What You Need to Know About New York’s Billion-Dollar Auction Week

We walk you through the stars of the upcoming spring auction "giga-week."

Cy Twombly, Leda and the Swan (1962). Courtesy Christie's.

The art market is about to face its biggest test of 2017. Next week, in the span of just five days, New York’s annual spring sales are expected to generate the equivalent of a small island nation’s GDP. Around $1.3 billion worth of art is due to be sold, according to Colin Gleadell—on par with the total amount generated by the fall sales in November, but half the sum generated by the spring New York sales at the height of the market boom in 2015.

Experts say this year’s lineup reflects a market that is stronger than last year, when buyers and sellers were skittish amid upheaval in top talent at the major houses and overall uncertainty in the broader global economy. But it’s also not quite as frothy as in years past. Sara Friedlander, the head of Christie’s postwar and contemporary department, told artnet News that “the global collecting community” is demanding “the highest levels of quality and freshness to market.”

There is notable growth on the high end. All told, there are 13 lots on offer across all three houses estimated above $20 million this season, compared with five last season. There are 24 lots priced above $10 million (including the previously-mentioned $20-million-plus works), compared with 16 last year. Guarantees are also out in force this season, with 57 percent of Christie’s postwar and contemporary sale and 54 percent of Sotheby’s sale guaranteed by the auction house or a third party, Gleadell reports.

Robert Manley, Phillips’ worldwide co-head of 20th-century and contemporary art, told artnet News that the house is seeing “a very confident market across the board. Consignors are eager to take advantage of this renewed stability.”  Phillips’ evening sale next week carries an estimate of over $107 million—roughly double last May’s $40.9–61 million estimate. (The house’s day sale has an estimate in excess of $15 million, its highest to date.)

To be sure, the market still faces many unanswered questions, including the impact of last summer’s Brexit vote and President Donald Trump’s plans for tax reform. Gregoire Billault, head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, told artnet News: “There might be a little more caution in parts of the market, but I am confident that clients are prepared to compete to the highest levels for the right paintings.”

We’ll find out soon. Below, we examine the priciest lots on offer next week, day-by-day.


Monday, May 15

Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale

Presale estimate: In excess of $200 million

May 2016 presale estimate: In excess of $138.3 million

Pablo Picasso, Femme assise, robe bleue (1939). Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.

Pablo Picasso, Femme assise, robe bleue (1939). Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

Star Lot: Set to be one of the week’s highest lots, this portrait of Picasso’s lover Dora Maar, Femme assise, robe bleue (1939) has a storied provenance that is closely intertwined with European history. Picasso painted it on his birthday in 1939. Soon afterward, the artwork was taken by the Nazis from its original owner, Picasso’s Jewish French art dealer Paul Rosenberg. Toward the end of the war, the work was due to be transported to Germany, but was traced, intercepted, and successfully captured by French soldiers, who made it a priority to preserve French culture.

The work’s last appearance at auction six years ago provides something of a market benchmark. Offered for sale at Christie’s London in June 2011, it carried an estimate of £4–8 million ($6.5–13 million), but soared to just under £18 million ($29 million). The current presale estimate is a lofty $35–50 million, nearly six times the low estimate of six years ago. If it sells within estimate, the picture stands to net the 2011 buyer a tidy 19–53 percent return on the $29 million purchase price.


Tuesday, May 16

Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale

Presale estimate: $178–251.9 million

May 2016 presale estimate: $164.3–235 million

Egon Schiele, <i> Danae</i> (Date) . Courtesy Sotheby's New York

Egon Schiele, Danae (1909) . Courtesy Sotheby’s New York

Star Lot: Sotheby’s describes Egon Schiele’s Danaë (1909) as the artist’s “first masterpiece,” painted when he was just 19 years old. It is also Schiele’s first major oil painting of a female nude, signaling the aesthetic he would develop over the next decade, until his death at the age of 28. Estimated at $30–40 million, the painting could potentially break the existing record for Schiele at auction, set in June 2011, when Häuser mit bunter Wäsche (Vorstadt II) (1914) sold at Sotheby’s London for $39.8 million.


Wednesday, May 17

Christie’s Postwar and Contemporary Evening Sale

Presale estimate: In excess of $370 million

May 2016 presale estimate: In excess of $285.6 million

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (1963). Courtesy Christie's.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (1963). Courtesy Christie’s.

Star Lot: Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (1963) is the first portrait Bacon ever made of Dyer, a petty thief from London’s East End who became his lover and greatest source of inspiration. Bacon painted this triptych three months after they first met; Dyer would go on to figure in more than three dozen of Bacon’s works, even after his death in Paris in 1971. The picture was formerly in the collection of Bacon’s close friend, author Roald Dahl. The current consignor is reportedly French collector Pierre Lambrail. The unpublished estimate is in the region of $50–70 million. Christie’s holds the current record for Bacon, $142.4 million, for another three-part portrait: Three Studies of Lucian Freud (in 3 parts) (1969). That triptych, which sold in New York in 2013, also temporarily held the record for the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.


Thursday, May 18

Phillips 20th Century and Contemporary Art Sale

Presale estimate: In excess of $107 million

May 2016 presale estimate: $40.9–61 million

Peter Doig, <i>Rosedale</i> (1991)<br /> Courtesy Phillips.

Peter Doig, Rosedale (1991)
Courtesy Phillips.

Star Lot: Phillips is testing the upper reaches of the white-hot market for the Scottish-born painter Peter Doig with a work that is poised to break the artist’s current $25.9 million auction record (set just two years ago for Swamped (1990) at Christie’s). Rosedale is a large, fresh-to-market painting that depicts a Toronto home through snow-covered tree branches. It’s expected to exceed $25 million.

The painting is “emblematic of Doig’s instantly-recognizable style and painted in the pivotal years of his career,” said Jean-Paul Engelen, worldwide co-head of 20th century and contemporary art at Phillips. Doig created the work—as well as a small number of other large-format canvases—shortly after his graduation from the Chelsea College of Art and Design, ahead of his first solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery.

Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Sale

Presale estimate: $212–278.6 million

May 2016 presale estimate: $201–287.5 million

Jean Michel-Basquiat, Untitled (1982). Courtesy of Sotheby's New York.

Jean Michel-Basquiat, Untitled (1982). Courtesy of Sotheby’s New York.

Star Lot: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (1982) has been virtually unseen since it last appeared on the market in May 1984. The buyer at the time paid just $19,000 at Christie’s. The current estimate, in excess of $60 million, reflects the stratospheric heights that the Basquiat market has reached in recent years. Sotheby’s Grégoire Billault commented: “The scale, subject matter, date, and freshness, combined with recent record prices and increased demand for the artist’s work, make May the ideal time to present a masterpiece of this caliber—a truly outstanding achievement of recent art history—to the market.”

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