Auction Watch May 2023: Christie's & Phillips
Established blue chip artist markets remain robust at Christie’s and Phillips

A landscape painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat featuring African masks, sketches of figures, insects, and plants with text written about the composition.Image © Christie's / El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) © Jean-Michel Basquiat 1983
Rebecca Marsham

Rebecca Marsham, Sales Director[email protected]

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May Marquee sales at Christie’s and Phillips New York ushered fears that the art market is entering a corrective period, and finally feeling the effects of global economic downturn. Since the beginning of 2023, the market has been largely resilient to the effects of war in Ukraine, global alarm of recession, and a spike in cost of living. May Marquee sales disrupted this rose-tinted facade, as artworks failed to reach their low presale estimates at Christie’s and overall sale totals were lower than expected.

However, the reality is not as severe as it might seem. Total sales are still expected to reach as much as $2.2billion across Sotheby’s, Christie's, and Phillips and blue chip artist markets remain robust.

In the past fortnight, collectors gathered at Christie’s and Phillips New York for a series of eclectic sales, touting a range of works from Ultra-Contemporary red chip artists to the stalwart blue chip masters of American Pop, Modern British, Post-War & Contemporary, and Urban & Street Art. Though concern arose after Christie’s A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection Part I on 18 May, which failed to reach its total presale low estimate by 24%, the reality across the multiple sales at Christie’s and Phillips is indicative of enduring appetite in the art market.

Performing particularly well at the fortnight’s auctions were the titans of American Pop: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring. Likewise, the formidable David Hockney continued to perform exceptionally across auctions at Christie’s and Phillips. Impressive results were also achieved by Yayoi Kusama, Damien Hirst, and Christopher Wool. Indeed, though some of these sales have been described as ‘sobering’ or ‘underwhelming’, blue chip artist markets continued to perform well in spite of concerns.

Here are the highlights from each of the Christie’s and Phillips sales:

Christie’s New York: 20th Century Evening Sale 12 May

  1. Presale estimate: $254,300,000-$365,350,000
  2. Sales total (hammer): $276,110,000, +8% low presale estimate
  3. Lots sold: 44/54
  4. Sell-through rate: 81%

Christie's New York made a positive start to May Marquee sales with their 20th Century Evening Sale on 12 May. Though the sales total (hammer) was only 8% over the low presale estimate, an overall sell-through rate of 81% with only 10 unsold lots made for an encouraging sale. The sale boasted impressive works from a range of established blue chip artists, with Modern and Pop works emerging as the star of the show.

Pablo Picasso's mature market proved salient in this sale, with his Nature Morte à la Fenétre (1932) emerging as the second highest lot of the sale. The portrait of Picasso's young lover and muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter, was estimated to fetch within the region of $40million and - as expected - realised $41,810,000 at its auction debut. The painting had no third-party guarantee - a rarity for such a high-calibre work - which attests to Picasso's stronghold in the 2023 art market.

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Likewise, Modern British Master David Hockney also performed phenomenally at this auction, with all three of his unique paintings soaring past their high presale estimates. Two auction debuts took place here for Felled Trees (2008) and Early Blossom, Woldgate (2009), which achieved $10,760,000 and $19,385,000 respectively. Hockney's The Gate (2000) also made an impressive sale at its second appearance in auction, realising $14,670,000 and surpassing its high presale estimate of $8,000,000.

Over these three oil on canvas works alone, Hockney realised a neat $44,815,000 turnover at this sale. Proving his enduring popularity among collectors, Hockney's art market dominance shows no sign of waning in 2023 - a fact spurred by his perpetual productivity and 2023 exhibitions and showcases.

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Pop Art luminary Ed Ruscha also fared well at this sale, with three works in different media all performing well. Ruscha's works all comfortably reached their low presale estimate, while Business (1966) far-exceeded its high estimate of $350,000 and realised $630,000 at its first auction appearance.

Ruscha also made a standout sale with Burning Gas Station (c.1966-69). Though the work sat at the lower end of its presale estimate of $20,000,000-$30,000,000, it achieved $22,260,000. The painting is the fifth in a series of Standard Station paintings Ruscha executed in the 1960s. Marking one of the first instances of Ruscha developing his infamous ombre backgrounds, Burning Gas Station is a pivotal work in the Pop Artist's oeuvre and this example is one of the two paintings from the series to ever hit the secondary market. Indeed, the sale proves that there is healthy appetite for Ruscha and also testifies to the robust nature of the American Pop market at large.

