The Back Room: Heavy Is the Hammer

This week: a New York auction primer, a gala speech gone wrong, a canny mega-gallerist consignor, and much more.

An auctioneer's gavel raised dramatically. Photo by Julien Behal/PA Images via Getty Images. Illustration by Artnet News.

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: a New York auction primer, a gala speech gone wrong, a canny mega-gallerist consignor, and much moreall in an 8-minute read (2,258 words).


Top of the Market

Spring Sales Showdown

An art handler holds René Magritte's L’Empire des lumières, while on display during a press preview at Sotheby's on May 08, 2023 in New York City. Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images.

An art handler holds René Magritte’s L’Empire des lumières, while on display during a press preview at Sotheby’s on May 08, 2023 in New York City. Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images.

Last night kicked off another all-consuming spring auction cycle in New York, with an estimated $1.3 billion to $1.9 billion worth of artwork set to cross the block at Christie’sSotheby’s, and Phillips in eight days. 

And yet, the stakes feel a little subdued compared to the Empire City’s past few spring and fall seasons, as Eileen Kinsella noted in her indispensable primer on this May’s evening sales.  

Last fall, the cumulative estimate range was nearly a full $1 billion higher: $2.1 billion to $2.9 billion, in no small part due to blockbuster offerings from the Paul G. Allen collection. The eventual tally ballooned to $3.2 billion, a result not likely to be repeated anytime soon. 

A fairer question is whether this season’s evening sales totals will approach the $2.4 billion brought by the equivalent auctions in May 2022 or the $2.3 billion in November 2021. It’s not impossible, but the math is against that outcome. Only three works this spring are estimated to sell for more than $40 million each, compared to 12 last fall. And as the tip-top of the hierarchy goes, so go the overall results.  

Still, there are plenty of gems and more than a little intrigue in next week’s offerings. Below, an executive summary of each evening auction on the docket at the Big Three houses before next Friday’s Back Room.

(Reminder: Presale estimates exclude the buyer’s premium; sales figures include it unless otherwise noted.) 


Christie’s 21st c. Evening Sale 

Date: Monday, May 15 

Presale Estimate: $68 million to $99 million  

Lots on Offer: 27 

Headline LotBasquiat’s El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) (1983) was last sold at auction in November 2005 for $5.2 million, about one-ninth the current estimate “in the region of” $45 millionConsigned by designer Valentino Garavani, this is one of three large-scale canvases that Basquiat executed in 1983, when he began to focus his practice on issues of representation in the context of world history. 

Another Lot to WatchCecily Brown’s Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned) (2013), consigned by Hyatt Hotels scion Tony Pritzker, is estimated to sell for $5 million to $7 million. The excitement around Brown’s current survey at the Met could help push the final price even higher.  


Sotheby’s Mo Ostin Collection Evening Sale

Date: Tuesday, May 16 

Presale Estimate: $103.3 million to $155.3 million  

Lots on Offer: 15 

Headline LotEstimated at $35 million to $55 millionRene Magritte’s L’Empire des lumières (1951) comes to market more than 40 years after Ostin acquired it—and just over a year after another work from the same series set a new record for the artist, fetching nearly $80 million at Sotheby’s London in March 2022.  

Another Lot to Watch: A large untitled Joan Mitchell (ca. 1958) will go to its second-ever owner for between $7 million and $10 million, if Sotheby’s specialists are on point. 


Sotheby’s Modern Evening Sale 

Date: Tuesday, May 16 

Presale Estimate: $290.6 million to $404.7 million  

Lots on Offer: 54 

Headline LotTuesday night will be the auction debut for Gustav Klimt‘s rare seascape Insel im Attersee (Island in the Attersee) (circa 1901–02), which depicts Austria’s Attersee lake, the artist’s preferred summer destination. It is the third and final lot this season with an estimate north of $40 million (“in the region of” $45 million, to be exact). 

Another Lot to Watch: Sotheby’s is once again stretching the modern category by offering Sir Peter Paul Rubens’s Portrait of a Man as the God Mars (circa 1620), a Baroque stunner carrying an estimate of $20 million to $30 million


Phillips 20th c. and Contemporary Evening Sale

Date: Wednesday, May 17 

Presale Estimate: $63.5 million to $91.4 million  

Lots on Offer: 41 

Headline LotBanksquiat. Boy and Dog in Stop and Search (2018) by Banksy

shows the titular characters from Basquiat’s 1982 canvas Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump being frisked by stenciled London Metropolitan Police. Executed on panel, the work is expected to change hands for $8 million to $12 million

Another Lot to Watch: How about two? A pair of early Yayoi Kusama soft sculptures from the collection of Agnes and Frits Becht, titled Red Stripes (1965) and Blue Spots (1965), could bring $2.5 million to $3.5 million apiece. 


