New York May Auctions Start Slow with $267.3 M. Sales at Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s kicked off this month’s marquee New York auctions with two sales on Monday evening, one devoted to established contemporary artists, the other to emerging ones. Together, the two auctions brought in $267.3 million, for a total squarely within its pre-sale estimate of $241.8 million to $350.4 million.

These were the first two big auctions to take place during the annual May New York sales, with others to follow at Christie’s and Phillips. All these sales are happening against the backdrop of concerns of a weakening market and fewer estates coming to the block than in previous years. Simply based on estimates alone, the sales at Christies, Sotheby’s, and Phillips are down by around 18 percent compared to the ones held this time in 2023.

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Going into the sale, Sotheby’s at least had a leg up on Christie’s, whose website was still down on Monday, reportedly following a cyberattack. But the action at Sotheby’s this evening was relatively sluggish, doing little to dispel fears of a market slowdown.

Monday evening’s most expensive lot was Francis Bacon’s 1966 painting Portrait of George Dyer Crouching, the first of 10 full-scale portraits by Bacon depicting his lover George Dyer. The work on offer had been in the same collection for 54 years, having sold to its consignor in 1970, just four years after Bacon finished it. It came to auction with a $50 million high estimate, a number that seemed poised to put the painting among the most expensive ones by Bacon ever sold publicly.

Unfortunately for Sotheby’s, it was a big flop, failing to even meet its low estimate. The painting ended up selling for $27.7 million. (All figures reported here include premium, unless noted otherwise.) Murmurs abounded; many seemed awed by this hyped work’s implosion on the block.

The evening started out with more modest sums in the 18-lot “The Now” sale, devoted to the ultra-contemporary category, which refers to emerging artists and ones just gaining momentum at auction.

Eighteen lots were due to be offered, but one, a Cecily Brown painting, was withdrawn before the sale’s start. Sixteen of the lots sold, most of them performing respectably and about half selling above their estimates once premiums were counted in.

The top price in the sale was achieved by Kerry James Marshall’s 2005 painting Vignette #6, which had never before come to auction. It was acquired by its consignor at Jack Shainman Gallery in 2005, and had not been seen at market since then.

Expectations ran high for this painting, since another painting from Marshall’s “Vignette” series sold in 2019 for $18.5 million at Sotheby’s, becoming his second-most expensive painting at auction. This painting, which came to auction with a guarantee, didn’t perform quite so well, hammering at $6.5 million, $500,000 below its $7 million low estimate. With premium, however, that sum rose to $7.48 million.

The other major disappointment was Jeffrey Gibson’s evening sale debut, which came following the inauguration of the artist’s US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale last month. That should’ve provided ballast for his market—Simone Leigh’s 2022 pavilion certainly did for hers that year—but when Gibson’s 2014 sculpture Always After Now came up for sale at Sotheby’s, it failed to garner a single bid. It was the only work that went unsold in the “Now” sale tonight.

The big story of the evening was a 2019 Justin Caguiat painting called The saint is never busy. This young New York–based painter’s abstractions had only ever appeared at auction twice in the past, and Sotheby’s clearly thought this one would do well, awarding it the primo Lot 1 slot. The house’s expectations ended up being correct: a six-minute bidding war pushed this painting far beyond its $300,000 estimate, more than tripling that sum when it sold for $1.09 million, a new record for Caguiat.

The other big record in this sale was for Lucy Bull, whose abstractions have already done well at auction. Her 2020 painting 16:10 quickly zoomed past its $700,000 high estimate—which was, admittedly, a conservative number, given that her work had already sold for $1.76 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong this past October. It seemed at times as though auctioneer Phyllis Kao could barely keep up. “Everybody gets a turn,” she said, smiling as the painting sped past the $1 million mark. It sold for $1.81 million, more than doubling the estimate and generating a new benchmark for this 34-year-old painter.

Even though the “Now” sale did generate some momentum, the contemporary sale couldn’t quite sustain the excitement of the evening’s first hour.

