The Back Room: All at Sea

This week in the Back Room: charting November’s auction results, India’s new art center, a hot lot by Ambera Wellmann, and much more.

Alice Maude Taite Fanner, Yachts Racing In Bad Weather (1919). Photo: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

Every Friday, Artnet News Pro members get exclusive access to the Back Room, our lively recap funneling only the week’s must-know intel into a nimble read you’ll actually enjoy.

This week in the Back Room: charting November’s auction results, India’s new art center, a hot lot by Ambera Wellmann, and much more—all in a 6.5-minute read (1,886 words).


Top of the Market
Sailing Close to the Wind

Phyllis Kao, from Sotheby's client strategy team, fields bids in The Now sale, her first evening auction. Image courtesy Sotheby's

Phyllis Kao, from Sotheby’s client strategy team, fields bids in The Now sale, her first evening auction. Image courtesy Sotheby’s

After what feels like an age unto itself but was in reality just two jam-packed weeks, New York’s fall sales cycle has come to a close. The season had some mixed results, which is surprising to no one given the economic waves as of late. Overall, house guarantees and irrevocable bids provided a reliable flotation device amid the season’s difficult-to-chart waters. But let’s map out the percentage of works by value that were guaranteed either by the auction house or a third party to get a better sense of where we’re at, starting with the highest guarantee rates and working our way backwards.

— Of the major evening sales, Sotheby’s may as well have been Rose from Titanic—in a life jacket and on a make-shift raft that could fit two but was only used by one. That’s a long way of saying there was no way they were sinking even in deep water given the number of works they brought to market with a guarantee. Most notably, the 100-percent guaranteed (and, obviously, 100-percent sold) Emily Fisher Landau sale on November 8 hammered in at a total of $351 million (all totals exclude fees unless otherwise specified) on a $344.5 million low presale estimate across 31 lots. At the Contemporary evening sale on November 15, $186 million worth of the evening’s 46 lots were guaranteed, or 92 percent of the low estimate of $202 million and 86 percent of its hammer total of $214.7 million. Similarly, the Now sale, also on November 15, saw 12 of 18 lots (minus one withdrawal) guaranteed, totaling 89.5 percent of the sale’s $41.2 million presale estimate; the hammer total came in at $46.7 million.

— At Phillips’ 20th Century and Contemporary sale on November 14, the first 30 lots from the Triton Collection Foundation carried an estimate of $70 million alone, with all lots backed by a guarantee. Overall, roughly 85 percent ($119.5 million) was guaranteed of the $130 million presale low estimate (adjusted for 4 withdrawn lots). With due thanks to the Triton trove, the sale hammered at a total of $142.2 million, the second-highest sale total in the company’s history.

 Christie’s fared the best amid the headwinds this season, as evidenced by the results of their 20th Century evening sale on November 9, which totaled $543.5 million across 61 lots. Of those, 31 were guaranteed for an estimated sum of $376.5 million, or 70 percent of the presale low estimate. The sale was led by Claude Monet’s Le basin aux nymphéas, which hammered for $64 million against a presale expectation “in the range of” $65 million,” suggesting that it probably went to its third-party guarantor.

— Sales with fewer lots backed by guarantees reveal the current of conservatism steering the market. Sotheby’s Modern Art evening sale on November 12 featured 15 guaranteed works totaling an estimated $107.7 million up front. That represents just 60 percent of the total presale low estimate, one of the lowest rates of guarantees among this year’s sales. However, the event also saw the most works withdrawn (eight) of any evening sale across all auction houses. Additionally, two works were bought in, meaning that 10 works in total of the 41 originally on offer failed to find buyers. Said another way, that’s a rather sizable one quarter of the sale that went unsold. The hammer total for the night was $190.4 million, below but not entirely off target from the $199.2 million presale low estimate.

— Christie’s 21st Century evening sale, which kicked off the autumn sales on November 7, had the lowest estimate of works guaranteed by value: $52.6 million, or 59 percent of the total presale low estimate of $99 million. It was led by Cy Twombly’s Untitled (Bacchus 1st Version II) (2004), which hammered at $17 million—just shy of its $18 million low estimate and backed by both a house and third-party guarantee, which means it probably also went to its guarantor. The sale totaled $88.4 million, below its presale low estimate (after two withdrawn lots) of $92.5 million.

The Bottom Line

If the auction houses were intent on buoying confidence with guarantees to keep the market’s spirits afloat through the end of the year, the strategy was a success. Roughly two-thirds of the evening sales had enough guarantees in place to cover 85 percent or more of their total presale estimate, meaning the course of the season was by and large charted before it even began and very little would sway it off track. That sense of stability may have been welcome and plenty of works sold for good sums. But many of the anchoring lots—which were pretty much all guaranteed by the house and/or a third party—largely hammered at a smidge below or just their low estimates.

Whether stacking guarantees will stem the tide of a further slowdown remains to be seen and buyers continue with discernment and reservation in the meantime. The sales that had less work by value guaranteed saw more lots withdrawn or bought in due to a lack of interest at the offered price points, as well as hammer sale totals below the presale estimate. Safe harbor is not yet in sight.


