Here’s What to Expect at the $1.3 Billion Spring Auctions in New York, From a $58 Million Koons to a Once-Lost Cézanne

All the highlights from the Impressionist, modern, and contemporary art auctions in New York next week.

Robert Rauschenberg, Buffalo II (1964). Image courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Last year’s blockbuster spring auctions in New York—which included the white-glove Rockefeller sales at Christie’s—would seem to be a hard act to follow. And yet, the old adage about the three “D’s”—death, divorce, and debt—rings true again as major works from estates are pushing masterpieces back into the marketplace.

So far, this May’s totals are poised to closely trail those of last spring. Current estimates for the evening sales at the three main auction houses combined range from $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion, before day sales are added to the tally. (Last May’s tally was $1.9 billion.)

Christie’s is selling part of the esteemed collection of late publishing magnate S.I. Newhouse, who died in late 2017. Works spanning both the Impressionist and modern and post-war and contemporary sales are expected to realize more than $130 million. The house is also offering some Pop art masterpieces from the collection of Chicago’s Robert B. Mayer and his wife, Beatrice Cummings Mayer, including a work by Robert Rauschenberg that is poised to shatter the artist’s current record by as much as five times. In all, the Mayer collection is expected to bring in more than $125 million.

“Across the board, collections make great auctions,” Sara Friedlander, Christie’s international director of post-war and contemporary art, told artnet News. “Sometimes these collections are big and offer a real kaleidoscopic view into how people were collecting across categories. Sometimes it’s just one painting. That’s why these sales are so great.”

Meanwhile Sotheby’s is selling a prestigious collection of Impressionist and contemporary works from the late Dallas collector Irvin Levy and his widow, Joan Schnitzer Levy, as well as selected works from the Richard Lang and Jane Lang Davis collection. And Phillips scored a coup with one of the most valuable consignments in its history: 95 works from the collection of Minneapolis entrepreneur Miles Fiterman and his wife, Shirley. The Fiterman collection is expected to bring in $60 million.

In a recent earnings call with analysts and investors, Sotheby’s CEO Tad Smith said that there’s a renewed consignor confidence in the market right now. He confirmed that overall guarantee levels are down and that some savvy consignors, with the help of expert third-party advisors, are opting for “share” deals instead of locking in a fixed guarantee with no further upside.

Meanwhile a Christie’s representative confirmed that the house also has fewer guarantees this season compared to last spring. The number of evening Impressionist-sale guarantees is higher by one (eight versus seven), but the number of guarantees in the evening post-war and contemporary sale is down significantly, to 14 lots compared to 33 guaranteed lots for last year’s sale (excluding Rockefeller lots).

“This is a reflection of discussions with our individual clients and their decisions about specific needs and goals for the sale of their property,” said the Christie’s spokesperson.

Right now the mix of in-house or direct financial guarantees versus outside or third-party backed guarantees is about 50-50, Christie’s says, though this could change with additional third party guarantees being announced before the sales begin next week.

Meanwhile, Phillips has a higher guarantee level this time around. “The financial component of each auction is different. As it turned out this season, there were more consignors who wanted a guarantee than in years’ past and we were pleased to be able to meet their needs,” said Robert Manley, worldwide co-head of the 20th-century and contemporary art department. “One example of guaranteed property from our May sales is the Miles and Shirley Fiterman collection, one of the most significant collections to be consigned in Phillips’ history.”

Here are the highlights from each of the sales.


Monday, May 13

Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s

Paul Cezanne, <i>Bouilloire et fruits</i> (1888-90). Courtesy of Christie's.

Paul Cézanne, Bouilloire et fruits (1888-90). Courtesy of Christie’s.

Presale estimate: In excess of $293 million

Presale estimate last year: Around $326.6 million

Top lot: This still life by Paul Cézanne, Bouilloire et fruits (1888-90), estimated in the region of $40 million, was once part of a notorious 1978 robbery from collector Michael Bakwin in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. The works were recovered in 1999, and that same year S.I. Newhouse bought it for $29.5 million at Sotheby’s London.

“In painting the carefully piled apples or fruits, Cézanne was as interested in representing the spaces among the spherical orbs as the solid fruits themselves,” writes Richard Brettell, an art historian at the University of Texas, in the Christie’s catalogue essay.

Other highlights: Christie’s is betting the price streak for works by Amedeo Modigliani will continue, with a rare limestone sculpture, Tête (circa 1911-12), priced at $30 million to $40 million. The work carries a third-party guarantee. Another top work from the Newhouse collection is a Van Gogh landscape, Arbres dans le jardin de l’asile, painted in Saint Rémy in 1889, which is estimated in the region of $25 million.


Tuesday, May 14

Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Sotheby’s

Claude Monet, Meules (1890). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.


Presale estimate: $257 million to $337 million

Presale estimate last year: $307 million to $378 million

Top lot: This luminous 1890 painting of haystacks by Claude Monet, Meules, has been in the same private collection for more than three decades. The work was previously auctioned at Christie’s New York in May 1986, where it sold to the current owner for $2.5 million. The current asking price—in excess of $55 million—is more than 20 times that.

The year 1890 marked a “watershed moment” in the artist’s life, according to the Sotheby’s catalogue. In addition to turning 50, Monet bought property for the first time and negotiated the purchase of Édouard Manet’s legendary painting Olympia and its ensuing placement in the French national collection. It was also the year of his acclaimed series of “Meules,” of which this work is “the most evocative and glorious example,” Sotheby’s says.

“Clearly there is interest [in the work] from Asia, but the backbone of the market is in the United States,” August Uribe, vice chairman of fine arts at Sotheby’s, told artnet News. “You have unprecedented wealth in the world chasing a finite number of works. The market realizes that a good number of years could pass before something of this caliber becomes available again.”