Even discounting the underwhelming Bacon sale, other star lots also failed to deliver. A Richard Diebenkorn abstraction from his “Ocean Park” series, initially pegged to sell for as much as $25 million, failed to find a buyer altogether. The painting’s consignor, according to Artnet News, was Lorenzo Fertitta, who bought it at Christie’s New York in 2018 for $23.9 million, at the time a new auction record for the artist. On Monday, auctioneer Oliver Barker had to fish for bids to even bring it past its $14.8 million low estimate.

A Lucio Fontana “Concetto Spaziale” painting brought to auction from the Rachofsky Collection threatened to topple the artist’s record altogether, with a $30 million high estimate, but it didn’t even hammer at its $20 million low estimate, only meeting that sum once fees were counted in. The hammer price, at $19.7 million, rose to just under $23 million—a respectable figure, since it still makes the painting one of Fontana’s most expensive works, but one that was lower than the house had aimed for.

A shaped canvas by Frank Stella, Ifafa I (1964), appeared on the block shortly after another big Stella sale. In November, a Stella from collection of the late Chara Shreyer, Honduras Lottery Co., (1962), sold for $18.7 million—at the time Stella’s second-highest price at auction. Artnet News’s Katya Kazakina reported that Ifafa I came to the block from none other than dealer Irving Blum, whose Ferus Gallery showed Stella during the ’60s, just as he had achieved renown. The painting hit the block with a $14 million low estimate and hammered right at that amount. Not even the artist’s death earlier this month had done much to raise interest.

This was a low-risk sale, with 25 of the 35 lots coming to auction with guarantees, meaning that much of the works had been pre-sold. But even by that measure, this sale left something to be desired.

There were some successes. A collaborative painting by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat from 1984, sold for a new record for the duo’s series, at $19.4 million, squarely within the work’s $15 million–$20 million estimate. On the Nota Bene podcast earlier this week, art adviser Lock Kresler, a director at Helly Nahmad gallery in London, said this one is considered to be among the best in the series; the highest price for a painting in the series at auction is $11.4 million, achieved in 2014. The consignor bought this one at Sotheby’s in 2010 for just $2.7 million.

Four guaranteed Joan Mitchell paintings headed to auction at Sotheby’s on Monday, with three of them selling for above their estimates. The priciest of them, her abstraction Noon (ca. 1969), sold for $22.6 million. Just eight years ago, the consignor had bought it at Christie’s for less than half that value.

Faith Ringgold, who died in April, saw a new record when Dinner at Gertrude Stein’s: The French Collection Part II, #10 (1991), a quilted painting from the artist’s prized “French Collection” series, came up for sale as the auction’s first lot. It came to auction from the collection of Stanley and Mikki Weithorn, who lent it to a recent Ringgold retrospective. The painting was given a $700,000–$1 million estimate—double the artist’s auction record of $461,000, set at Swann Auction Galleries in 2015. Clearly Sotheby’s expected Dinner at Gertrude Stein’s to reset the record for the artist, and it did, selling for $1.57 million.

The flurry of bids for Ringgold’s painting made this work a rarity in this sale, where the buying activity seemed depressed. By the time an Alice Neel portrait of poet and photographer Gerard Malanga came up for sale, Barker was doing his best to stoke any energy at all. “It’s like extracting teeth, my goodness,” he said before the work sold for a within-estimate sum of $2.24 million. That remark could’ve been said at many different points tonight.

Still, the evening ended on a positive note when Yayoi Kusama’s 1958 painting The Pacific Ocean sold for $4.66 million, triple its high estimate. The work came to sale after its owner, curator Alice Denney, died last year at 101; seven minutes of bidding preceded that sale. “We’re going to have to forever put Kusama for the last lot!” Barker yelped. By that point, however, a good number of attendees had left for the evening, so this rare moment of excitement was missed by many.

After three hours, anyone who stayed until the end of the sale was probably hungry. But instead of the the usual assortment of cheese, crackers, and charcuterie available for guests, there were only empty champagne glasses.

When ARTnews asked a Sotheby’s staffer about this change, they simply replied, “The market has changed.”

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