Everything You Need to Know About New York’s $1.4 Billion Fall Auction Season, From the Trophy-Filled Macklowe Trove to Underrated Gems
Here is your guide to the fall auctions in New York at Christie's, Sotheby's, and Phillips.
The rows of chairs may be roomier than they have in the past and phone banks may be positioned with six feet between them, but IRL live auctions are back in New York this November. This season, a fortnight of sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips is expected to generate between $1.4 billion and $1.9 billion. It will be a test of the health of the market’s uppermost echelon, which was particularly hard hit in 2020.
Normally, supply is the biggest constraint at this top level. But that’s not much of a problem this year, with the first tranche of the $600 million collection of Harry and Linda Macklowe heading to Sotheby’s alongside a trove of modern and contemporary art from the late TV executive Douglas Cramer. At Christie’s, eyes will be on the Impressionist treasures assembled by the late oil magnate Edwin L. Cox.
The question of the moment is instead whether there is enough demand to absorb so many high-priced lots. A whopping seven works are estimated to sell for more than $40 million, all of which are guaranteed. For comparison, in November 2019, the last “normal” fall auction season, zero works carried such lofty expectations.
This season, the total combined estimates for the Big Two are neck and neck. Christie’s totals $654.5 million to $969 million, while Sotheby’s comes in at $728.13 million to $861.95 million. Phillips’s total is “in excess of $100 million.”
The chaos of 2020 enabled all three auction houses to shake up both their calendars and their categories. (Never forget that Christie’s tossed a $28 million T-Rex skeleton into its fall contemporary art sale last year.) This time around, Sotheby’s has introduced a new ultra-contemporary art-focused evening sale and Christie’s has scheduled its sales a week ahead of the competition.
“We seem to be living through an end of something and a beginning of something,” said art advisor Wendy Cromwell.
Despite all the changes, there is one name that looms large over this season: Macklowe. That is the source of the unprecedented blue-chip collection assembled over the course of several decades by New York real estate tycoon Harry Macklowe and his wife Linda. “Macklowe is a snapshot of a cycle that I think is still super important and super relevant to collectors,” Cromwell said.
A judge ordered more than 100 disputed works owned by the couple to be sold at auction because the pair could not agree on their value; the first group, hitting the block on November 15, is expected to fetch upwards of $400 million. Two decades ago, that was an entire season’s worth of art.
Meanwhile, the taste of young collectors has shifted away from the blue-chip and toward artists of their own generation, which is leading to what some describe as a bubble in the ultra-contemporary art market. Sotheby’s new sale, titled “The Now,” has led some observers to joke that they’ll be offering work completed yesterday.
Art advisor Todd Levin sounded a cautionary note. Some of these $1 million-and-up prices, he said, are being achieved for younger artists “who have little or no museum exhibition history under their belt and who have had one-person shows you can count on one hand.” Although he’s placing no judgement on the work itself, he said the numbers can feel “excessive.”
Getting dizzy? Never fear. Here is our full guide to the upcoming sales, including both trophies to watch and lower-profile gems that might just fly into the stratosphere.
Tuesday, November 9
Christie’s 21st Century Evening Sale
When: 7 p.m. EST
Lots on offer: 40
Presale estimate: $151.6 million to $230.4 million
Star lot: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s The Guilt of Gold Teeth (1982) (estimate: $40 million to $80 million)
At nearly 14 feet wide and eight feet tall, this is one of the largest paintings that Basquiat painted in 1982, which is regarded as the best year of his career. When it was last offered at Sotheby’s in 1998, it sold for $387,500, falling short of the low $400,000 estimate. How times have changed: Today, Basquiat has never been more in demand. In the first half of the year, Basquiat’s work generated $302.7 million at auction, more than that by any other artist tracked by the Artnet Price Database except Pablo Picasso. (Want to know who consigned this painting and many others? Get the inside scoop with Artnet News Pro.)
Other highlights: A trove of works by artists of the Pictures Generation, including several by Christopher Wool and Cindy Sherman, will be sold by New Jersey surgeon Abe Steinberger (though his name is not listed in the catalogue). Another top lot—and a frequent flyer to auction—is Scottish painter Peter Doig’s Swamped (1990), which has an unpublished estimate of $35 million. The work fetched a then-record $26 million when it last hit the block in 2015. You may also see new records for younger artists whose work is nearly impossible to get on the primary market, including Hilary Pecis, Nicolas Party, and Issy Wood. Lastly, don’t forget the debut of Beeple’s IRL art, which carries an unpublished estimate of $15 million.