Paint Drippings

The latest Wet Paint was still being mixed at press time, but here’s what else made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…

Art Fairs

  • Singapore‘s ART SG has announced the 116 galleries which participate in its second edition this coming January, which includes several blue-chippers such as GagosianWhite Cube, and Lehmann Maupin. (Press release)
  • Shanghai hosted West Bund Art & Design and ART021 Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair this week, and attendees to both fairs noted mixed emotions due to a myriad of factors, including stricter government censorship of contemporary art and grim economic forecasts. (Artnet News)
  • Former Metropolitan Museum of Art and Tate Modern curator Sheena Wagstaff has been appointed creative advisor of Frieze Masters. Most recently Wagstaff curated the much-celebrated Studio section at Frieze Masters 2023. (Press release)

Auction Houses

  • At Sotheby’s the Now sale, Julie Mehretu’s 2008 painting, Walkers With the Dawn and Morning, sold for $10.7 million (with fees)—a new record for the artist and the highest auction price paid for a work by an African-born artist. The auction house sold $305.7 million over the course of the night, which also included its contemporary evening sale. (Artnet News)
  • Phillips‘s joint sale of work from the Triton Collection Foundation and their 20th century and contemporary art evening sale brought in a total of $154.6 million, which, per the hammer prices, came in below the sale’s low estimate. (Artnet News)
  • Two climate activists belonging to the group Extinction Rebellion stormed the stage during the Impressionist & Modern Works on Paper sale at Christie’s New York on November 11, shouting: “No art on a dead planet!” Auctioneer Tash Perrin was unable to continue taking bids and left the rostrum until security had removed the protestors. (Artnet News)


  • White Cube has announced representation of Richard HuntMagenta Plains now represents the archive of Stan VanDerBeekGalerie Papillion has taken on representation of Mehdi-Georges LahlouStephen Friedman is now representing Clare Woods, and David Kordansky has taken on former JTT artist Sam McKinniss. (Press releases)
  • Fionna Flaherty has been promoted to partner at Lehmann Maupin. (Wet Paint)
  • Lisson Gallery has indefinitely put on hold an exhibition of new works by the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, which had been due to open in London this week. The suspension of the show follows a statement posted by the artists on social media relating to the Israel-Hamas war. (The Art Newspaper)

Institutions & Biennials

  • India’s billionaire Jindal family has announced plans to open a contemporary art center in the country’s south next year called Hampi Art Labs. (The Art Newspaper)
  • Colette Pierce Burnette has resigned as president and CEO of Indianapolis’s Newfields after only 15 months on the job. She cited the museum’s ongoing racial diversity scandal as the reason for her departure. (ARTnews)
  • Poet Ranjit Hoskote has resigned from Documenta 16’s selection committee after a backlash from Documenta over his signature on a letter that compared Zionism to Hindu nationalism. (ARTnews)
  • Singapore has announced that interdisciplinary artist Robert Zhao Renhui will represent the country at the coming Venice Biennale in 2024, curated by Haeju Kim. (Press release)
  • Mohamed Almusibli has been named the new director of the Kunsthalle Basel. (Press release)

Tech and Legal News

  • The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation has responded to a lawsuit by Frankenthaler’s nephew, who alleged mismanagement of his aunt’s estate by the foundation, which called the suit “frivolous.” (The Art Newspaper)
  • Aaron De Groft, the former executive director of the Orlando Museum of Art that was raided last year by the FBI over an exhibition of forged Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings, filed counterclaims Tuesday against the museum. De Groft is seeking $50,000 for wrongful termination, defamation and breach of contract; the countersuit comes months after the institution sued him and others over the scandal. (Associated Press)

“I can do this all night.”

Phyllis Kao, Sotheby’s charismatic new evening-sale auctioneer, who happily took yet another bid in a protracted two-way bidding war for Julie Mehretu’s Walkers With the Dawn and Morning at the Now sale on November 15. (Artnet News 

Work of the Week
Ambera Wellmann’s Ritz 

Ambera Wellmann, <i>Ritz </i>(2018). Photo courtesy of Phillips.

Ambera Wellmann, Ritz (2018). Photo courtesy of Phillips.

Date: 2018

Estimate: $40,000 to $60,000

Sale price: $133,350 (including fees)

Sold at: Phillips New York

Sale date: November 14, 2023

Phillips’s sale of Ambera Wellmann’s Ritz may have yet to set a new auction record for the artist, it is nonetheless the best price achieved for the artist this year and the artist’s the third most expensive work sold at auction, according to Artnet Price Database. The hammer price at $105,000 roughly doubled the presale expectations, an assuring sign for the market of Wellmann’s works despite market uncertainties.

Born in 1982 in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada, the New York-based Wellmann’s enigmatic paintings often depict bodies that are distorted or tangled, an outcome of a constant battle between the search for a visual representation of female desire and subversion of the male gaze, the artist noted. This is no exception for Ritz. Executed in 2018, this erotically charged work depicting bodies and limbs in fluid brushstrokes ambiguously entangled on a pastel pink bed draws inspiration from the Romantic canon in the 18th and 19th century, an art historical period that the artist described where “artists, who—in the midst of revolution—conceptualized violent spectacle as an engine of self-understanding and renewal.” Wellmann has recently concluded her solo exhibition Antipoem at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, Italy.

—Vivienne Chow


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