New York: historical records for sales of Post-War and Contemporary art



Flouting the generally unfavorable economic mood, this year’s autumn sales in New York managed to post a new all-time high. Far more buoyant than the Impressionist and Modern Art sales a week earlier, the Post-War & Contemporary segment once again posted the better results: proof that nothing seems capable of undermining the vitality of this safe-haven market.
As for the other comparison – between the leaders Christie’s and Sotheby’s – Christie’s won hands down after generating $364m from its 14 November evening sale, the best result in the history of its Post-War & Contemporary sales (its absolute record was set by its Impressionist and Modern Art sale with $437m in 2006). The previous day, Sotheby’s nevertheless brought in $331m, its absolute best sales result ever recorded, bettering the May 2008 Post-War & Contemporary sale, which generated $320m!
The least one can say is that buyers had their fill, particularly at Christie’s, which recorded an unsold rate of only 8%, no less than 56 results above the $1m threshold, of which 10 generated over $10m. At Sotheby’s the figures were 16% of unsold lots, 42 above $1m, of which 7 above $10m. Naturally, these superb results contain a whole bunch of new records: 8 at Christie’s and 8 at Sotheby’s.
The highest winning bid of the two sales was for No. 1 Royal Red and Blue by Mark ROTHKO which fetched $67m at Sotheby’s, i.e. $17m more than its high estimate. However, it was only the second best result for Rothko, whose Orange, Red, Yellow sold for $77.5m at Christie’s New York earlier this year in May.

The usual festival of stars
Whether Pop artists or Abstract Expressionists, American artists are still generating the same level of enthusiasm. Jackson POLLOCK scored a magnificent new record at Sotheby’s with Number 4, which despite its modest dimensions (76.5 x 63.5 cm) was acquired for $36m, more than $15m higher than his previous record of $15.7m for Number 28 (76.5 x 137.4 cm) at Christie’s New York on 8 May 2012.
Still stellar material, Andy WARHOL was the author of 13 lots at the two sales. This does not include the 354 lots sold during the first phase of the partnership between Christie’s and the Warhol Foundation on November 12. The two sales, however, did not score high enough to dethrone Warhol’s two best-ever results: $64m for Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) at Christie’s New York on 16 May 2007, and $56.5m for Men in her life at Phillips de Pury & Company New York on 8 November 2010. Nevertheless, Statue of Liberty is now in 3rd place on the Warhol podium after a winning bid above all expectations at $39m (Christie’s). Considered one of the artist’s cult works, it also carries the distinction of prefiguring future 3D technology by being visible “in volume” through green and red glasses.
Meanwhile, Minimalism also elicited enthusiastic bidding with Agnes MARTIN back into 7-figure results and a new auction record for Donald JUDD at $9m for his sculpture Untitled, 1989 (Bernstein 89-24).
As for the giants of Contemporary art, Jean-Michel BASQUIAT-mania was once again apparent after a new masterpiece emerged from the shadows: his Untitled shot past the $20m threshold at Christie’s with a winning bid at $23.5m, nearly $5.6m better than his previous best of $17.9m for another Untitled just a few months earlier in London (Christie’s, 27 June 2012). And… after generating a new auction record at $30m with a monumental sculpture entitled Tulips, Jeff KOONS confirmed his position as one of the world’s most expensive living artists.

Some new names in the highest spheres
A major figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement, Franz KLINE had been fairly discreet at auctions in recent years, signing his auction record at $5.7m for Crow Dancer at Christie’s New York on 11 May 2005. However, the sales of 13 and 14 November 2012 have changed that: of the six lots offered by the two auction houses, four set new records for the artist. Indeed the $36m fetched by his large format oil on canvas, Untitled (200.7 x 280.4 cm), puts him on a par with Jackson Pollock’s new record, also at $36m. Still in the field of Abstract Expressionism, the 70s/80s paintings of the American Richard DIEBENKORN (1922-1993) are attracting a high level of demand: finding a buyer at $12m at Christie’s, his Océan Park # 48 almost doubled his previous record of $6.8m for Ocean Park #121 (May 11 2011, Christie’s New York)

Living artists… inflation confirmed
The geometrical paintings of Mark GROTJAHN (born 1968) continued their price momentum: his Untitled (Red Butterfly II Yellow MARK GROTJAHN P-08 752) fetched a superb $3.65m at Christie’s, doubling his previous record in just six months. On 9 May 2012, his « Untitled (Yellow Butterfly III) » fetched $1.8m at Sotheby’s Spring sale in New York.
Still in the geometric minimalist movement, Wade GUYTON, who since February 2011 has recorded eleven results between $250,000 and $560,000, signed a new record high of $650,000 with an Untilted at Sotheby’s. A genuine star in the United States, Wade Guyton has, since 2002, exchanged his paintbrush for an inkjet printer, and the results have been rather successful. Indeed, his patterns and lettering with faults, drips and other printing defects have been on show since October in a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

The less successful…
Christie’s seemed to be well on the way to signing a new record with Robert RAUSCHENBERG’s Bait estimated $7m – $10m. Although in the same style and from the same period as Overdive (which generated his current record of $13m at Sotheby’s New York in 2008), Bait failed to find a buyer. Indeed, buyers currently appear to have less appetite for the artist considered the father of Pop Art and Rauschenberg has not signed a 7-figure result since 2010.
As regards Gerhard RICHTER, the bidding was somewhat less fervent than in recent months. However, the six Richter works offered by the two auctioneers all fetched within their estimated ranges.

In sum, these two historical sales prove once again that the world’s best auction results are generally produced by quality works (paintings) by established artists, preferably American and preferably Post-War. The sensational performances last week show that even Hurricane Sandy and the US elections cannot divert the attention of collectors who are increasingly fond of the Post-War & Contemporary segment.