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A $35 Million Monet, Picasso Weakness & Gigaweek Anxieties

pablo picasso
Sotheby’s $235 million sale total masked a few disappointments, but the most worrying results were for Pablo Picasso, not just at Sotheby’s but across all three houses. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Marion Maneker
May 19, 2024

The paradox of selling art is that no one believes an object is worth a lot of money until they see that others are willing to pay a lot of money for it. In an advancing market, higher sales advertise the appeal of buying art. In a declining market, falling sales call into question the idea of art as an asset class. These days, particularly during Gigaweek in New York, the auction houses were not only endeavoring to sell art, but the value of owning it, too. Big numbers impress people, and these sales were designed to be impressive, even though not all were. 

Phillips’ 5 p.m. auction time slot on Tuesday is an acknowledgement of its market position, squeezed between two bigger rivals who own the primetime 7 p.m. slots on all four nights of the week. Phillips did, however, find itself in the unexpected position of having the top lot of the week. Jean-Michel Basquiat has become a house specialty after Phillips pulled off the $85 million sale of untitled (Devil) two years ago. This season, the auctioner had three Basquiats, including the untitled 1982 painting that was estimated at $40 million and covered by a third-party guarantee. Two bidders pushed that Basquiat to the $40 million mark, suggesting the irrevocable bidder had either executed their bid or been forced to respond to a couple of other bids. Just as the private sale in public seemed to be closing, a third bidder came in just $200,000 above the magic number. As had happened the night before at Sotheby’s, the guarantor did not respond. 

Estimates can often be aspirational at Phillips, but the firm had real competition on a number of lots. Derek Fordjour’s Numbers, from 2018, saw six bidders, including one from Greece, push the painting to $700,000 on a $400,000 estimate. That made a final selling price of $889,000. A similar number of bidders, including one from Indonesia, chased Michaela YearwoodDan’s Freedom don’t come for free, from 2021, to $300,000, on a $200,000 estimate, to a final price of $381,000 with fees. 

Barkley L. Hendricks’s painting Vendetta, from 1977, came to market after the Frick’s widely praised show of the artist’s portraiture. This example had been offered privately before being consigned to Phillips. That’s often a buzzkill for a painting, even one of this quality, but the auction house was able to find three bidders who drove the hammer price to $2.6 million, just above the estimate, which made for a $3.2 million price with fees. Only four other Hendricks paintings have ever been sold at auction for more than $3 million. Helen Frankenthaler’s Acres, from 1959, was estimated at $1.8 million, but three bidders thought it was worth more, forcing the ultimate buyer to bid $3 million and pay $3.6 million. 

Frankenthaler is one of the founding godmothers of abstraction. British artist Jadé Fadojutimi is the current incarnation. Her 2022 work The Pour was estimated at $400,000 but got bid up to $850,000 hammer, or $1.07 million with fees. Two works that failed to find buyers at Phillips are also worth noting. One was dealer Marianne Boesky’s example of a Frank Stella concentric square painting. Not one of the three Stellas offered last week had much bidding interest, despite his recent death. The other two were sold for compromise prices $1 million below the estimates. But Boesky’s was bought in on a $3.8 million bid, perhaps the auctioneer’s placeholder or chandelier bid, which was just too far below the $5 million asking price. Boesky once represented Stella’s work. So she had good reason to hold on to the painting and wait to get a reasonable price.

Nevertheless, Phillips was happy with the business they did. They’re slowly making progress growing the house despite the market conditions. In many ways, Phillips just shouldn’t exist. They compete with their bigger rivals only in select categories. And yet, in spite of the ferocious competition for art to sell, they continue to survive and even thrive—which means they’ll continue to play an important role in the battle for consignments as Sotheby’s changes their commission structure and public stance on enhanced hammer deals. 

Over at Christie’s…

Ten blocks away, at Rockefeller Center, Christie’s put on a brave face, swallowed hard, and launched into the new world of “technology security incidents.” On the I.T. side, the night went off flawlessly, with Christie’s Live serving bids—sometimes quite large, seven-figure bids—into the sale room with zero issues. The audience ended up more distracted by some of the theatrics than by any data snafus. 

During the Rosa de la Cruz sale, I got a text on Wall Power SMS asking why the de la Cruz family were selling her art so quickly after the patron’s death in February. Having no inside information, I did offer a reminder that Christie’s is only selling a fraction of the family’s holdings. More to the point, I also thought it might be helpful to think of art assets in a different way. It costs a great deal of money to store, curate, display and staff a private museum or foundation. The money the de la Cruzes spent on art was paid out quite some time ago. Even in a challenging market for many of her artists, the values are still greater than the cost basis of acquiring the works. 

In the end, Christie’s did well by Rosa. The centerpiece of the sale was Félix González-Torres’s untitled (America #3), from 1992, a string of lights that could easily be purchased in any hardware store, or, at least, any hardware store in 1992. Although the record price for a similar work at auction was only $5 million, Christie’s had estimated this work at $8 million based on private sales the firm was aware of. There’s also the artist’s foundation, which is said to have examples of similar works for sale through David Zwirner for $10 million. So the pricing strategy seemed as though it had a ceiling. 

But three bidders took the work to an $11.5 million hammer price, or $13.6 million with fees. The ultimate wrinkle in the tale came when it was revealed that the buyer was Japan’s POLA Foundation, which maintains a museum in Hakone. Did the foundation not know that it could buy a similar work from Zwirner for cheaper? Would Zwirner or the Félix González-Torres foundation not sell one to POLA? Or was it simply a case of auction fever?

