Last auction weeks in NY saw a record breaking total series of sales for Christie’s alone has reached $635m of Contemporary art, setting a new benchmark for the art market and setting 37 new records during its victorious sale week. Namely, that’s more than half of the $1.15bn in Contemporary art sold during the week and nearly the same total as the first Rockefeller evening sale.

In a fortnight that saw $2.7bn in public art transactions, that $635m might seem just a solid day’s trading.

But the shape of the sales total, counting also the  $131m at Phillips (+20% from last year spring sale)  and $392.3 million total at Sotheby’s ($284.5millions from postwar&contemporary +$107.8 million from white-glove auction of Mendel Collection) points to the culmination of a greater trend in the art market as a whole and the Contemporary market in particular.

We  probably have arrived at the end of a long road of art market growth.

But as Art dealer Levy Gorvy noticed: “You have to remember how much money has been spent these last two weeks. It just shows how much depth there is in this marketplace.”

Looking back, one can seem similarities between this sales season and the peak of the market in 2007 and early 2008. But there are important differences too:  where once that market culminated in a sense of euphoria, now this one is much more cautious, with wary buyers willing to invest only in safe and widely recognized names.  Prices are full, and the totals remain mind-bogglingly strong.

“There is an appetite and a hunger for great things”, commented  the advisor Abigail Asher, of Guggenheim Asher, “but the energy feels different.”

The mood at Phillips and Christie’s could not have been more different from each other and from the previous evening uptown at Sotheby’s, which surprised almost everyone.


“Past Times,” by Chicago-based painter Kerry James Marshall, the monumental canvas sold for $21.1 million at Sothebys. – Photo/Sothebys

In fact, Sotheby’s  post-war sale was particularly defined by high marks set for a number of African-American artists, who dominated the evening after years of being underrepresented in evening sales, an indication of changing tastes also thanks to an  increasing institutional support through shows dedicated to “Black Art” . We saw Kerry James Marshall ( last year subject of a celebrated traveling retrospective all around  USA), quadrupled his past record with Past Times (1997) sold for $21.1 million (according to rumors and yet confirmed news it was bought by rapper and music producer Sean Combs,known as  Puff Daddy or P. Diddy). Another sale highlight was a 12-by-12-foot work by the market’s top-selling African-American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat,  Flesh and Spirit (1982–83) sold for $30.7 million with fees. Then there were the  42 works that artists and their galleries had Sotheby’s sell to benefit the Studio Museum in Harlem, helping to bring it closer to completing a $175 million capital campaign for a new David Adjaye-designed building, which will begin construction this fall and has a projected 2021 opening date: five of those works were in Sotheby’s evening sale, bringing  $13.75 million  total sales, nearly doubling the high estimate of $6.95 million.


However, asked about the fact that the two big lots of the night failed get to the stratospheric nine-figure levels seen elsewhere (as David Hockney’s landscape), department director Billault pointed to the new records set that evening as an indicator of the house’s focus on sourcing work by in-demand artists who incite fierce bidding wars, and even if the total didn’t beat  the equivalent sale at Christie’s, he said:

We are not the biggest in terms of volume, but we are the more relevant,” he said. “We want to be the one who really has their pulse on the market, and read the next move in the market.”

On the other hand Phillips,came close to beating its best-ever result, set just a few months ago in London. The indisputable star of the auction as announced was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s, Flexible (1984),coming fresh to market directly from  the artist’s estate. Estimated in the region of $20m, it sold at $45.3m (with fees) to a client on the phone with Phillips’ deputy chair, Miety Heiden. About other top lots of the sales: bidders showed keen interest in Cory Arcangel’s, kaleidoscopic Photoshop CS […] (2011), which made $399,000 (est $150,000-$200,000) as well as on  Robert Motherwell’s At Five in the Afternoon (1971), another  anticipated highlight of the sale, which eventually brought $12.7m (with fees), narrowly meeting its $12m low estimate but nonetheless compounding the artist’s previous record of $3.7m. “We lifted Motherwell into a new price category”, commented Phillips chairman Cheyenne Westphal, “where we feel he should be.”

Robert Motherwell’s At Five in the Afternoon (1971), sold for $12.7m at Phillips

To conclude with some more details on triumphant Christie’s sales we cant’t mention how the burning evening sale on May 15th raised an unmatched $495,021,500 (£326,714,190/ €386,116,770), the highest total in auction history, setting an astonishing 16 new auction records for the foremost artists of the last six decades, with 3 works sold above $40 million, 9 above $10 million and 23 above $5 million. Among those top successful  pieces there was the blockbuster Bacon’s Study for Portrait (1977), which eventually achieved $49.8 million with fees, hammering at $44 million, a hefty amount over its pre-sale estimate, which was $31 million. But it was lot six that opened the floodgates with great new records for Richard Diebenkorn ( Ocean Park #126 (1984), sold for $23.9m ) and Joan Mitchell (sold for $14.5m from an original esteem of $4/5m). Also Andy Warhol’s silvered Double Elvis (Ferus Type) (1963) see result meeting expectations over it: it was sold for $37m at Sotheby’s in 2012 and now went for the same price to dealer Brett Gorvy, of Lévy Gorvy, on his cell phone in the room.

Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait, 1977. Courtesy of Christie’s.
Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait, 1977. Courtesy of Christie’s.

However we can notice how it was not a great night for the postwar and contemporary titans who have dominated the category in recent years: for instance Donald Judd’s wall stack, a Dan Flavin “monument” for V Tatlin, and a sombre Clyfford Still as well as orks by Jeff Koons, Yves Klein, Damien Hirst, Christopher Wool, and Agnes Martin sold but on the low end of their estimates.Also another highly announced highlight of the sale, Jeff Koons’s Play-Doh, eventually went for $22,9 million despite it was expected to highly exceed its esteem.

Joan Mitchell’s Blueberry (1969), sold at Christie’s for $16.6m

Sara Friedlander, the international director of post-war and contemporary art, said after the sale: “What we see time and again is people responding to things that are fresh to market that have been held and loved”.

To conclude, as advisor Baird Ryan, of Morgan Walker Fine Art, commented on Art newspaper we can see “a shift in tastes and a secular mood” driving a correction to the canon, but says there is also “a rotation in the market” away from certain names. “A few years ago, Richter was currency, and in a few years I’m sure he will be again… Until then, though, the smart money is elsewhere.”


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