Record $70 Million Twombly Canvas Leads Sotheby’s Solid $295 Million Contemporary Sale
While strong, the sale also indicated a correction to an overheated market.
In what dealers and collectors hailed as a solid auction that all the same may indicate a correction to an overheated market, Sotheby’s New York totaled $294.9 million at its Wednesday night sale of postwar and contemporary art. The night was led by a Cy Twombly canvas that set an auction record for the artist at $70.5 million.
The total took the house to the upper end of the $254–$313.7 million estimate for the evening, and 44 of 54 works, or 82 percent, found buyers. The nearly two-hour sale also achieved a new $3-million auction record for Mike Kelley.
The same sale last year totaled $343.6 million, led by a $45-million Mark Rothko.
“The market is strong but selective,” London dealer Pilar Ordovas told artnet News after the sale, “and a little selectivity is very good for all of us. We’re seeing an adjustment of the over-optimistic estimates we’ve seen in the last few years.”
“Tonight showed that when the houses put together a sale with sane estimates, they can have a solid night,” said Citi art advisor Suzanne Gyorgy.
The evening contained a few surprises; one of the house’s staffers let out a shriek of delight when a Jean Dubuffet canvas hammered down just above its $6-million estimate.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” New York dealer David Nash said with a laugh after the sale.
At a press conference following the sale, the house aimed to keep up the excitement, installing a dozen or so young staffers to cheer on auctioneer Oliver Barker’s post-sale presentation. This was perhaps an inspiration of new CEO Tad Smith, formerly of Madison Square Garden.
Leading the night was the Twombly “blackboard” painting, Untitled (New York City), 1968, which well exceeded its presale estimate of about $60 million. Covered with his trademark looping white scribbles on a slate-gray background, the work recalls his experience as a cryptologist at the Pentagon.
The canvas inched by the artist’s previous record of $69.6 million, set in November 2014 at Christie’s New York. It sold to an anonymous buyer via the house’s Alex Rotter. Los Angeles philanthropist Audrey Irmas picked up the eight-foot-wide canvas at the bargain price of $3.85 million at the same house in 1990, and sold it last night partly to benefit her foundation for social justice.
The night’s second-highest price was achieved by Andy Warhol’s canvas Mao (1972), one of his very first portraits of the Chinese Communist leader. After about a minute of bidding, it went for $47.5 million, above the $40-million presale estimate, to an unnamed buyer bidding by phone via Sotheby’s Cheyenne Westphal.
The work was conceived at the time of Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China. At nearly seven feet high, it shows the Chairman with an image cribbed from his official portrait, ubiquitous in China, but tarted up with rouged lips. The last time it had come to the auction block was at Sotheby’s in 1996, when it fetched just over $1 million.
Also among the top lots of the night were works by Jackson Pollock, Lucio Fontana, Francis Bacon, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Jackson Pollock’s early drip canvas Number 17, 1949 commanded $22.9 million (with the house’s fees), just over its low $20 million estimate (which does not include fees). It exhibits his trademark looping shapes in black, green, silver and ivory on a brown background. The anonymous seller Wednesday night had paid just $5.3 million for the two-foot-high work on paper at Sotheby’s New York in May 2003.
Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale, Attese (1965) boasts two dozen vertical slashes across a nearly seven-foot-wide canvas—more than any other of his works. After about 90 seconds of bidding, it hammered below its $15-million low estimate, totaling $16.2 million with fees.
The crimson canvas was inspired by filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 film Red Desert, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival that year. It’s inscribed on the back with the words “I returned yesterday from Venice. I saw Antonioni’s film!!!”
Fontana’s multiply punctured yellow canvas Concetto Spaziale, La Fine di Dio (1964) had fetched nearly double that amount, $29.2 million, at Christie’s New York the night before.
Francis Bacon’s Portrait (1962), the night’s fifth-highest price tag at $15.7 million, shows a nude man seated on a sofa, who, the house suggests in the sale catalogue, is the artist’s lover, Peter Lacy. The painting was, coincidentally, once owned by Antonioni. Off the market for some thirty years, the six-and-a-half-foot-high painting was tagged at up to $18 million.
A New York dealer acknowledged that it wasn’t the newsiest of sales compared to previous years, when numerous auction records were being set at seemingly every sale. “How long can you keep up that momentum?” he asked.
“That felt real,” New York dealer Marianne Boesky said after the sale. “They were really good prices for really good things.”
The sale followed Tuesday night’s very uneven $332-million contemporary art sale at Christie’s New York the previous night, where a Warhol Marilyn was the biggest item at $26 million, falling short of its estimate. Christie’s had had another uneven if stronger sale the night before, with Amedeo Modigliani‘s Nu Couché (Reclining Nude), 1917–18, becoming the second-priciest lot in auction history at $170.4 million.
Christie’s Impressionist and modern art auction finishes out the season on Thursday night.
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