New York’s Evening Auctions Will Be a Litmus Test for the Art Market. Here’s What to Watch For

A person looks at US artist Andy Warhol's "Flowers" during a media preview at Christie's, ahead of their May 14 21st Century Evening Sale, on May 3, 2024, in New York City. Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP.

Nearly $1 billion worth of art is set to go under the hammer next week during New York’s May evening auctions. Yet the mood around so-called “gigaweek” is somewhat subdued, the result of an ongoing market slump that has left sellers cautious—and auction houses nervous

The art market remains uncertain heading into this auction season for a variety of reasons, according to the New York-based art advisor Adam Green, including “aggressive gallery pricing, rising interest rates, and the fact that we haven’t experienced a lengthy recession for quite some time.”

“I’m advising my clients to hold their current inventory and consider adding pieces,” said Gardy St. Fleur, a collector and an advisor to many sports superstars based between New York and Paris. He added that the lower prices seen at auction as of late are more “accessible” to collectors who may have been waiting a long time to get their hands on works by a canonical artist. 

“Based on where things are, I don’t think [collectors] should sell,” he added. “But it is a great time to buy.”

Single-Owner Slip

The reluctance to sell may have contributed to the relatively limited number of significant single-owner and estate collections up for sale this season, which have buoyed auction houses’ bottom lines the last few years.

The exception to that is Christie’s, which won the high-profile collection of the late Miami-based collector and philanthropist Rosa de la Cruz, estimated to bring in between $25 million and $37 million across 26 lots in advance of the 21st Century evening sale on May 14. Credited with helping make Miami an international art destination over the last 30 years, de la Cruz’s holdings include works by leading Modern and contemporary artists like Ana Mendieta, Glenn Ligon, and Peter Doig, among others. The highlight of the single-owner sale at Christie’s is an iconic light string sculpture by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (estimated for between $8–$12 million).

a series of images showing the imprint of a body by the artist ana mendieta

Ana Mendieta, Silueta (1973), from the Rosa de la Cruz Collection. Courtesy of Christie’s.

That same night, the auction house’s 21st Century sale is expected to bring in at least $104 million across 35 lots. All in all, the sale is 30 percent bigger than the same event last year—35 lots versus May 2023’s 27—and its presale low estimate ($104 million) is up 5 percent. The top lots of the sale include paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Brice Marden, both bearing a low estimate around $30 million. Should Marden’s Event (2004-2007), a large-scale oil on linen that is part of his “summation” painting series, hammer more towards the top end of its estimate ($50 million), it will top the artist’s current $30.9 million record. The abstract painter died last year at the age of 84.

But, as Green points out, there are plenty of gems in this sale beyond the flashy top lots. For example Elizabeth Peyton is an “important mid-career artist whose market has surged the past three years,” he explained. The artist’s Matthew (1997) is estimated to fetch $1–$1.5 million at Christie’s 21st Century sale. Additionally, Martin Wong’s Portrait of Mikey Piñero at Ridge Street and Stanton (1985), estimated at $1–$2 million could top of the artist’s current record of $1.2 million.

“It is rare for superb examples by Martin Wong, a critically important and undervalued artist, to be available for sale,” Green noted.

A painting of a lawn being sprinkled with water

David Hockney, A Lawn Being Sprinkled (1967). © David Hockney Photo: Richard Schmidt. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Christie’s also bagged the collection of legendary TV producer and director Norman Lear. Seven works will be included in the 20th Century evening sale on May 16 totaling an estimated $42 million; more than half of that sum is down to the $25 million–$35 million estimate for David Hockney’s A Lawn Being Sprinkled. The Lear lots account for about 12 percent of the total low estimate for the sale ($346 million), which boasts a total of 64 lots—an increase of 12 percent by lot and 5 percent by value year-on-year. Highlights beyond the Lear collection works include an 1887 canvas by Vincent van Gogh ($28–$35 million) and Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1928 Red Poppy ($10–$15 million). 

Thrill of the Hunt

A Sotheby’s spokesperson noted that single-owner and estate collections “are not exactly predictable” and don’t always come to market on a regular basis. Indeed, Sotheby’s will not be offering any single-owner collections this season, but not all is lost.

