Will Twombly, Freud, and Rothko Lead Christie’s to A Billion-Dollar Night?

Two sales at Christie's alone are expected to tally a billion dollars.

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Francis Bacon, Portrait of Henrietta Moraes (1963), oil on canvas. Photo courtesy Christie’s.
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Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Field Next to the Other Road (1981), acrylic, enamel spray paint, oilstick, metallic paint and ink on canvas. Photo courtesy Christie’s.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Field Next to the Other Road (1981), acrylic, enamel spray paint, oilstick, metallic paint and ink on canvas.
Photo courtesy Christie’s.
Cy Twombly, Untitled (1969), oil-based house paint, wax crayon and lead pencil on canvas. Photo courtesy Christie’s.
Cy Twombly, Untitled (1969), oil-based house paint, wax crayon and lead pencil on canvas.
Photo courtesy Christie’s.
Andy Warhol, Colored Mona Lisa (1963), silkscreen inks and graphite on canvas. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s. Photo courtesy Christie’s.
Andy Warhol, Colored Mona Lisa (1963), silkscreen inks and graphite on canvas.
Photo courtesy Sotheby’s. Photo courtesy Christie’s.
Mark Rothko, No. 10 (1958), oil on canvas. Photo courtesy Christie’s.
Mark Rothko, No. 10 (1958), oil on canvas.
Photo courtesy Christie’s.
Francis Bacon, Portrait of Henrietta Moraes (1963), oil on canvas. Photo courtesy Christie’s.
Francis Bacon, Portrait of Henrietta Moraes (1963), oil on canvas.
Photo courtesy Christie’s.
Lucian Freud, Benefits Supervisor Resting (1994), oil on canvas. Photo courtesy Christie’s.
Lucian Freud, Benefits Supervisor Resting (1994), oil on canvas.
Photo courtesy Christie’s.

All eyes will be on Christie’s New York next week, as the auctioneer brings paintings by Cy Twombly, Lucian Freud, Mark Rothko and a host of other market stars to the block on May 13 in a sale estimated at half a billion dollars.

The house has been on a seemingly unstoppable roll for two years, with its biannual postwar and contemporary art sales tallying ever-higher amounts: $495 million (May 2013), $691 million (November 2013), $745 million (May 2014; see Christie’s $745 Million Evening Sale Astonishes) and $853 million (November 2014; see Epic Christie’s $852.9 Million Blockbuster Contemporary Art Sale Is the Highest Ever).

All four of those totals were the highest of any auction in history. But that’s not enough for some—the chatter among market observers has been of a looming billion-dollar night.

Christie’s postwar and contemporary sale is the centerpiece of an unusually packed week. Monday night sees a sale of 20th- and 21st-century artists at Christie’s; Tuesday is Sotheby’s postwar and contemporary art sale. On Thursday comes both Phillips contemporary art sale and Christie’s Impressionist and modern sale, shifted to Thursday from when it would customarily take place, the previous Wednesday (see Why Is Christie’s Shaking Up Its Spring Auction Schedule?).

Testifying to what many call a “masterpiece market,” more than half of the estimated $500 million total is accounted for by the high estimates for the top six works—by Twombly, Freud, Rothko, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“Both houses realize that there’s a group of ultra-wealthy collectors around the world looking for masterpieces,” Suzanne Gyorgy, art finance manager at Citi Art Advisory Service, told artnet News.

The demand created by those collectors has changed the auction business. Long gone are the days when the “three Ds” of death, debt and divorce determined what came to market.

“The auction houses go out and get the works that their top buyers want,” Todd Levin, director of New York’s Levin Art Group, told artnet News. “These sales are highly choreographed dances for 50 to 100 wealthy people. Everyone knows the steps in advance. The only thing that would ruin this is if the music stopped before the sale.”

The competition is so great, Levin added, that not only do the auction houses poach from one another, but specialists within the houses poach clients from their peers, even in their own departments.

Dealers and consultants think that the success of the Impressionist and modern art sale at Sotheby’s on May 5 bodes well for the contemporary art sale week. That auction scored $368 million, the house’s second-highest ever, with high prices for van Gogh and Monet (see Led by $66M Van Gogh, Sotheby’s $368 Million Impressionist and Modern Sale Robustly Kicks Off Season).