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Christie’s New York: Post-War & Contemporary Art Day Sale 12 May

  1. Presale estimate: $56,531,500-$82,109,000
  2. Sales total (hammer): $64,436,500, +14% low presale estimate
  3. Lots sold: 226/252
  4. Sell-through rate: 89%

Also on 12 May, Christie's made ample progress with their Post-War & Contemporary Art Day Sale. Once again, the sales total (hammer) exceeded its low presale estimate by 14%. With a sell-through rate of 89%, the sale testifies to collectors' proclivity for Post-War & Contemporary Art. The market for American Pop, in particular, proved itself to be resilient and recession-proof at this sale: with Basquiat, Warhol and Haring fetching high returns.

Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled (Cartoon Dog) (1983) exceeded its high presale estimate of $800,000 and realised $945,500. This early work demonstrates the artist developing the techniques and motifs he is most renowned for, with his naive execution of imagery and textual elements. Across the multiples sales at Christie's and Phillips this month so far, Basquiat has fared particularly well - proof in point that this titan of American Pop is experiencing a spike of interest in the current market.

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Andy Warhol and Keith Haring also performed particularly well at this auction, with some lesser-known works attracting collectors' and investors' attention. Six Warhol lots were sold at this sale, hammering for $1,945,000 and realising $2,450,700 altogether. Diamond Dust Shoes (1983) was the top-performing Warhol work at this sale and realised $945,000, sitting comfortably within the presale estimate of $800,000-$1,200,000. The healthy result is unsurprising given the popularity of Warhol's luxe Diamond Dust Shoes series, with prints and editions from the body of work also fetching high returns so far this year.

Warhol's Untitled (Lobster) (1984) - a more unique work from the artist's oeuvre - more than tripled its high presale estimate of $120,000 and achieved $378,000. We witnessed a similar trend last month in the Warhol print market, where more niche and lesser-known early works fared particularly well at auction. With one of the most established mature markets in American Pop, Warhol's market is in a healthy position and yielding high results in this auction cycle.

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Two 1981 Untitled works by Haring also appeared at the auction, with both performing very well. Untitled (1981) more than doubled its high presale estimate of $50,000 and realised $126,00. The sale proves, once again, that appetite is strong among the market for American Pop, especially for unique works that give collectors an edge within this popular collector base.

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Among the Contemporary artists appearing at this auction, Hockney and Yayoi Kusama fared particularly well. Kusama's High Heels For Going To Heaven (2013) soared 47% above its high presale estimate of $600,000, and achieved $882,000. This was the first auction appearance for the kitsch sculpted work and was met with distinct success, perhaps partly owing to Kusama’s recent collaboration with fashion house Louis Vuitton.

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Christie’s New York: 21st Century Evening Sale 15 May

  1. Presale estimate: $68,000,000-$83,110,000
  2. Sales total (hammer): $83,625,000, +22%
  3. Lots sold: 25/26
  4. Sell-through rate: 96%

One of the most successful Christie's sales of the May Marquee auction cycle, 21st Century Evening Sale on 15 May had an exceptionally high sell-through rate of 96%. Exceeding its low presale total estimate by 22%, this auction proves that the art market is remaining resilient amidst economic downturn.

Basquiat's El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) (1983) was the undisputed star of the show, and one of the most anticipated sales of the May Marquee sales. The colossal painting was purchased by fashion designer Valentino Garavini in 2016 for $5.2million, and was estimated to achieve around $45million at Christie’s. After an intense and dramatic bidding war between Larry Gagosian and a telephone bidder, which lasted no less that five-minutes, the mysterious telephone bidder came out on top with a realised price of $67,110,000.

Likewise, Kusama performed well once again at this sale - this time with one of her iconic pumpkins. The acrylic on canvas Pumpkin in yellow and black was expected to achieve around $4,000,000-$6,000,000. The work realised $4,890,000, sitting neatly within this presale estimate, establishing a record price for a yellow pumpkin work in these dimensions for a European auction house.

