Buoyed by Demand for Young Stars, Christie’s Hybrid New York and Hong Kong Auction Fetched a Healthy $119 Million

New records were set for Amoako Boafo, Shara Hughes, and Dana Schutz, among others.

Amoako Boafo, Baba Diop (2019). Image courtesy Christie's.

This year has seen auction houses throw most traditions out the window, from established sale categories to strict auction calendars. Christie’s latest hybrid in-person and online sale on Wednesday, which straddled salesrooms in Hong Kong and New York, eschewed the traditional genre divisions to offer work spanning 1889 to 2019.

The carefully coordinated production fetched a total of $119.3 million, well in excess of the reported pre-sale estimate of above $95 million. Of the 49 lots, 44, or 90 percent, found buyers. While the top prices were achieved by 19th- and 20th-century stalwarts with international brand recognition—Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Yoshitomo Nara, Yayoi Kusama, Andy Warhol—most of the heat was captured by the work of younger stars, including Amoako Boafo, Nicolas Party, and Shara Hughes.

The sale also illustrated the steep learning curve auction houses have been on since livestreaming became their primary mode of reaching customers back in March. Christie’s auctioneers Elaine Kwok (who manned the Hong Kong portion, which began in the evening local time, morning New York time) and Adrien Meyer (who led the New York segment) managed to skillfully field bids coming in from online and from phone banks manned by masked specialists. (In Hong Kong, some clients were also bidding in real time in the room.)

Elain Kwok on the rostrum during the Hong Kong portion of Christie's December 2 relay sale. Image courtesy Christie's.

Elain Kwok on the rostrum during the Hong Kong portion of Christie’s December 2 relay sale. Image courtesy Christie’s.

The so-called “20th Century sale,” which reflects Christie’s own merging of its Impressionist and Modern and postwar and contemporary departments earlier this year, likely benefitted from the fact that most major contemporary art fairs had been cancelled, leaving ample top material by young artists for the taking.

“The results show we read the market and its current appetites well, focusing our relay sale on contemporary material and rarities of Impressionist and Modern art,” said Alex Rotter, chairman of 20th- and 21st-century art at Christie’s. “It was a formula well-suited to this December season, when the primary market focus traditionally shifts to this sector of the market.” 

Like most of the major sales this year, the auction’s success was engineered well in advance. Of the 49 works, 21—or 43 percent—were guaranteed. Of those 21 guarantees, 16 were irrevocable bids, also known as third-party guarantees, which cut down on some of the risk undertaken by the auction house. In a sign of how deal-making often goes on right up until the moment the auction starts, the guarantee tally just yesterday was significantly lower: 15 deals, seven of which were third-party backed or irrevocable bids.

Shara Hughes, High Waters (2016). Image courtesy Christie's.

Shara Hughes, High Waters (2016). Image courtesy Christie’s.

Back-to-back auction records were set as soon as the sale kicked off. First it was High Waters (2016) by Shara Hughes that sold for HK$4.1 million ($532,000). The record for the Brooklyn based artist, who is known for her kaleidoscopic landscapes and colorful bursts of flowers, was previously $337,500, set in November 2019.

Prices for the Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo have been soaring over the past year, sparked in part by a high-profile show at the Rubell Foundation in Miami last December and a coterie of savvy players buying (and, in some cases, selling) his work in bulk.

At Christie’s, Baba Diop (2019), one of the artist’s signature portraits painted with his fingers, sold for a record HK$8.9 million ($1.14 million), more than five times its high estimate. The artist’s previous record of $880,971 was set at Phillips London this past February—when, Artnet News previously revealed, the artist himself was bidding. That seems unlikely to have been the case this time around, as the painting’s buyer—via telephone with Jacky Ho, vice president at Christie’s Hong Kong—also bought the Hughes painting.

Yet another artist record was set for the market darling Nicolas Party, whose abstract Still Life (2014) sold for HK$10.4 million ($1.3 million) to a Hong Kong specialist on behalf of a client, beating out a buyer in Texas.

Four bidders chased Dana Schutz’s Elevator (2017), which was shown at the 2017 Whitney Biennial (no, not that one). It ultimately fetched HK$50 million ($6.5 million), shattering the artist’s previous record of $2.4 million.

Dana Schutz, Elevator (2017). Image courtesy Christie's.

Dana Schutz, Elevator (2017). Image courtesy Christie’s.

New auction highs also came in for the late Joyce Pensato, whose Sunset Batman (2016) fetched HK$2.3 million ($291,590), and French painter Georges Mathieu, whose Souvenir de la maison d’Autriche (Remembering the House of Austria) (1978) sold for HK$17.3 million ($2.2 million).

Bidding was slightly less buoyant in the New York portion of the sale. Some works that did not carry a guarantee sold near or under their low estimates, suggesting that reserves—the minimum price at which a seller will let go of a work—had been lowered ahead of time in light of minimal interest.

Andy Warhol’s Small Campbell’s Soup Can (Chili Beef) (1962), for example, hammered at a price well under its low $6 million estimate. The work had already appeared at auction twice in the past eight years, most recently at Christie’s New York in 2014, when it sold for $7.4 million.

Other works that failed to meet expectations included Jean Dubuffet’s Le Président (1945), which sold for a hammer price of $3.65 million, falling under the low $4 million estimate, and Robert Rauschenberg’s Drawing for Dante’s 700th Birthday (1965), which hammered down at $820,000, well below the $1.2 million estimate.

Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec,Pierreuse (1889). Image courtesy Christie's.

Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec,Pierreuse (1889). Image courtesy Christie’s.

The top lot of the New York sale, meanwhile, was a rare portrait by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierreuse (1889), estimated to fetch between $3 million and $5 million.

Five clients chased it up to the high estimate before a sixth phone bidder entered the fray and ultimately nabbed the work for $7.6 million hammer, or $9 million with premium.

As is often the case, good provenance clearly played a role: the work hailed from the collection of automobile-industry titan Henry Ford II, and had never been offered at auction before.

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