Can $257M Contemporary Art Sale Get Sotheby’s Back on Track?

Even the high estimate would be a drop from previous May sales.

Cy Twombly, Untitled [Bacchus 1st Version V], 2004. Photo: courtesy Sotheby's New York.

Market watchers will have their eye on Sotheby’s New York next month as the house stages its postwar and contemporary art sale. It comes amid major turmoil at the house, marked by dropping share prices and an exodus of senior staffers. And since auction houses’ postwar and contemporary art offerings constitute their biggest-ticket items these days, the house must be hoping for a confidence boost.

Though it’s led by two Cy Twombly canvases along with a Francis Bacon diptych and a Christopher Wool word painting, this sale looks unlikely to deliver.

Estimated to total between $201 million and $257 million on 44 lots, the sale may reverse an upward trajectory set by the house’s last five May sales, which climbed steadily, from a dismal $128 million in 2011 to a robust $380 million in 2015. Its high estimate is $30 million below the average of the last five May sales, suggesting that collectors are hesitant to consign their masterpieces to the house in the midst of turmoil.

Among other market standbys in the sale are Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, as well as Louise Bourgeois, Marlene Dumas, Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell, and Sturtevant.

Here are the top five lots in the sale:

Cy Twombly, <I>Untitled (New York City)</I>, 1968.<br>Photo: courtesy Sotheby's New York.

Cy Twombly, Untitled (New York City) (1968). Courtesy Sotheby’s New York.

Cy Twombly
This sale is unusual in that two of the top five estimated lots come from the same artist. Cy Twombly’s Untitled (New York City) (1968) is tagged in excess of $40 million. It’s one of the artist’s trademark “blackboard” paintings, except that the normally white loops are rendered in blue, which, according to the house, is unique to this canvas.

This work has been off the market since its anonymous European seller bought it out of the artist’s New York studio in 1969; it has never been on public display. Even the $40-million estimate may seem modest when you consider that a work of the same title and date soared to $70.5 million, the artist’s current auction high, at the same house in November 2015.

Also this May, Twombly’s Untitled [Bacchus 1st Version V] (2004), is expected to bring in excess of $20 million; the catalogue indicates that the seller has been guaranteed a minimum price, either by the house or by a third party.

One of six in the Bacchus series, the canvas stands nearly nine feet high. Devoted to Dionysus, the god of the grape harvest, the painting is marked with bright hues and bold, gestural strokes executed with a brush at the end of a stick.

Francis Bacon, Two Studies for a Self-Portrait (1970).Photo: courtesy Sotheby’s.

Francis Bacon, Two Studies for a Self-Portrait (1970). Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Francis Bacon
Irish-born painter Francis Bacon’s Two Studies for a Self-Portrait (1970) is estimated at $22 million to $30 million; it was the first work the house teased in its buzz-building announcements leading up to the sale. Off the market since 1970, it’s been shown in public just twice, and not since 1993. Bacon’s auction high is $142.4 million, which casino magnate Elaine Wynn paid for Three Studies of Lucian Freud (in 3 parts) at Christie’s New York in November 2013.

Christopher Wool, <i>Untitled</i>, 1990.<br>Photo: courtesy Sotheby's New York.

Christopher Wool, Untitled (1990). Courtesy Sotheby’s New York.

Christopher Wool
Tagged at $14 million to $18 million and standing some eight feet high, Christopher Wool’s Untitled, a 1990 enamel and acrylic on aluminum, is one of the artist’s trademark series of paintings of nine-letter words. Other examples reside with institutions like Los Angeles’s Broad Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The current work hung for sixteen years at the Hamburger Kunsthalle.

Wool’s market has been on the rise, with his top fourteen auction prices all achieved in the last five years, according to artnet’s Price Database; he was honored with a Guggenheim retrospective in 2013-2014. The artist’s auction high stands at $29.9 million, set at Sotheby’s New York in May 2015 for Untitled (Riot), a 1990 enamel on aluminum.

The catalogue indicates that the seller has been guaranteed a minimum price, either by the house or by a third party.

Sam Francis, <i>Summer #1</i> (1957).Photo: courtesy Sotheby's New York.

Sam Francis, Summer #1 (1957). Courtesy Sotheby’s New York.

Sam Francis
Estimated at $8 million to $12 million, Sam Francis’s canvas Summer #1 (1957) is bound to exceed the artist’s current high of $6.4 million. That price was achieved at Christie’s New York in May 2010 by Middle Blue, from the same year, according to the artnet Price Database. The canvas earned the distinction of being chosen for the cover of the artist’s 2011 catalogue raisonné. Sotheby’s sale catalogue indicates that the seller has been guaranteed a minimum price, either by the house or by a third party.

Standing eight feet high, Summer #1 came to auction once before, at Christie’s New York in 1986, when it sold for $825,000. If it makes its high estimate, it will have seen a nearly fifteen-fold increase in value.

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