Phillips New York: 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session 16 May

  1. Presale estimate: $14,399,000-$21,214,000
  2. Sales total (hammer): $16,754,500, +16% low presale estimate
  3. Lots sold: 132/156
  4. Sell-through rate: 84%

Phillips continued May Marquee sales with their 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session on 16 May. Achieving a sales total (hammer) of $16,754,500, the auction exceeded its low presale total estimate by 16%. Once again, though this might seem like a low percentile, it is evidence that the art market is proving strong in the current global economic climate.

Roy Lichtenstein's Brushstroke Sculpture (1982) well exceeded its high estimate of $700,000 and achieved an astonishing $1,016,000. Typical of Lichtenstein's ceaseless fascination with art history, visual culture, and different media, the sculpture appropriates the appearance of paint strokes in a three-dimensional sculpture. Graphic black lines give presence to these primary colour brushstrokes, and give the sculpted work a quintessentially Lichtenstein appeal. Part of a small edition of six, this is the first time this particular sculpture has appeared at auction.

The Pop Artist's Collage For Seascape (1964) also performed well, narrowly surpassing its high presale estimate and achieving $101,600. Lichtenstein's works appear less frequently on the secondary market than his Pop Art peers, drawing collectors and investors to sales like this when they appear.

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Phillips New York: 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session 16 May

  1. Presale estimate: $12,470,000-$17,777,000
  2. Sales total (hammer): $13,750,000, +10% low presale estimate
  3. Lots sold: 150/184
  4. Sell-through rate: 81%

Solid and stable results continued in Phillips' 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session. Like the morning sale, the auction exceeded it low presale total estimate by 10% with a sell-through rate of 81%. Though the sale total was nowhere near the high presale estimate of $17,777,000, the majority of lots sold within their presale estimates or exceeded them (with fees included).

Among the Ultra Contemporary artists sold at the sale, Damien Hirst performed particularly well. Hirst's Cancer (2008) massively exceeded its high estimate of $60,000, and reached almost double with fees included with a realised $107,950. The butterfly canvas work was previously sold at Sotheby’s London in 2008 at Damien Hirst - The Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, where it reached £55,250. The sale at Phillips was an impressive one indeed, and indicative of Hirst’s popularity among collectors - something we saw after the stellar reception of his most recent collaboration with Heni, The Beautiful Paintings.

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Phillips New York: 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale 17 May

  1. Presale estimate: $59,740,000-$85,150,000
  2. Sales total (hammer): $59,380,000, -6% low presale estimate
  3. Lots sold 33/37
  4. Sell-through rate: 89%

Though Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 17 May was 6% below its low presale total estimate, certain star works from blue chip artist markets prevailed. With a sell-through rate of 89%, the large sale still reached a sales total (hammer) of $59,380,000 with stellar results from Banksy and Warhol.

Elusive Street Artist Banksy made a particularly exciting appearance in this sale with the auction debut of Banksquiat, Boy And Dog In Stop & Search (2018). The work had a high presale estimate of $8,000,000-$12,000,000 and realised a comfortable and impressive $9,724,000 - becoming the star lot of the show. Like many of the works on offer this month, the work might not have climbed above its high estimate, but the sale demonstrates that the art market is still healthy despite the global economic reality. This work in particular, with its homage to Basquiat, might be used as an indication as to where appetite lies in the current market. Basquiat himself performed exceptionally well at Christie’s and Phillips this past fortnight. Though collectors and investors entered the auctions with a greater degree of hesitation, however works by established blue chip artists remained high in demand.

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Warhol's Self-Portrait (Fright Wig) (1986) also performed exceptionally after realising $1,633,000 - far exceeding its high presale estimate of $1,200,000. The sale marked the highest price paid for a Warhol self-portrait in this size. The previous record price for a self-portrait in this size was for a red Fright Wig work that sold in Christie’s London in 2007 for $1.36m.

Likewise, Warhol's blue and yellow painting of Mao (1973) also performed well, realising $1,117,000 and sitting comfortably within the $800,000-$1,200,000 presale estimate. His Mona Lisa Four Times (1973), on the other hand, did not perform so well. Realising $2,359,000, the work didn’t reach its low presale estimate of $3,000,000. These Warhol sales might be used as an indication as to the themes that are performing best in Warhol's oeuvre in 2023, with the celebrity artist's self-portraits (unsurprisingly) faring better than his works exploring art historical references.

Another Lichtenstein work, Girl In Mirror (1964), made its auction debut and was the third highest lot of the sale, realising $5,505,000 - just over the high estimate of $5,500,000. Clearly, American Pop is experiencing a surge of popularity in today's market as collectors have flocked to bid on these covetable works.