“This is a season where the specialists had to go out and really hunt down each lot and it shows,” said Morgan Long, a London-based advisor. “I am recommending more lots to clients this week than in the last few sales cycles.”

She cites Leonora Carrington’s 1945 Les Distractions de Dagobert at Sotheby’s Modern evening sale on May 15. Estimated at $12–$18 million, it is poised to smash the surrealist artist’s current record of $3.3 million, set at Sotheby’s two years ago. (The 2022 Venice Biennale, which referenced a Carrington’s writing by way of its title, “The Milk of Dreams,” has brought a surge of awareness about the artist.) Depending on where it falls within that estimate, it may also edge into the top 10 most expensive works by a woman artist ever sold at auction.

A surreal painting with unidentifiable creatures in a bizarre landscape

Leonora Carrington, Les Distractions de Dagobert (1945). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The leading lot of the auction is Claude Monet’s Meules à Giverny, executed in 1893 and one of the Impressionist’s iconic haystack works, which is estimated to sell for more than $30 million; the sale coincides with the 150th anniversary of the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. Meanwhile, a rare, late still life by Édouard Manet is estimated to go for $10 million.

Yet a comparison to the same sale last year reveals some conservative pricing at play. The Modern evening auction has 52 lots on offer, roughly in line with the 54 offered in the same sale last year, but the presale low estimate is just $184 million—a 39 percent decrease in value from 2023’s $303 million sale total.

Green noted that while there are plenty of important works on offer, this pricing strategy and ultimately its results “will serve as a revealing barometer for where different segments of the market stand.”

Informed Decisions

According to Long, however, it’s “not a bad thing” to have sales on the slower and lower side, as “it helps people make informed decisions, rather than having to jump at the first thing presented.”

St. Fleur agrees, noting that while much of the material on offer this season is “not overly exciting,” it’s also “nothing to ignore.” He cites emerging artist Justin Caguiat’s painting The Saint is Never Busy (2019), which is estimated at $200,000 to $300,000. Last year, Sotheby’s set the record for the 35-year-old artist when a large-scale 2020 canvas soared past its 200,000 high estimate to sell for $787,400, including fees.

a textile work by Faith Ringgold depicting people sitting in a room with paintings

Faith Ringgold, Dinner at Gertrude Stein’s, The French Collection Part II, #10 (1991). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Caguiat’s painting kicks off the whole of auction week as the first lot of Sotheby’s The Now sale on May 13, which is immediately followed by the auction house’s contemporary sale. Together, the sales are estimated to bring in a total of $247 million across 53 lots. That is up 20 percent by value on the same two sales last year, which featured 57 lots and brought in a combined $205 million. There are some quality pieces at solid prices, especially for historically overlooked artists. A suite of four Joan Mitchell paintings are expected to fetch a combined $36 million, while a work by Faith Ringgold, who died last month, will reset the artist’s auction record even if it hammers at its low estimate of $700,000.

At Phillips’ Contemporary evening sale on May 14, there are star lots by Basquiat and Picasso, estimated at $40 million and $12 million, respectively. There is a lot riding on these for the auction house: Together, they make up nearly 70 percent of the 30-lot sale’s $89 million low estimate—27 percent up by value on the same sale last year, which featured 41 lots. But more discerning buyers will be watching the bracket of slightly lower priced lots, which will offer insights into the contemporary and ultra-contemporary markets, like Barkley L. Hendricks’ Vendetta (1977) ($2.5–$3.5 million) and Jadé Fadojutimi’s The Pour (2022) ($400,000–$600,000), which hits the market only two years after being acquired from Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London, in 2022.

an abstract painting of pin, purple, red, and orange

Jadé Fadojutimi, The Pour (2022). Courtesy of Phillips.

Regardless of the nervy market, Long says her approach to the auctions never changes: “Wait for the right works, don’t be afraid to say ‘no, this is not the one for me or the best work by the artist,’ do your due diligence, know the value, know where it fits into your collection, and if it’s a really special wonderful thing, it’s almost never going to be a bargain. But, just in case, be ready in case an opportunity does present itself!”

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