There’s an old adage that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Christie’s defied that folk wisdom Thursday night when it pulled off a three-hour-and-forty minute marathon Evening sale that transformed—in a single evening—our first impression of the art market in this crucial season. Going into the sale, partially based upon the results of the house’s 21st Century sale two nights before, the market seemed saturated with highly managed works mostly pre-sold at or near the perfect price. Add to that the fact that the crucial swing money in the market, the bids that could be the difference between an orderly but unexciting sale and an electric one, coming from Asian collectors seemed to be focused on chasing the latest young artists. Impressionist and Modern artists, even from a recognized collection, and tried and true artists from the last two decades of collecting seemed to be yesterday’s taste.
Christie’s upended that narrative. Monet, van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol, Renoir, de Kooning, Cézanne, Berthe Morisot and even Alfred Sisley beat estimates with strong bidding from many places, especially Christie’s team in Hong Kong. Although the Asian buyers were not able to bring home many of the lots, they were active and present bidders on a number of works that performed well beyond expectations.
The results were impressive. They seemed like numbers from another era half a decade ago before populism swept politics and a pandemic shuttered the globe. The 23-lot Cox collection posted $332,031,500 with the 20th Century Evening sale that followed making In the $419,866,500. Altogether the evening’s total, nearly $752 million. At the post sale press conference, Christie’s President of the Americas Bonnie Brennan was quick to point out that the three evening sales had brought in a combined $975 million putting the house well within striking distance of a gigaweek sale. It would turn out to be a safe prediction with the Contemporary day sale adding another $94 million on Friday.
The billion-dollar prediction greatly pleased CEO Guillaume Cerutti. Speaking to journalists, he extolled his team, their hard work and acumen. Inwardly he was surely pleased about the week’s profitability. Much of it came from the Cox collection whose heirs had negotiated their guarantee during the pandemic’s uncertainty combined with the aforementioned skepticism around demand for Impressionist and Modern works. Thursday evening’s sale proved what neither the heirs nor Christie’s could have confidently foreseen: there was a Goldilocks moment of global wealth accumulation and interest that would pay off handsomely for all involved.
That result was not a foregone conclusion. Even as late a moments before the sale began, an art advisor gravely told a client that Cox’s prized $50 million Caillebotte was not in masterpiece condition. In the end, the work sold for a $46 million hammer price to the Getty Museum—which has all of the capabilities to restore the painting.
That same advisor went on to bid on the night’s first lot, a fragment of a Claude Monet Nymphéas from 1912 which had 21 telephones lined up, as auctioneer Adrien Meyer was keen to point out, “many of which [were] in Hong Kong and London.” Bidders carried the $700k-low-estimate lot to $4m where the advisor entered his first bid from the back of the room. Sustained telephone bidding pushed the price to $5.1m where the auction room was interrupted with loud lachrymose music that came from Asian gentleman in the room’s cellphone ringer. Undeterred by the distraction or Meyer giving Francis Belin, his colleague in Hong Kong, ample time to counter, the advisor finally won the work at $5.2 million hammer.
Christie’s team announced after the Cox sale that more than half of the lots were bought by North Americans but bidding from Asia ended up playing an important role in these sales; so, too, did bidding from the internet. At several points during the evening, strong seven-figure bids came from Texas, New York City and other remote locations through the faceless efficiency of the internet. The most dramatic moment came when a $47 million internet bid nearly stole Cézanne’s L’Estaque aux toits rouges from specialist Max Carter who had a client on the telephone. Carter quickly countered and won the work with $48 million. Let’s pause for a second here. A bidder with the wherewithal to purchase a major work of Modern art trusted the internet to place a high-stakes $47 million bid. That must be a record for online bidding. Was the bidder’s confidence a product of the pandemic or a maturing level of comfort with the technology? It’s hard to know.
A similar dynamic played out on one of the evening’s four deeply in demand van Gogh works. Jeune home au bleuet, a brightly colored but disturbing depiction of a young boy that happened to have been a favorite work among the Cox heirs almost wasn’t includes in the sale. The $5 million low estimate gave little or no hint to what would transpire at auction. One of the artist’s last works, three Hong Kong bidders came in a $5.5 million and kept pushing the work. Meyer had trouble keeping up as the Hong Kong bidders increased to million-dollar increments. New York telephones carried the momentum from $18 million to $21 million where a new bidder entered from Hong Kong. New York specialist Conor Jordan’s client eventually prevailed at a $40.5 million hammer price. The Hong Kong bidders went home empty handed but they had played an essential role bidding the work to eight times its low estimate.
Everything else van Gogh sold well that night, including a painting in the various owner’s sale that was not easily recognizable as van Gogh. The first van Gogh of the evening was also the night’s top lot selling for $71,350,000 with premium. The penultimate bid was from Hong Kong too. Another van Gogh was a watercolor of grain stacks. It was bid 50% above the $20 million low estimate to $31 million by Hugo Nathan, the London art advisor at Beaumont Nathan.