Thursday, November 11
The Cox Collection: The Story of Impressionism at Christie’s
When: 7 p.m. EST
Lots on offer: 23
Presale estimate: $178.6 million to $267.6 million
Star lot: Gustave Caillebotte, Jeune homme à sa fenêtre (1876) (estimate: in excess of $50 million)
This imposing painting, which depicts the artist’s brother René gazing out a window from the family’s residence in Paris’s 8th arrondissement, presents a captivating view of French bourgeois life. Major works by Caillebotte rarely come to market—and this one is on the cover of the artist’s catalogue raisonné.
Other highlights: When Christie’s announced it had secured the collection of the late Texas oil magnate Edwin L. Cox, it described the trove as “the most significant collection of its kind in America.” Among its sterling examples of Impressionism are Paul Cézanne’s L’Estaque aux toits rouges (1883–85), which carries an estimate of $35 million to $55 million, and Vincent van Gogh’s Cabanes de bois parmi les oliviers et cyprès (1889), which is expected to deliver more than $40 million. With a guarantee from the house, the works are as good as sold. The question now is whether there’s enough enthusiasm to make them take off.
Thursday, November 11
Christie’s 20th Century Evening Sale
When: 8 p.m. EST
Lots on offer: 59
Presale estimate: $324.3 million to $471 million
Star lot: Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (1988) (estimate: $25 million to $35 million)
In the “before times,” one would have expected to see this monumental abstract Richter in an evening sale of postwar and contemporary art. But thanks to the head-spinning shakeup of categories, it’s now offered alongside work by Picasso and Degas. The 1988 canvas is part of Richter’s acclaimed “Abstraktes Bild” series, his most popular at auction (they account for 17 of his top 20 results). It will be a keen test for Richter’s market, which has fallen back to earth after some frothy activity over the past decade.
Other highlights: Christie’s has lavished attention on Andy Warhol’s portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat, unveiling it at the Crown Club in Barclay’s Center and even plastering it on a billboard. Consigned by newsprint magnate Peter Brant, it’s expected to fetch around $20 million. Two other pricey lots are Picasso’s Mousquetaire à la pipe II (1968) and Cy Twombly’s elegant Untitled (1961), both with unpublished estimates of $30 million.
Beyond the trophy lots, there are other treasures to be found. Among them: a James McNeill Whistler self-portrait, Whistler Smoking, which is being sold by the estate of the late Elene Conrobert Isles de Saint Phalle. Likely the earliest self-portrait by the artist and one of only 11 known to exist, it carries an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. “If people recognize this work for what it is, it could have broad appeal to Impressionist collectors globally, and should go well beyond its estimate,” said the art advisor Megan Fox Kelly.
Monday, November 15
The Macklowe Collection at Sotheby’s
When: 7 p.m. EST
Lots on offer: 35
Presale estimate: in excess of $400 million
Star lot: Giacometti’s Le Nez (1947) (estimate: $70 million to $90 million)
The mother of all single-owner sales is led by this rare Giacometti, whose expression of postwar angst has captivated audiences around the world. “Giacometti is just one of the most bulletproof artists ever,” Cromwell said. “Anyone who has an art collection of museum-quality caliber is going to be interested.” Prices for Giacometti sculptures first started soaring around 2010, when L’homme qui marche I became one of few works to pass the $100 million mark at auction.
Other highlights: This is the first of a two-part offering of the 165-work Macklowe Collection, with the next one slated for spring 2022. Other gems of this first round include Mark Rothko’s No. 7 (1951), estimated at $70 million to $90 million, which is anticipated to break the artist’s current auction record, and Andy Warhol’s Nine Marilyns (1962), estimated at $40 million to $50 million.
One perhaps less expected work generating huge interest is Twombly’s monumental blossom painting Untitled (2007) (estimate: $40 million to $60 million). Over 18 feet wide, it’s one of a group of six that show a lighter, brighter side to the cerebral Twombly. Originally conceived for an exhibition at the Collection Lambert in Avignon in 2007, examples are now owned by the likes of the Broad Collection in Los Angeles and the Brandhorst Collection in Munich. This is the first canvas from the series to come to auction.
