Booming contemporary art auctions



The New York contemporary art market has posted strong growth over the last five years. Turnover at Sotheby’s and Christie’s evening auctions has climbed steadily to reach a total of USD 168 million in 2004 compared with USD 100 million in 1999.

By focusing on more “classical” artists, such as Pollock, Rothko, Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns—the least contemporary but also the most prized in this market segment—Sotheby’s and Christie’s have increased turnover at their “Contemporary Art” evening auctions to record highs. Sotheby’s raised USD 65.7 million this year by selling every one of the 58 lots put up for auction, while Christie’s, despite a few no-sales, managed to top its USD 100 million target for the first time. Some of the artists commanding the best prices also broke previous records, e.g. Jackson POLLOCK (USD 10 million), Clyfford STILL (USD 2.8 million), Ellsworth KELLY (USD 2.6 million), Ed RUSCHA (USD 3.2 million) and Chuck CLOSE (USD 2.5 million), as well as more recent contemporary artists such as Jeff KOONS, John CURRIN, , Takashi MURAKAMI and Rachel WHITEREAD.

Christie’s reorganised its contemporary art department in July 2000, and now distinguishes between international artists from the post-war years to the end of the 1960s, which come under the “Post-War” category, and “contemporary art” which is now only strictly applied to work produced in the 1970s or later. Sotheby’s does not make this distinction. But in contrast to Phillips De Pury & Luxembourg, the contemporary art catalogues of both Sotheby’s and Christie’s focus on pieces produced in the 1950s and 1960s, which are less in line with the work of today’s artists.

Younger generations of collectors are likely to turn to Phillips De Pury & Luxembourg, whose contemporary art auctions put up more works from the 1980s, with a particular focus on Basquiat, Hirst, Haring, Wool and Cattelan. The prices paid for these more recent pieces are certainly lower than for works that have already stood the test of time, but the auctions are just as lively. Though the 13 May auction at Phillips De Pury & Luxembourg only raised USD 17.7 million, only 4 out of 63 lots were bought in and bids often exceeded the high estimates, with no less than 10 artists beating their personal records, including Marlene Dumas (USD 880,000), Christopher Wool (USD 750,000) and Bridget Riley (USD 700,000), who did particularly well.