Forget Masterpiece Theater—Sotheby’s Delivers a Sterling $362.6 Million Contemporary Art Sale Built From the Middle Market

It was an impressive night that saw record after record drop for important artists with growing markets.

Gerhard Richter, Schwefel (Sulfur) (1985). Courtesy of Sotheby's.
Gerhard Richter, Schwefel (Sulfur) (1985). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Although this November’s edition of Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale did not have a single knockout lot to match the David Hockney masterpiece at midtown rival Christie’s, the auction shined from beginning to end by landing a flurry of solid body blows squarely in the middle market. Only seven lots sold for more than $10 million, but the $362.6 million tally reached within a hair’s breadth of the night’s $375.9 million pre-sale high estimate—and easily eclipsed the $310.2 million total sales value amassed at the house’s contemporary art evening auction last November. (All prices include buyer’s premium unless otherwise noted; pre-sale estimates do not.)

In the process, the house sold 97 percent of its offerings by lot and set new auction records for four artists: Jacob Lawrence, Henry Taylor, Jack Whitten, and Dana Schutz. It was an outcome that Sotheby’s auctioneer Oliver Barker credited in the post-sale press conference to a tremendous diversity of bidding, calling the night’s buyer activity a result of “the broadest possible ecosystem we have ever had.”

Sotheby’s began the evening by offering another 11 works from “The History of Now,” its modular sale of 200 pieces consigned from the late management consultant and collector David Teiger. (The house folded the results for the Teiger subset into those of the contemporary sale as a whole.) The opening of the Teiger sale already ignited pyrotechnics at Sotheby’s London last month, when it delivered a perfect sell-through rate and a new world auction record for Jenny Saville with the sale of her painting Propped (1992) for $12.4 million.

Tonight’s continuation fared just as well, if not better. All 11 Teiger lots found buyers, and the premium-inclusive total of $48.5 million edged past its $47.6 million high estimate. (The total hammer price for the lots was $41.1 million, and all 11 works enjoyed the security of third-party guarantees.) Adding the latest results, the Teiger sale has accumulated over $100 million so far, with more works set to reach the block at various sales through 2019.

Peter Doig, House of Pictures (2000/2002). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The expected jewel of the night’s “History of Now” portion was Peter Doig‘s House of Pictures (2000/2002), a dreamlike rendering adapted from a photo the artist shot of a defunct Viennese gallery in the 1990s. The painting previously appeared in multiple institutional exhibitions of Doig’s work, including the eponymous 2014–2015 survey organized by the Fondation Beyeler and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Estimated at $8 million to $12 million, the work hammered slightly below estimate at $7.8 million.

In the process, it ceded the high-value crown among the evening’s Teiger collection works to Willem de Kooning’s Untitled (1987), which reached a $9.3 million final price after the gavel fell at $8 million. Although the late consultant landed the work for the hefty sum of $4.8 million at Christie’s New York in November 2010, according to the artnet Price Database, it still nearly doubled in value in eight years.

But the most excitement in the Teiger portion coalesced around the opening lot: Dana Schutz’s Her Arms. A fast and furious two-minute bout of bidding took the monumental female figure to $795,000 with buyer’s premium—a new record for the artist and nearly four times the painting’s $200,000 high estimate. The work hammered at $650,000 to a phone bidder handled by Alexander Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe.

Dana Schutz’s Her Arms, 2003. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

In this sense, the success of the Teiger lots set a tone that lasted throughout the main sale: the most expensive, most high-profile works tended to inspire measured bidding and required the boost of the buyer’s premium to reach into or above the estimate range. But the less heralded, yet high quality, works in the middle-market price band excited consistently strong bidding, giving the night’s results a rock solid foundation.

One of the premier lots of the evening was Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (1987), which came to auction for the first time courtesy of its only owner in the previous 30 years. The monumental, rainbow-spectrum diptych carried an estimate in the region of $30 million with a financial guarantee. After a crisp 90 seconds or so of bidding, the work hammered to Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Asia, Yuki Terase, at $29.5 million. The buyer’s premium elevated the work to $32 million—good enough to make it the priciest sale of the evening, though still far short of the $46.3 million record for a work in this celebrated series, set in 2015.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Pollo Frito) (1982). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The cover lot for the sale, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Pollo Frito), came into the sale estimated at more than $25 million, and carrying a financial guarantee. The painting features an emaciated, black-haloed head and several scrawled warnings—most prominently “ASBESTOS,” a word repeated in several other of the artist’s key works made in 1981. Like the Richter diptych, it hammered slightly beneath its estimate, at $22.5 million, but tiptoed over the line thanks to premium at $25.7 million.

This same phenomenon played out multiple times among the starrier lots from living artists, such as Richter’s Schwefel (Sulphur), a single-panel, slightly more domestically scaled work that hammered at $10.8 million, beneath a low estimate of $12 million; Jasper Johns‘s Flag (1994), a grayscale rendering of the classic motif that hammered at $11.3 million, beneath its $12 million low estimate, but reached $12.7 million with premium; and Christopher Wool’s Feet Don’t Fail Me Now, a black-and-white flower canvas that hammered at $7.6 million against an $8 million low estimate. (Organic bidding propelled the other Wool in the sale, FUCKEM—remaining text: “IF THEY CANT TAKE A JOKE”—from 1992, to a $6.5 million hammer price, cleanly above its $6 million low.)

Christopher Wool, Feet Don’t Fail Me Now (1995). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

More indicative of the sale’s core strength were the record results for the aforementioned trio of Lawrence, Taylor, and Whitten. With an estimate of $2 million, Lawrence’s The Businessmen triggered a nine-minute bidding war that pushed the work to a $6.2 million final price off a $5.2 million gavel. The competition ended with Sotheby’s Valentino Carlotti, global head of business development, claiming the prize for a phone client. (Art advisor Todd Levin took the fight to $4 million for a phone client of his own before tapping out.)

Taylor’s I’ll Put a Spell on You went faster, hammering at $800,000—four times its high estimate—after just about two and a half minutes of bidding. The buyer’s premium swelled the final, record-setting price to $975,000, almost triple his previous high mark of $362,865. Whitten’s Ancient Mentor I followed a similar trajectory, nearly doubling its $1.2 million high estimate courtesy of a crisp two minutes of bidding. After hammering at $1.85 million to Nina del Rio, Sotheby’s head of museum, private, and corporate art services, the work’s final price reached just above $2.2 million. Whether it will be displayed next in an institution or a corporate office remains to be seen.

Henry Taylor, <i>I'll Put a Spell on You</i> (2004). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Henry Taylor, I’ll Put a Spell on You (2004). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

All told, this trio’s results pointed to another trend in tonight’s evening auction and the wider market of late: the increasingly robust sales performance by artists of African American heritage. Along with these artists, the sale saw six works by Basquiat (including the aforementioned Pollo Frito and one collaborative work with Andy Warhol titled Taxi, 45th/Broadway) find buyers for a total price of $50.2 million. Whether we should count on this trend to continue in Sotheby’s contemporary day sales tomorrow, let alone auctions elsewhere and further down the timeline, remains worth watching.


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