Water colors by world-class artists were a focus for Nathan all night. Later in the evening, Nathan was bidding on Pablo Picasso’s small Le repas de l’acrobate. Nathan had already gone a good way past the $5 million low estimate when a telephone bidder with a Christie’s specialist landed on $6 million. That seemed to put Nathan’s bidder in a quandary. An animated conversation between Nathan and his client ensued as Christie’s unflappable auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen tried to manage the situation with some patience. Suddenly, Nathan stood up and bounded out of the audience seemingly exiting from the room. Pylkkänen seemed more amused than panicked as the specialist looked about in frustration and not a little bit of horror. Luckily, Nathan sauntered back in calling out a $6.1 million bid. Pylkkänen drily suggested it was a new bidding tactic and hammered the work to Nathan.
Pylkkänen had taken over from Meyer in the auctioneer’s box for the various owners sale. Strong prices were achieved for the first three lots, Alice Neel’s Light doubled the low estimate to hammer for $1.9m; Cézanne’s small four apples made $4.2m hammer over a $2.5m low estimate, an exquisite work that still seemed cheap even considering the ample price per square inch; and David Hockney’s Woldgate Tree, May which sold for a $5.2m hammer against a $3m low estimate.
The momentum came to a halt when a strong 1988 Gerhard Richter abstraction arrived on the block. The painting which had never before been sold publicly made a very good price of $27 million, second only to another work of the same size that sold a year earlier and only made a few hundred thousand dollars more. The sale itself was a triumph for the consignor. But as auction drama, it lacked anything to engage the imagination due to the fullness of the $25 million third-party guarantee. That hardly held the rest of the auction back.
A new record price was set for Lee Bontecou as an untitled work estimated at a seemingly sedate $2 million was bid up to $7.7 million and sold for nearly $9.2 million. That’s more than four times the previous record price of $1.87 million paid a decade ago at Christie’s as well. Jacob Lawrence’s Red Earth—Georgia from 1947 set the second highest price for the artist at $4.47 million.
The top lot of the 20th Century sale was a Warhol marketed to capitalize on the cultural influence and impact of Jean-Michel Basquiat. The guaranteed work came from Warhol collector and active market participant Peter Brant. He had bought the painting from the Mugrabi family in 2002. They had acquired it five years earlier from the Warhol Foundation. Bidding started slowly. It was only after Pylkkänen subtly made it known that he could sell the work at $18 million did bidders perk up and take interest. Four telephones in London and New York duked it out over seven minutes to make a $34.7 million hammer price and $40 million all in for the work described as a silkscreen on metal pigment that had been urinated upon. (No mention of who actually did the honors of peeing on Basquiat’s face.)
At that price, the Basquiat portrait was 12 times the value of the previous high price paid for an oxidation work. That one was sold in 2018 for $3.375 million. It also makes the Basquiat portrait the second highest price for a Warhol made after Andy was shot in 1968. The only higher price was for a massive Mao painting that sold for $47.5 million in 2015. But among the works Warhol made in the 1980s, the Basquiat portrait is now the most valuable by far. Curiously, a prime example of Warhol’s late portrait style that was so central to his practice through the 70s and 80s came up a few lots later.
Warhol’s portrait of Muhammad Ali has had a strong auction record dating back to 2007 when Christie’s sold an example for $9.225 million. A dozen years later, another Ali sold for $10 million dollars. Curiously, in between that time, this complete set of the Athletes series which included Thursday night’s Ali was sold in 2011 for only $5.68 million. The other nine athletes would appear in the day sale on Friday (more on that below.)
In the evening sale, action for the Ali started at the low estimate and escalated with bids from Hong Kong and telephones in New York. As the bidding approached $8 million, Pylkkänen was clearly thought the bidding was at an end. “Trading blows at $7.5 million,” he observed. After a pause in the bidding following $8 million, Pylkkänen asked, “is that the knockout punch?”
But Pylkkänen had mistimed his rehearsed bon mots. Seated in the second row directly in front of the rostrum, Pylkkänen’s former colleague Brett Gorvy entered the bidding with $8.5m. He continued all the way to $15.5 million winning the work by paying more than $18 million with fees.
That wasn’t the end of it. The remaining works, including O.J. Simpson, were sold in Friday’s day sale for a total of $4.9m turning the $5.68m paid a decade before into $23 million today (minus Christie’s fees.) Contrast that with the set from Richard Weisman’s collection that sold in London last year (just before the pandemic set in.) It made $10.36 million. The bulk of the $12 million price difference was in the Ali portrait.
Christie’s sale wasn’t without its disappointments. A Wifredo Lam from the period during World War 2 that held some promise either got buried in the evening’s other excitements or simply failed to bring out collectors. It was bought in at $2.6 million against a $3 million low estimate. Joan Miró’s Peinture-poeme from a series of works that has previously attracted aggressive bidding also passed at $7.5 million against an $8 million low estimate. By lot 71, the sale had become a bit of a ghost town. Although five lots later Sonya Roth chased Balthus’s Japonaise au mirror noir from the $1.5 million low estimate to a $3.4 million selling price but she could not seal the deal.
There are a great deal more stories in this market, especially in the day sale lots. But we’ll have to examine them with you at a later date when the full results of the two-week sales extravaganza are better known.