Tuesday, November 16
Sotheby’s Modern Art Evening Auction
When: 7 p.m. EST
Lots offered: 50
Presale estimate: $202.35 million to $282.15 million
Star lot: Frida Kahlo’s Diego y Yo (1949) (estimate: $30 million to $50 million)
Kahlo’s Diego y yo is one of the artist’s final self-portraits. It features her tear-soaked visage with an image of her husband, Diego Rivera, on her forehead—symbolizing, perhaps, the space he took up in her psyche. It last appeared at auction in 1990, when it sold for $1.4 million. The sale has the potential to entirely recalibrate the market for Kahlo’s work; her existing auction high of just over $8 million was set in 2016. The Mexican artist’s market is complicated by extremely strict export rules for works in her home country, which has effectively created two strata for her oeuvre: those permitted for sale outside Mexico and those that must remain there.
Other highlights: Claude Monet’s Coin du bassin aux nymphéas (1918), which has an unpublished estimate of $40 million and an irrevocable bid. The dense, vertical painting of waterlilies last appeared at auction in 1997, selling for $6.1 million. Also on offer: a classic mobile by the ever-popular Alexander Calder, Untitled (1949), with an estimate of $10 million to $15 million.
Wednesday, November 17
Phillips’s 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Auction
When: 7 p.m. EST
Lots on offer: 48
Presale estimate: in excess of $100 million
Star lot: Francis Bacon’s Pope with Owls (circa 1958) (estimate: $35 million to $45 million)
This painting of a skeletal pope flanked by ghostly owls has never before appeared at auction. The artist created it while living in Morocco for 14 months during the 1950s and it has been in the same American collection for nearly four decades, according to Phillips.
Other highlights: An atypical painted door from 1984 by Basquiat, which harkens back to his origins as a street artist and carries an estimate of $6 million to $8 million. It was last sold at Phillips in 2010 for $1.7 million. Also on offer is Barkley L. Hendricks’s FTA (1968), which carries a $4 million to $6 million estimate; proceeds benefit “the pursuit of anti-racism.”
More contemporary fare—bread and butter for Phillips—includes work by sought-after artists like Shara Hughes and Jadé Fadojutimi. But supply of this material is thinner on the ground than usual at the house as its competitors have horned in on the action.
Thursday, November 18
Sotheby’s “The Now” Evening Auction
When: 6 p.m. EST
Lots on Offer: 23
Presale estimate: $36.6 million to $53.2 million
Star lot: Yoshitomo Nara’s Nice to See You Again (1996) (estimate: $8 million to $12 million)
The Japanese artist with an international collector base will lead Sotheby’s sale of work created over the past 20 years. In a testament to just how much Nara’s market has exploded in recent years, the work last sold at Sotheby’s in 2005 for $329,600. Since it has an irrevocable bid, it seems safe to say the consignor is in for at least a 2,327 percent return.
Other highlights: Other top lots include Banksy’s Trolley Hunters (2006), a painting of prehistoric men preparing to attack abandoned shopping carts, which carries an estimate of $5 million to $7 million. The seller picked it up at the artist’s 2006 exhibition “Barely Legal” in Los Angeles.
Beyond the top priced works, look out for the auction debut of sought-after Colombian artist María Berrío as well as pantings by Hernan Bas and Stanley Whitney, established artists with newly ascendant markets.
Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction
When: 7 p.m. EST
Lots on offer: 35
Presale estimate: $89.2 million to $126.6 million
Star lot: Roy Lichtenstein Two Paintings: Craig…(1983) (estimate: $12 million to $18 million)
This painting from the collection of TV executive Douglas Cramer shows the American Pop artist revisiting two of his most popular motifs from the 1960s—the female form and Ben Day dots. While one would expect a work from Lichtenstein’s most desirable period, 1962 to 1964, to fetch a higher price than this later example, some things are hard to predict: A similar work from the ’90s fetched an eye-popping $46.2 million at Christie’s last year.
Other highlights: Basquiat’s Made in Japan II (1982), which combines the artist’s most popular symbol, the skull, with his most sought-after year, is estimated at $12 million to $18 million. Meanwhile, a fresh-to-market example of one of Philip Guston’s hood paintings, Ominous Land (1972), is estimated at $6 million to $8 million.
Keep your eyes peeled for two top-flight paintings by Cecily Brown, a favorite of Douglas Cramer whose market has been on a tear of late. Also watch out for Romare Bearden, whose works bookend Sotheby’s sale. His current (far too low) auction record of $770,200 is likely to be broken at least once, if not twice, during the evening.
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