Christie’s Gerald Fineberg Evening Sale

Date: Wednesday, May 17 

Presale Estimate: $163 million to $235 million  

Lots on Offer: 65 

Headline LotUntitled (1993) by Christopher Wool is a rare multicolored example of the artist’s word paintings. Reading “Fuck ’em If They Can’t Take a Joke,” it is one of two works in the Fineberg collection estimated at $15 million to $20 million.  

Another Lot to Watch: Expect Barkley L. Hendricks’s ultra-cool 1971 portrait of fellow painter Stanley Whitney to spark enough heated bidding to inflate the final price beyond its $5 million to $7 million estimate.


Sotheby’s ‘The Now’ Evening Sale

Date: Thursday, May 18 

Presale Estimate: $42.4 million to $61.9 million 

Lots on Offer: 25 

Headline LotHaze Days (1998) by Yoshitomo Nara is anticipated to go for $12 million to $18 million. The artist may have been nodding to Van Gogh’s classic post-mutilation self-portrait by bandage-wrapping the head of the painting’s characteristically spiteful-looking child. 

Another Lot to Watch: A life-sized, raffia-skirted female figure by Simone Leigh could sell for as much as $3.5 million. (A Leigh bronze of similar scale in Christie’s 21st century evening sale carries a slightly lower estimate of $2 million to $3 million.) 


Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Sale 

Date: Thursday, May 18 

Presale Estimate: $154.9 million to $209.8 million 

Lots on Offer: 32 

Headline Lot: The first cast of Spider (1996) earned the loftiest-ever expectation for a lot by Louise Bourgeois, at $30 million to $40 million. It was consigned by the nonprofit arm of Itaú UnibancoBrazil’s largest private-sector bank, and is positioned to end the night as one of the priciest works in auction history by any woman artist.  

Another Lot to WatchNow’s The Time (1985), a rare, large Basquiat painting shaped like a vinyl record, could trade for “in excess of” $30 million. The piece, which was consigned by media magnate Peter Brant, is a tribute to jazz great Charlie Parker


The Bottom Line

On Thursday night, in Christie’s third auction of works from the S.I. Newhouse collection, the $150.5 million hammer total exceeded the $142 million presale low estimate. Immediately afterward, the $276.1. million hammer total achieved in the 20th century evening sale reached just above its $260 million presale low estimate, too. 

If this trend line were to continue through next Thursday night, the Big Three houses would collectively pull in slightly more than the combined $1.3 billion expectation we mentioned earlier. It would be tempting to let recency bias frame that outcome as a letdown relative to the bonanzas triggered by the Allen collection, the Macklowe collection, and other historic post-pandemic troves.  

We should resist that temptation. The houses can ultimately only sell the works that collectors consign, whether of their own free will or because of forces beyond their control. Expecting never-ending growth in sales under the hammer is no less misguided than expecting never-ending growth in galleries’ square footage or roster sizes. Sometimes, healthy enough must be healthy enough.  

That doesn’t mean we should let the houses off the hook if they start underperforming their presale estimates after stripping out the fat of fees. But as long as a no-nonsense accounting shows that they are beating their own benchmarks, let’s not allow the record-setting to be the enemy of the respectable. 


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Paint Drippings

The latest Wet Paint recaps a bizarre speech by James Turrell at the MoMA PS1 gala, then gets into the hot new Chinatown gallery Sara’s Worldwide.

Here’s what else made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…


Art Fairs and Biennials

  • 154 galleries have been named to exhibit at Paris+ this coming October, with several newcomers among them, including Gianni ManhattanP.P.O.W., and Kurimanzutto. Blue-chip participants returning to the Grand Palais Éphémère include GagosianPace, and White Cube. (Press release
  • The Art Assembly has appointed Craig Brown head of gallery relations (U.S. & Europe), a newly created role. He was plucked from his role as fair director for the now-defunct Masterpiece London. Brown will report directly to Magnus Renfrew, the co-chairman and global director at Art Assembly, which is an affiliation of major international art fairs focused on the Asia Pacific region. (Press release
  • Nicolas Bourriaud, curator and co-founder of the Palais de Tokyo, has been named the artistic director of South Korea’s Gwangju Biennale, which is set to return for its 15th edition in September 2024. (Press release


Auction Houses

  • For a full recap of Christie’s Newhouse collection sale and 20th century evening sale, which together hauled in $507 million after fees, we’ve got you covered. (Artnet News)
  • Christie’s has scheduled its second sale from the collection of Ann and Gordon Getty. The Greco-Roman style fine art and furnishings on offer come from the couple’s San Francisco compound, with work by Charles Robert AshbeeA.W.N. Pugin, and William Morris among the listed items. (Datelink)  
  • Former David Zwirner associate director Aaron Cator has joined Hindman as a senior specialist for post-war and contemporary art in New York.  (Press release