The stage will be further set on Monday by the heavily promoted sale “Looking Forward to the Past.” With just 35 lots, that event is projected to total the same half-billion dollars as the 85 lots on Wednesday’s sale.

Monday’s sale focuses on works that riff off of other artists (Picasso that references Delacroix, for instance). It aims to encourage buyers focused on the white-hot contemporary market to buy historical works too, by combining, in one sale, artists “from Monet to Kippenberger.” It includes some potential history-makers: Pablo Picasso’s painting Femmes d’Alger, estimated at $140 million, could become the highest price for any work of art at auction; an Alberto Giacometti bronze, at $130 million, could become the world’s priciest sculpture.

Other potentially big sales: another Picasso, labeled at $55 million; a Rothko priced in the area of $50 million; and a Monet expected to bring in the region of $45 million.

Gyorgy says the house is smart to capitalize on what she sees as existing collecting patterns. “More and more collectors are looking back,” she said. “Christie’s is tapping into something real.”

As for Wednesday’s postwar and contemporary sale, anticipated blockbusters include a who’s who of artists who have commanded gigantic prices in recent years.

The top-estimated lot is an eight-foot-wide, untitled Cy Twombly canvas slathered in house paint with drawing in crayon and pencil, which is poised to fetch up to $55 million. It’s has been off the market and out of public view since it was bought from Larry Gagosian in 1989.

Tagged at up to $50 million is Lucian Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Resting (1994), depicting Sue Tilley, a London government worker. The five-foot-square canvas shows Tilley, whose figure recalls the Venus of Willendorf, naked and reclining on Freud’s couch, her head thrown back. “It’s a pretty incredible canvas, and lusciously painted,” Gyorgy said.

Rothko’s eight-foot-tall abstract No. 10 (1958) is estimated at up to $45 million. Off the market for nearly 30 years, the canvas, featuring the artist’s trademark floating rectangles, hasn’t been on public view since 1987. Rothko hoped that his works would create religious experiences for both himself and his viewers.

Considerably earthier is Francis Bacon’s Portrait of Henrietta Moraes (1963), a five-and-a-half-foot-tall canvas, which shows his subject sprawled on a bed, her spread legs facing the viewer, in a luridly hued purple and crimson room. The seller picked it up at Christie’s London just three years ago for $33.5 million; it’s now expected to go for up to $42 million, meaning the house is hoping it has appreciated by nearly a third in three years. Bacon went on to depict Moraes more than 16 times; his Three Studies for the Portrait of Henrietta Moraes from the same year resides in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Andy Warhol’s $35-million Colored Mona Lisa (1962) was created the year after Leonardo da Vinci’s mysterious and iconic painting made a tour of the U.S., and shows multiple screenprinted images of La Gioconda, scattered over a 10-foot-tall canvas. Funny enough, in its fixation on a work of art that had become a celebrity, the work foreshadows today’s fascination with art as celebrity in its own right.

Christie’s has a financial interest in the top three lots, as well as many others, which are guaranteed to sell, even if only to the house itself. Referring to François Pinault, the collector and luxury magnate who owns the house, Levin pointed out that “he has pulled out his checkbook and guaranteed many of the lots himself.”

“It’s a pretty guaranteed sale,” Gyorgy conceded.

Several works may hit record territory: paintings by Christopher Wool and Martin Kippenberger are expected to bring as much as $20 million; Wool’s current high stands at $26.5 million, Kippenberger’s at $22.6 million. The seller of the Wool snatched up the untitled work, which bears the word “hypocrite” in black block letters, for just $227,500 at Sotheby’s New York in 1999, so if it makes its high estimate it will have increased in value 90-fold (60-fold accounting for inflation). A Brice Marden canvas pegged at up to $12 million may exceed his current $10.9 million high.

Of the 85 works on offer, just five are by women. A Joan Mitchell canvas is tagged at up to $7 million, which is shy of her $12-million record set at Christie’s postwar and contemporary art sale a year ago. Then again, the high estimate on that painting was just $9 million. The other works are by Yayoi Kusama, Cindy Sherman, and Sturtevant. (See Who Are the 50 Top Selling Female Artists at Auction?)

The Sturtevant is estimated at up to $5 million, a price that would exceed her current high of $3.4 million, set in November 2014, also at Christie’s. The Sherman is priced at up to $3.5 million, which approaches her current high of $3.9 million, also set at Rockefeller Center, four years ago.


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