In the month of November, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips all have a lot at stake with prestige sales of Impressionist, Modern, Post-War and Contemporary art. This year, with the big New York sales programmed for what turned out to be an extremely tense post-election week, the art market was in need of serious reassurance… The risk was clear: a destabilization of financial markets and a general climate of mistrust could have impacted the success of the season’s most important sales. However… this was not the case. Constantly fuelled by new demand from around the world, the high-end art market has remained strong, even if the sales totals are lower this year.
The results are not so exceptional this year, but they prove that the high-end market remains buoyant, with a number of major new records for already very famous artists. The impressive selection of handpicked works contained many of the biggest names over 150 years of creation: dozens of works by Picasso and Chagall, works by Kandinsky, Sisley, Dubuffet, the unavoidable Andy Warhol, not to mention Basquiat, de Kooning, Pollock and several icons of very Contemporary art like Gerhard Richter, Damien Hirst and Christopher Wool. In the end, Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Sale on 14 November generated $157.7 million, while the same sale at Christie’s totalled $246 million. Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art sale on 15 November posted a turnover total of $277 million while Phillips generated $111.2 million on 16 November.
Recall that 2015 set the bar very high with Sotheby’s generating over $1 billion in revenue from just one week of sales and Christie’s posting $491 million from its themed sale The Artist’s Muse on 9 November 2015, with impressive new records for Lichtenstein and Modigliani: respectively $95.365 million (Nurse, 1964) and $170.4 million (Reclining Nude, 1917-18).
The highlight of last week’s sales was Claude MONET’s Meule (1890-1891), a masterpiece that fetched a record price of $81.4 million after a long fifteen minutes of bidding at Christie’s. This colorful little gem, a veritable symbol of Modern art history, demolished its high estimate of $45 million. When millions start to flow like that, it’s a sure sign that the work on the podium is an extremely rare item and paintings of this quality are usually in museums and not in private hands. Les Meules adds a small million dollars to the previous record of the leading Impressionist artist that was hammered in 2008 for The Water Lily Pond (1919) at $80.5 million in London (Christie’s).
Another highly anticipated and good result was for Edvard MUNCH’s Girls on the Bridge (Pikene på broen (girls on the bridge)), an imposing canvas from 1902 which has already been to auction several times. Its value accretion over 20 years has been phenomenal: sold for $7.7 million in 1996 and then $30.8 million in 2008, this time it crossed the 50 million threshold at Sotheby’s with a final result of $54.5 million, the highest price ever paid for a Munch painting and his second most expensive artwork after a drawn version of The Scream fetched $120 million in May 2012 (Sotheby’s New York).
There were also new auction records for Wassily KANDINSKYwhose Rigide et courbé (1935) fetched $23.3 million at Christie’s after a 50-year absence from the market, and Willem DE KOONING, whose masterful and energetic canvas Untitled XXV (1977, 200 x 220 cm) went $20 million beyond its estimate. The new auction record for the Expressionist master now stands at $66.3 million (Christie’s). De Kooning’s prices are catching up with those of his contemporary Mark Rothko who has generated five results above the $60 million line in the past decade. For a Post-War artwork, Francis BACON still holds the world record since his triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969) fetched $142.4 million three years ago at Christie’s (12 November 2013).
Another perhaps more surprising result was a new record for the American painter John CURRIN (born 1962) whose painting Nice ‘n Easy (1999) fetched $12 million at Christie’s (on 15 November) after setting his previous auction record of $5.45 million in 2008. The sharp surge in value is probably due to strong support from the Gagosian Gallery which has organized an exhibition this fall entitled Nude: From Modigliani to Currin in New York (20 September -19 November 2016).
Currin’s Nice ‘n Easy is now in the same price range as one of Pablo PICASSO’s best paintings offered last week, Painter and his model, which fetched $12.9 million on 14 November at Sotheby’s. The Picasso work had remained with the Oestreich family in New York since its initial acquisition in 1968.
Phillips also posted strong results with a sold-rate of 92% for its Contemporary Art sale which generated a total of $111.2 million on 16 November. The sale elicited strong bidding for a Gerhard RICHTER masterpiece entitled « Düsenjäger »(1963) which fetched $25.5 million; a late-40s painting by Clyfford STILL($13.69 million); an iconic Pop Art work titled Nudes in Mirror(1994) by Roy LICHTENSTEIN ($21.53 million) as well as new auction records at $970,000 for two Latin American artists, Carmen HERRERA and Mira SCHENDEL.
The Directors of the respective Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary Art departments at the three leading auctioneers all welcomed the market’s vitality, a vitality that owes as much to the quality of the works offered as to the global ‘magnetism’ of these companies, which registered bidders from forty different countries…