An Insider’s Guide to the Top Lots in New York’s $1.8 Billion Fall 2018 Auction Season

Here are the big-ticket works you need to know about and the trends you need to watch for in the upcoming marathon fall auctions.

Rene Magritte, Le Principe du Plaisir (1937). Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Can the art market continue its upward trajectory amidst a shifting political landscape in the US, an economic dip in mainland China, and erratic stock market performances worldwide? We’re about to find out.

Next week, the three major auction houses—Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips—will pack six sales of Impressionist, modern, and contemporary art into five days. The evening auctions alone are expected to generate anywhere from $1.5 billion to $1.8 billion.

For a week that is always carefully scrutinized as a barometer of the health of the art market—and typically posts the largest totals of any cluster of auctions held all year—this particular series also offers plenty of potential firsts. David Hockney’s cool California painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972), estimated in the region of $80 million, is poised to make him the most expensive living artist at auction. Other artists likely to set new records include Edward Hopper and Marsden Hartley.

By the (Big) Numbers

From a bird’s-eye view, last year’s astonishing $2.3 billion total for the equivalent week may be hard to beat, especially given that one work alone, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, sold for $450 million. And some predict that the recent economic uncertainty in China might push its biggest spenders to take a step back. But other seasoned auction experts say that the abiding confidence in the art market—generated in part by the wild success of the Rockefeller estate sale in May—has encouraged high-profile collectors to part with rare trophies that they might otherwise have chosen to keep on their walls.

Ana Maria Celis, head of Christie’s postwar and contemporary evening sale in New York, tells artnet News that “it was an unusually busy summer,” with major consignments—and competition to land those consignments—starting early. “I don’t know if it was encouragement and seeing the potential from a big collection or people just holding back so as not to compete [with Rockefeller]. But things picked up quickly and it got very busy.”

Among the boldface-name consignors at next week’s sales, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg report, is the British billionaire Joe Lewis, Denver-based financier Tom Marsico, former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain, and art-advisor-to-the-wealthiest Tobias Meyer.

Meanwhile, significant estates, including those of the late management consultant David Teiger and the late luxury travel executive Barney Ebsworth, offer coveted works that have not surfaced on the market in decades. (Due to prearranged deals, both troves are guaranteed to sell.) The Ebsworth collection includes works by Edward Hopper, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock, each with an estimate of $50 million or higher.

Georgia O'Keeffe, <i>A Street</i> (1926). Courtesy Sotheby's.

Georgia O’Keeffe, A Street (1926). Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s, meanwhile, is building on the rising trend of shaking up categories to maximize high-profile works’ exposure—and PR. For the first time ever, the auction house has put two works by Georgia O’Keeffe, typically offered in its American art or Impressionist and modern sales, in its contemporary evening auction alongside works by Gerhard Richter, Christopher Wool, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Both canvasses are being sold by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to benefit its acquisitions fund.

“We’re trying something new,” said Gregoire Billault, senior vice president and head of the contemporary department at Sotheby’s. “We felt that both paintings are ready to be looked at by different types of collectors. It’s a powerful message to have these different categories in the same auction.”

Across all three houses, 22 lots are expected to sell for $20 million or more, compared to 19 during the equivalent period last year. Here are some of the star lots to watch out for in the week ahead.

Sunday, November 11

Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale

Vincent van Gogh, <i>Coin de jardin avec papillons</i> (1887). Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.

Vincent van Gogh, Coin de jardin avec papillons (1887). Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

Presale estimate: In excess of $304.7 million

Presale estimate last year: In excess of $360 million

Star lot: Vincent van Gogh’s Coin de jardin avec papillons (1887), estimated in the region of $40 million, will be sold by a private collection. “This is one of the greatest paintings from his Paris period,” Christie’s Impressionist and modern art evening sale head Jessica Fertig told artnet News. “It’s active, vibrant, and energetic. It has that wonderful brushstroke unique to Van Gogh.” It has also been off the market for the past two decades. Other top lots in the sale include Claude Monet’s Le bassin aux nymphéas (1917–19), which sold at Christie’s in May 2000 for the then-below-estimate price of $6.8 million. How things have changed in the past 18 years: Next week, the same work is expected to sell for between $30 million and $50 million. Those with an eye for competition may also want to watch this sale to see if it continues a trend in shifting market share: Although Sotheby’s has outperformed Christie’s at seven of the past 13 Impressionist and modern evening sales held in New York stretching back to 2012, Christie’s has been gaining traction in recent years, beating out its rival four times in a row.