Among de la Cruz’s other works, a number of artists saw strong sales. Riding on a wave of interest generated by his See Stop Run exhibition in Lower Manhattan, Christopher Wool’s untitled 2011 silk screen transfer work was estimated at $600,000 but sold for nearly a million bucks, or $1.2 million with fees. That’s pretty much the same price as a work from the series sold for a decade ago, back when Wool’s market was riding high on the goodwill of his Guggenheim retrospective. An early Hernan Bas painting priced at $70,000 made $394,000 with fees, a solid but not spectacular price. Works by Ana Mendieta, hard to find on the market at any price, sold well. Even beat-up names like Rudolf Stingel, Albert Oehlen and Tauba Auerbach saw great examples of their work get bid up above estimates to solid comeback prices.   

The most significant casualty of the evening was a seminal Brice Marden painting that had been the first work announced for the season. It carried a $30 million estimate. When the work was withdrawn from the sale, it left a large hole in Christie’s projections. But with such a valuable guaranteed lot, Christie’s was better off protecting the perceived value and selling privately. For better or worse, Christie’s is quite practiced at the process of protecting its risk profile. This is an outcome they can handle.

And at Sotheby’s…

Sotheby’s came out the second night for its Modern evening sale like a team that had just been given a rousing halftime locker room talk, and they delivered. The focal point of the evening was the bidding for Leonora Carrington’s chef d’oeuvre, her recognized apex work, which was estimated at an astonishing $12 million—already four times her public auction record. Even so, six bidders pushed the hammer price to more than twice that again, at $24.5 million. It was eventually won for $28.5 million by Argentine collector and founder of Buenos Aires’s MALBA, Eduardo F. Costantini, who said he was the underbidder the last time that Carrington’s Les Distractions de Dagobert was auctioned 30 years ago. 

The result of this sale won’t be more Carringtons sold at this spectacular level. But we will see more works by Carrington and her peers in Mexico City’s Surrealism scene, like Remedios Varo, sell for substantially higher numbers than before. Just before the Carrington was sold, Varo’s Esquiador (Viajero), from 1960, which was estimated at $1 million and backed by an irrevocable bid, sold for $4.17 million. 

One reason that Sotheby’s Modern sale felt so much stronger was that Chinese bidders showed up in a way they had not two nights previous. Sotheby’s Chinese specialists were actively pushing on 12 percent of the lots. That might not sound like much, but it can be the decisive swing money that elevates the bidding. In the end, Asian presence was most visible when Sotheby’s Jen Hua put in the $30 million top bid on Monet’s Meules à Giverny (1893), which sold for $34.8 million. A very relieved round of applause followed the hammer’s crack, a rare response to merely reaching the estimate level.

The solid $235 million sale total masked a few disappointments, with two Monets selling just below the estimates and works by Rothko, Wyeth, and O’Keeffe getting sacrificed in the name of cold, hard cash. But the most worrying results were for Pablo Picasso, not just at Sotheby’s but across all three houses. The titan of 20th century art saw three late works attract bids into the estimate range, but one from the late 1930s was withdrawn and another, from the early 1940s, failed on the auction block. At Sotheby’s, two works were sold at prices well below the low estimate, one for half-price. 

And Back to Christie’s…

Newly confident in their ability to withstand not only an adverse market but an unseen digital adversary, Christie’s rolled into Thursday night with some swagger. Adrien Meyer, the auctioneer, showed “courage,” as his C.E.O. Cerutti called it, when he gave a clinic on how to deal with bidders looking for a bargain. Auction bidding is supposed to take place in expected increments that shift as the values rise. Toward the end of bidding, it is the auctioneer’s prerogative whether and when to accept what’s called a “chopped” bid, or an amount in between the expected increments. 

In the age of internet bidding, where the online competition doesn’t have the ability to “chop” a bid, the auctioneer’s discretion becomes even more valuable. It’s the auctioneer’s job to maximize the price for the seller. Take a chopped bid too early and you might leave money on the table; refuse a chopped bid and you might cost your client just that much more in returns. 

Meyer wrestled with his specialists during the strong bidding on Willem de Kooning’s Man in Wainscott, from Norman Lear’s art collection, that was estimated at $4 million but hammered at $7.2 million. Nevertheless, relatively early on in the bidding, Meyer allowed a chopped bid and then spent the rest of the lot’s action trying to keep the bidders from slicing the bids thinner and thinner. The show of discipline and good humor paid off when, during the bidding for Andy Warhol’s large flowers painting, one telephone tried to counter a $20 million bid with $20.5 million. Most auctioneers would have accepted, but Meyer refused, explaining he would accept $21 million but the bid should be $22 million. Eventually, Meyer caved in to the $500,000 increments at $22.5 million. Yet two bidders were happy to take it from $22.5 million to $30.5 million in $500,000 steps. Would the bidding have tapered off if Meyer had accepted an earlier, smaller bid? We’ll never know.

Along with the Warhol and de Kooning results, Lear’s Ed Ruscha painting, Truth, from 1973, estimated at $7 million, sold for $14.8 million with fees. Alexander Archipenko’s Woman Combing Her Hair, from 1915, was sold to a now rare collector in the room bidding for himself. He paid $5.1 million for a sculpture that had been estimated at $1.5 million. Another sculpture that got unexpected attention was René Magritte’s Les grâces naturelles, estimated at $800,000 and bid to a $3 million hammer price. Henry Moore’s Animal Form (1969) also followed the sculpture trend, making a $1.75 million hammer against a $1 million estimate. 

Those few moments of excitement, on top of more than a dozen works that sold well, counterbalanced the majority of the works in the sale that had to be sacrificed below the consignor’s expectations. It was a fitting ending to a week of coping. It’s still winter in the art market. With the exception of the women Surrealists at Sotheby’s and the Warhol flowers at Christie’s, we’re still a long way from seeing strong signals of growth.