Other highlights: It’s not often that one sees French academic painter William Bouguereau included in evening Impressionist sales but an exception was made for his 1884 canvas La Jeunesse De Bacchus, which was consigned by direct descendants of the artists. Uribe said he and his colleagues agreed to offer the painting, which he calls Bougereau’s “magnum opus” in the evening auction because “our client base is large and we think we have crossover buyers. Quite frankly we’ve had an incredible response from buyers in our field.”

Also creating buzz are several Picasso works from the 1960s, including Femme au chien (1962) from a private Japanese collection, estimated at $25 million to $30 million, and Mousquetaire à la pipe (1968), from a private American collection, estimated at $20 million to $30 million.

Wednesday, May 15

Postwar and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Christie’s

Jeff Koons, Rabbit (1986). Courtesy of Christie's.

Jeff Koons, Rabbit (1986). Courtesy of Christie’s.

Presale estimate: In excess of $441 million

Presale estimate last year: In the region of $320 million

Top lot: It’s another blockbuster by way of the Newhouse collection, acquired directly from the Gagosian Gallery in 1992: Jeff Koons’s stainless steel Rabbit (1986). The work is poised to break the artist’s existing auction record of $58.4 million, which is already one of the most expensive prices ever paid for a living artist (Koons was recently eclipsed by David Hockney for the top spot). The sculpture, which measures just over three feet tall, is a study in contrasts: at once “inviting and imposing,” and combining a “minimalist sheen with a naive sense of play,” according to Christie’s.

Other highlights: The Robert B. and Beatrice C. Mayer Family collection is another buzzed-about offering this season, particularly Robert Rauschenberg’s Buffalo II (1964), which has the potential to jolt the artist’s record to a far higher level than the current $18.4 million auction record. As the house’s Sara Friedlander explained, the Mayers acquired the painting soon after it was created: “There weren’t that many people in 1964 for Leo Castelli to call about Rauschenberg,” she says. “But the couple, who were very active in the Civil Rights movement, saw their country changing and wanted to buy art that was reflective of that.”

Between the Koons Rabbit, the Rauschenberg Buffalo II, plus a Warhol Double Elvis, estimated at $50 million to $70 million, Friedlander says “there are so many people who have been after these works for so long. They’re the works everyone has been waiting for.”

“This is the best sale I’ve seen in 40 years,” said author and art appraiser Richard Polsky, owner of the San Francisco-based Polsky Art Authentication Services. “You could start your own small museums with these pictures.” He added: “If I were in charge of the Louvre Abu Dhabi I would buy the whole sale.”

Thursday, May 16

Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Sotheby’s

Mark Rothko, Untitled (1960). Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (1960). Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Presale estimate: $245 million to $351 million

Presale estimate last year: $211 million to $290 million

Top lot: Mark Rothko’s Untitled (1960) has a storied history and a prestigious provenance, having been in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for more than 50 years. A year after art patron and dealer Peggy Guggenheim gave Rothko one of his first solo shows at her Art of the Century gallery in 1945, she loaned Rothko’s Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea (1944) to the museum and later donated it. It remained in the collection until 1962, when the institution made a direct request to the artist to exchange it for a more contemporary example. The artist agreed and SF MOMA selected Untitled (1960). (The earlier work, Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, is now in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.)

The San Francisco museum is now selling the work to benefit its acquisitions fund. It carries an estimate of $35 million to $50 million estimate and is guaranteed.

Other highlights: Expect fireworks for some of the pieces from the Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis collection, including Francis Bacon’s Study for a Head (1952), which is estimated at $20 million to $30 million. Meanwhile, another private foundation collection, the Gerald L. Lennard Foundation Collection, is the consignor of another top-flight Bacon work, Study for Portrait (1981), which is estimated at $12 million to $18 million. Then there’s Lee Krasner’s The Eye is the First Circle (1960), also from a private consignor, estimated at $10 million to $15 million.


Thursday, May 16

20th-Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Phillips

Jean-Michel Basquiat, <i>Self Portrait</i> (1983). Image courtesy Phillips.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Self Portrait (1983). Image courtesy of Phillips.

Presale estimate: $80 million to $109 million

Presale estimate last year: $118 million to $173 million

Top lot: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Self Portrait (1983), estimated at $9 million to $12 million, was executed in Venice, California, sometime in 1983 at New City Editions, the print studio where the artist produced several now acclaimed silkscreen works. The creation of the self portrait was documented in filmmaker Tamra Davis’s film The Radiant Child, which is believed to be the only extant film documentation of Basquiat working on a painting. Matt Dike, co-founder of record label Delicious Vinyl, acquired the work after Basquiat stored it at his studio in West Hollywood.

Dike first met Basquiat at a party at New York University in the late 1970s. A few years later, Dike, then 21, became a gallery assistant at Gagosian Gallery in West Hollywood. Dike died last year.

Other highlights: The top lot of the Fiterman collection is Roy Lichtenstein’s Horse and Rider (1976), part of a group of works the artist made based on Futurist painting. It has an estimate of $7 million to $10 million. The collection also includes Andy Warhol’s Two Coke Bottles (1962), which carries an estimate of $2 million to $3 million; 9 Flowers (1964), estimated at $3 million to $4 million; and the drawing Soup Can (1962), expected to sell for between $700,000 and $1 million. The latter work was acquired from art dealer Gordon Locksley, who introduced the Fitermans to Warhol when the artist first visited Minneapolis in the 1960s, setting off a longstanding friendship.

Also on offer from other consignors are Mark Bradford’s Helter Skelter II (2007), with an estimate of $8 million to $12 million, and Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XVI (1976), also estimated at $8 million to $12 million.

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