Monday, November 12

Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale

Marsden Hartley, Pre War Pageant (1913) Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Presale estimate: $283.9 million to $393.4 million

Presale estimate last year: $205.3 million to $297 million

Star lot: Sotheby’s sale is led by a special section dubbed “The Beautiful & Damned,” after the novel of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Works by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Ludwig Meidner, Oscar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele, among others, capture the period from just before the outbreak of World War I to its aftermath, coinciding with the centenary of the Armistice of November 11, 2018.

One major highlight of the bunch: Marsden Hartley’s Pre-War Pageant (1913), which Sotheby’s—never one for understatement—calls the “most important work of American modern art ever to appear at auction.” The canvas hails from a groundbreaking group of paintings that the artist made in Berlin between 1913 and 1915. Not only was Hartley inspired by Berlin, he had also fallen in love with a young Prussian officer, Karl von Freyburg, and the painting represents “a deeply coded visual representation of this relationship,” according to Sotheby’s catalogue. With an estimate “in the region of $30 million” and a financial guarantee, it will instantly eclipse the artist’s current record of $6.3 million, set at Christie’s in 2008 for Lighthouse (1915).

Another highlight is Rene Magritte’s Le Principe du Plaisir (1937) (estimate: $15 million to $20 million), a portrait of Edward James, an English heir to an American railroad fortune who was introduced to the artist by Salvador Dalí. And Wassily Kandinsky’s On the Theme Of The Last Judgment (1913), guaranteed with an estimate of $22 million to $35 million, is part of a group of Fauve and Expressionist pictures from a private collection being sold under the theme “The Triumph of Color.”


Tuesday, November 13

An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale

Edward Hopper, <i>Chopy Suey</i> (1929). Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.

Edward Hopper, Chop Suey (1929). Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

Presale estimate: In excess of $258.3 million

Presale estimate last year: Not applicable

Star lot: The star of the sale of the prestigious Ebsworth collection, which experts are calling a “once-in-a-lifetime” event, is Edward Hopper’s Chop Suey (1929), one of the last major Hoppers from the 1920s in private hands. As Christie’s Ana Maria Celis points out, it was extraordinarily modern in depicting what appears to be two women dining together “at a time when women were more usually seen accompanying men, and were only starting to have slightly more independence. Few restaurants would have allowed this at the time.” With an estimate of $70 million to $100 million, it is poised to far exceed the artist’s current auction record of $40.5 million, paid for East Wind Over Weehawken (1934) at Christie’s in 2013.

Other top lots include include Willem de Kooning’s Woman as Landscape (estimate: $60 million to $90 million) which was painted between 1954 and 1955. As far as provenance goes, this one packs a double punch. Not only has it never appeared at auction before, but Ebsworth acquired it from actor, producer, and fellow top collector Steve Martin back in 1991. Meanwhile, Jackson Pollock’s Composition with Red Strokes (1950), estimated at $50 million to $70 million, is also likely to be a hit.


Wednesday, November 14

Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Sale

Gerhard Richter, <i>Abstraktes Bild</i> (1987). Courtesy Sotheby's.

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (1987). Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Presale estimate: $278.4 million to $375.9 million

Presale estimate last year: $256.5 million to $352.5 million

Star lot: Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (1987), estimated in the region of $30 million, was bought by its current owner in 1988, the year after it was completed. “It’s been hanging on the same wall for 30 years and it’s the first wall it went to directly from the show,” says Sotheby’s Billault. The diptych is one of 18 works executed on this grand scale, 12 of which are in museums. “What’s amazing with a painting like this is that it’s a complete abstraction and yet, it cannot be more figurative,” says Billault. “I see figures in a snowstorm and embers in a fire.” The painting’s estimate, however, is still below the high mark for a work in the series, set in 2015 for a $46.3 million abstract from 1986, according to the artnet Price Database. Meanwhile, the market’s infatuation with Jean-Michel Basquiat is likely to continue with the artist’s Untitled (Pollo Frito) (1981), which is estimated at more than $25 million. Both the Richter and the Basquiat carry a financial guarantee.

