Demand for Rediscovered Artists and Young Talent Remains Strong, If Not Frothy, at Christie’s $26 Million Postwar to Present Sale

Works by the late Maine artist Lynne Drexler led the offering.

Lynne Drexler, Violet Sunlight (1962). Image courtesy Christie's.

While the September contemporary art auctions in New York do not offer the billion-dollar headlines of the glitzy November evening sales, they do provide an opportunity to see where the market is heading. And at a moment when supply of work by both emerging younger names and overlooked postwar figures is plentiful, Christie’s “Postwar to Present” sale in New York last week presented a market that is robust, if not frenzied.

The top-selling works included numerous examples by artists whose markets have been reevaluated in recent years, such as Lynne Drexler (whose star has been on rise in the two decades since her death, but is burning especially bright right now), Stanley Whitney (on the heels of a move to Gagosian), and Sam Gilliam (who rose to fame well before his death this past summer at age 88 but is now firmly in blue-chip territory). 

The sale brought in $25.8 million, within the presale expectations of $19 million to $28 million. (Final prices include auction-house fees; presale estimates do not.) Of the 239 lots on offer (two were withdrawn), 197 found buyers. Just under 15 percent had guarantees, meaning they were certain to sell no matter what happened during the live auction.

The total falls short of last year’s equivalent sale, which brought in $34.4 million, but ahead of the 2019 offering, which totaled $22.8 million.

The top lot was Drexler’s Violet Sunset (1962), which sold for $781,200, well over its high estimate of $500,000. 

Sam Gilliam, Idylls I (1970). Image courtesy Christie's.

Sam Gilliam, Idylls I (1970). Image courtesy Christie’s.

Idylls I (1970), a painted canvas by Sam Gilliam, sold for $756,000, in the middle of its $600,000-to-$800,000 estimate. In both a sign of strength for Gilliam’s market and the potential of a well-placed flip, the consignor picked up the work at Freeman’s auction house in Philadelphia five years ago for $370,000 on a far more modest estimate of $50,000 to $70,000. Even including related auction premiums, the final price represents a roughly 100 percent markup in a relatively short time. 

Vija Celmins’s graphite on paper Untitled (Moon Surface #1) (1969) achieved an identical, premium-inclusive price of $756,000 on the same presale estimate ($600,000 to $800,000).

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Moon Surface #1) (1969). Image courtesy Christie's.

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Moon Surface #1) (1969). Image courtesy Christie’s.

Prices remained aggressive for young artists whose work is nearly impossible to acquire on the primary market. Christina Quarles’s 2017 painting A Shaddow of Whut I Once Was sold for $693,000, on the top end of its $500,000-to-$700,000 estimate (and in line with the artist’s rumored primary market prices). Salman Toor’s painting The Picnic (2014) also brought in a healthy $403,200, clearing the high estimate of $300,000.

Not everything flew, however. Claire Tabouret’s The Daydreamer (2017) fetched $378,500 on an estimate of $300,000 to $500,000. It last sold at Christie’s Hong Kong last December for $561,516 (HK$4.4 million), representing a loss for the consignor. 

A painting by Robert Colescott, The Philosopher At The Bather’s Pool (1984), failed to make waves, selling for an under-estimate $289,800 despite the artist’s current retrospective at the New Museum in New York.

Other works by younger artists in the sale included Nathaniel Mary Quinn’s painting, Someday, We’ll Be Free (2018), which sold for $113,400, approaching the mid-range of the $80,000 to $120,000 estimate, albeit including premiums.

Auction records included the $478,00 achieved for Mary Weatherford’s Coney Island; the $579,600 recorded for Jenny Holzer’s Selection from Truisms marked the second-highest price at auction for the artist.

Mary Weatherford, Coney Island (2012). Image courtesy Christie's.

Mary Weatherford, Coney Island (2012). Image courtesy Christie’s.

A highlight of the sale was a group of 17 artworks donated by artists and galleries to benefit “Flourish: Art for the Future,” an initiative by gallerist Bridget Finn of Reyes | Finn Gallery to fund research into STXBP1 disorders, a rare disease that affects her younger daughter. The grouping, which was 100 percent sold, raised $1.4 million. Leading the pack was Three Ghee Sunrise (2022) by Derek Fordjour, which realized $302,400 against an estimate of $120,000 to $180,000.

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