  • Pilar Corrias is expanding its footprint in London, opening a new flagship gallery in Mayfair this October with a solo show by Christina Quarles. The space is located on Conduit Street, and will open in conjunction with Frieze London. (Wet Paint) 
  • In other real estate news: Gagosian will shutter its Britannia Street location in London in exchange for more office space near its Mayfair gallery; and later this year, Stephen Friedman will open a location in Tribeca headed by Salon 94 alum Alissa Friedman (no relation). (Financial Times
  • Roster moves were plentiful this week, with Alison Jacques announcing representation of Monica Sjöö’s estate, Anton Kern Gallery picking up Lloyd FosterP.P.O.W. tapping  abstract painter Grace Carney, Jack Barrett kicking off its representation of Ben Tong with works at IndependentLeonardo Drew heading to Goodman Gallery, and Jessica Silverman picking up painter David Huffman. (Press releases, Wet Paint)



  • Connie Butler, who has worked as the chief curator at Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum since 2013, will take up the role of director of MoMA PS1 this September following a months-long search by the institution. (Artnet News
  • As part of its effort to face scrutiny over looted artifacts head-on, the Met has hired a dedicated research team to look into the provenances of its holdings with problematic histories. This comes on the heels of the Manhattan district attorney’s office seizing dozens of antiquities from TurkeyEgypt, and Italy from the museum for repatriation. (New York Times
  • The Centre Pompidou will close from 2025 to 2030 to undergo an expansion estimated to cost roughly €262 million ($286.5 million). Architects can begin submitting proposals today, with the winner to be announced in 2024. (The Art Newspaper


Tech, Legal, and Other Business News

  • KAWS has scored a major legal victory to the tune of $900,000 against a man who he accused of counterfeiting replicas of his signature “Companion” figure and other toys, skateboards, and artworks. (Artnet News)
  •  Artist Jens Galschiøt spoke out about the Hong Kong police‘s seizure of his sculpture The Pillar of Shame, which commemorates victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, stating that the censorship has only made the work’s message “bigger and bigger.” (Artnet News)  
  • Nike said it’s no longer working with Tom Sachs, after allegations of workplace abuse at the artist’s studio surfaced in recent months. Sachs followed up the news with a letter to employees addressing the accusations. “As our business grew at a rapid pace and cultural norms progressed, we did not take the necessary time to professionalize our operations,” he said in the statement. “I wish I had prioritized this a decade ago.” (Artnet News, NYT)


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“I grew up in an America where money was basically free, and the more you had, the freer it got… Now is the first time in I think 20 years that people have to pay to get money. That’s a new situation.” 

Alex Rotter, Christie’s chairman of 20th and 21st century art, on how New York’s spring auctions could be affected by the aggressive interest rate hikes of the past year. (Bloomberg


Work of the Week

Diane Arbus’s A box of ten Photographs

Diane Arbus, A box of ten photographs (1970). Courtesy of Christie's Images, Ltd.

Diane Arbus, A box of ten photographs (1970). Courtesy of Christie’s Images, Ltd.


Date:          1970


Estimate:    $900,000 to $1.2 million


Seller:         Larry Gagosian


Selling at:   Christie’s (NY) 21st Century Evening Sale


Sale date:   May 15, 2023


Larry Gagosian is selling off some lower-priced material from his private reserve this season, and our own Katya Kazakina fingered the mega-dealer in her column last week as the consignor of this box of 10 photographs by Diane Arbus. It is one of the final lots of Christie’s 21st century evening sale, estimated at $900,000 to $1.2 million

It’s a portfolio of works dating from 1962–70, originally intended to be sold in an edition of 50 for $1,000 each. That was in 1970, so adjusting for inflation that’s around $7,800 today. Arbus only sold the first four sets during her lifetime, but the edition run was completed by the estate after her death, with this particular edition (number 15) among those produced and sold posthumously.

The complete box set is fairly rare to auction; just five have hit the block in the last 20 years. Most recently, one went for $792,500 at Christie’s New York in April 2018. 

Gagosian acquired the set via Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg New York in 2003 for $405,500, so if the lot reaches the upper end of its presale estimate, that would make for a 196 percent return on investment.  

Katya categorized the intel as showcasing “the somewhat unexpected reaches” of Larry’s taste. This is true aesthetically (as in the quaint Asuka Anastacia Ogawa painting he’s offloading in the day sale on May 12), but it’s also amusing given that rival mega-dealer David Zwirner represents the Arbus estate (in collab with Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco). 

—Naomi Rea


Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.

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