Thursday November 15

Christie’s Postwar and Contemporary Evening Sale

David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972). Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.

David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Presale estimate: In excess of $327.1 million

Presale estimate last year: In excess of $410 million

Star lot: Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972), estimated in the region of $80 million, is set to make Hockney the most expensive living artist in the world. The work “represents a culminating apex of two of the artist’s most celebrated motifs—the pool and the double portrait,” Christie’s catalogue notes. The consignor, believed to be British billionaire Joe Lewis, acquired it from collector and entertainment mogul David Geffen in 1993. “The Hockney was the first major lot of the season to be won and it was very early on,” says Celis. “The moment we got it, we knew we had our cover lot.” Although some have questioned the work’s lofty estimate, which stands to eclipse the artist’s current record of $28.4 million set in May, Hockney’s market has undeniably been on a tear of late. The artist, whose retrospective closed at the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in February, saw a staggering 225 percent increase in auction revenue in the first six months of 2018, greater than any other living artist, according to the artnet Intelligence Report.

Other top lots include Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Rust, blocks on plum) (1962), which carries a financial guarantee and is estimated at $35 million to $45 million. Another closely watched (and guaranteed) lot is Francis Bacon’s Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing (1969), which is the first work to come to auction from the estate of late publishing magnate S.I. Newhouse and carries an estimate of $14 million to $18 million (as well as a guarantee). Tobias Meyer, the former head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s who is the so-called “gatekeeper” of the Newhouse collection, did not respond to a request for comment from artnet News.

Yet another highly anticipated lot was yanked from the sale a week ahead of time: Kerry James Marshall’s Knowledge and Wonder (1995), which had been consigned by the Chicago Public Library and estimated at $10 million to $15 million. The decision to sell had drawn widespread criticism, including from the artist himself. Marshall told the Chicago Tribune of the withdrawal: “It’s the right decision to make.” With Marshall’s work included in the tally, the sale’s presale estimate would have been in excess of $334.1 million.

Thursday, November 15

Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Jackson Pollock, <i>Number 16</i> (1950). Image Courtesy Phillips

Jackson Pollock, Number 16 (1950). Image Courtesy Phillips

Presale estimate: $100 million to $142 million

Presale estimate last year: $90 million to $123.5 million

Star lot: As far as provenance is concerned, you can’t do much better than that of Jackson Pollock’s Number 16 (1950). US Vice President Nelson Rockefeller bought the work for $306 the year it was made, and two years later donated it to the Museum of Modern Art of Rio de Janeiro. Now, to the consternation of some, that struggling museum is putting the work—the only Pollock on public view in the country—up for auction. It comes from an important period in the artist’s history, as he was developing his unique trip technique. It is expected to sell for around $18 million.

Though Phillips has earned a reputation for offering cutting-edge contemporary work, it has more recently leaned on older and more established material. Hugues Joffre, who acts as special advisor to CEO Edward Dolman, estimates that roughly 25 percent of the works in this season’s evening sale are modern. They include Joan Miró’s Femme dans la nuit (1945), estimated at $12 million to $18 million, and Alberto Burri’s Grande Legno e Rosso (1957 to 1959), estimated at $10 million to $15 million. This is record territory for Burri, whose current high mark is $13.2 million for Sacco e Rosso (circa 1949), set at Sotheby’s in 2016. All of Burri’s top auction prices have been set in recent years owing to a resurgence of interest in Arte Povera and Burri in particular following his major retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2016.

“The upcoming auction is one of the most ambitious November evening sales that Phillips has ever assembled,” Jean-Paul Engelen, the house’s worldwide co-head of 20th-century and contemporary art, told artnet News.

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