2015.
4. Rothko‘s Color Field paintings, with their floating blocks of color that practically glow, were at the forefront of the contemporary art market boom in 2007. The pursuit of these by art trophy hunters from Los Angeles to London to Qatar has only intensified in recent years.
5. Christopher Wool‘s 1992 painting If You (the full text reads “If you can’t take a joke get the fuck out of my house”) is estimated at $20 million to $30 million. Fresh off a recent retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, his market took a huge leap last season when his painting Apocalypse Now (1988) sold for $26.5 million. Before that, the highest price achieved for one of Wool’s paintings at auction was $7.7 million.
6. It’s not a blockbuster triptych, but it packs all the visual punch of a typical Bacon painting: a vibrant palette and a torqued, seemingly tortured figure.
7. As artnet News’ Rozalia Jovanovic writes about this monumental work: “The year 1982 was a momentous one for Basquiat. Coming at the tail end of his first critical period, it was the year he transformed from a pioneer of the local underground art scene to a figure of international consequence.”
8. Richter’s abstract canvases figure among the top lots at contemporary auction season after season. Rock star Eric Clapton scored $34.2 million for his Richter Abstraktes Bild (809-4) (1994), the artist’s second highest price at auction, when he sold it at Sotheby’s London in late 2012 (the estimate was $14.4–19.2 million).
9. Black Fire I perfectly captures the artist’s radically reductive and uncompromising aesthetic, according to Christie’s experts. It is one of a significant group of works in black pigment on exposed canvas that Newman painted between 1958 and 1966. Only three remain in private collections. If that’s not enough selling power, the work has the added cachet of having been owned by Beastie Boy Mike D.’s mother, major collector Hester Diamond.
Sotheby’s Evening Contemporary Sale, Wednesday, May 14.
10. Warhol’s 1986 suite of multicolored self portraits was acquired from London’s Anthony d’Offay Gallery the same year it was created and has been in the same private collection ever since. The work represents “the undiluted quintessence of the brand of Andy Warhol: the perfect manifestation of his declaration, ‘If you want to know about Andy Warhol, then just look at the surface of my pictures… and there I am; there’s nothing in between.'”
11. He’s not just Popeye the Sailor Man. He’s Koons’s Popeye, a gleaming, six-and-a-half foot tall heroic statue depicting the swarthy cartoon sailor, according to Sotheby’s. The Popeye character may be more than 80 years old now, but Koons has reappropriated this American champion and spinach spokesperson as an icon for the new millennium.
12. Another monumental Richter abstract, this 1988 work was sold at Sotheby’s over a decade ago, in November 2002, for $2.2 million on an asking price of $1–1.5 million.
13. Sotheby’s experts deem it a “tour-de-force” of Basquiat’s output. It has been included in numerous Basquiat traveling retrospectives, including the Whitney Museum in 1992–93, the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1996, and the Brooklyn Museum in 2005–2006.Follow artnet News on Facebook.