Christie’s New York: A Century of Art: The Gerald Finberg Collection Part I 18 May

  1. Presale estimate: $163,000,000-$235,450,000
  2. Sales total (hammer): $124,730,000, -24% low presale estimate
  3. Lots sold: 59/65
  4. Sell-through rate: 90%

Considered an ‘underwhelming’ sale, Christie's A Century of Art: The Gerald Finberg Collection Part I on 18 May was 24% below its low presale total estimate. This nuanced sale from Gerald Fineberg's eclectic and wide-ranging personal collection featured Modern masterpieces alongside Contemporary figurative paintings by the likes of Alice Neel. Though the sale had a sell-through rate of 90%, the sales total (hammer) was $124,730,000 - far cry from the low estimate of $163,000,000. However, it is crucial to remember that none of the entries in this sale were backed by house or third-party guarantees.

However the reality isn’t as bleak as it has been made out to seem. Christopher Wool’s Untitled (1993), and enamel on aluminium work which features the words “FUCKEM IF THEY CANT TAKE A JOKE” in multiple colours. Despite failing to reach the excessive presale estimate of $15,000,000-$20,000,000, the work still realised $10,070,000 and came out on top as the star lot of the sale. This was the first time the work was offered at auction, and a handsome performance despite missing the low estimate.

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Likewise, Lichtenstein’s Sky And Water (1985) failed to reach its low presale estimate and realised $3,256,500 and Picasso’s Bust d’Homme Lauré (1979) also missed the mark and fetched $8,460,000 - as opposed to the $9,000,000 low estimate. These lower price points are owed partly to the fact that the sale wasn’t backed by house or third-party guarantees, and because the reserves were lower than at other May Marquee sales.

However, there were still some exceptional performances throughout the sale. Basquiat’s Brain (1985) achieved beyond its $5,000,000 high estimate and realised $5,616,000 at its auction debut: exceeding the high estimate by 12%.

Likewise, another Kusama Pumpkin (1991) just exceeded its high estimate of $2,000,000, and realised $2,046,500. These sales a proof in point that, though overall sales figures were ‘low’, the auction still yielded strong results for blue chip artists with mature markets.

Christie’s New York: A Century of Art: The Gerald Finberg Collection Part II 18 May

  1. Presale estimate: $35,052,000-$51,473,000
  2. Sales total (hammer): $35,034,500, -1% low presale estimate
  3. Lots sold: 144/149
  4. Sell-through rate: 96%

The following day Part II of the Gerald Fineberg collection commenced selling 144 works which achieved 96% sell-through rate. The top-performing lot was a work by American artist Ed Ruscha. The Future (1981) hammered at $1.5 million, 25% above its presale high estimate of $1.2 million. This sale demonstrated Fineberg’s interest and dedication to collecting Post-War and Contemporary works of art through impressive offerings of Warhol and Basquiat works.

Once again, it was the masters of American Pop who experienced a particular heyday at this sale. Warhol's Self-Portrait (two works) (1967) exceeded its high presale estimate of $800,000, and realised $882,000. His quaint Speedboat (1983) also performed phenomenally, more than doubling the $120,000 high estimate and achieving $252,000.

One of the most intriguing lots of the sale was a collaborative mixed media work by Warhol and Basquiat, titled Eggs (1986). The painting far-exceeded its high presale estimate of £200,000 and realised $302,400. The success of the monochromatic works coincides with an increased institutional focus on Warhol and Basquiat in recent months, as the Pop pair are currently the subject of an exhibition at Foundation Louis Vuitton in Paris.

Of all the established artists featured in the May Marquee sales thus far, Basquiat and Warhol have provided superlative results which speak to heightened interest in the artists on a global scale. Celebrities in their own right, with a crucial position in social and art history alike, the performance of Warhol and Basquiat certainly testifies to the solid position of the American Pop market in 2023.

“The art market's sustainability amid economic disruptions has been a prominent and ongoing discussion since 2022. Despite recent New York sales performing just above or below presale estimates, the introduction of numerous fresh to the market works from private estates is noteworthy. Collectors are still buying and engaging, albeit with reduced intensity compared to the COVID-19 pandemic or the Paul G. Allen sale, but the lower figures seem to reflect a natural regression in buying patterns rather than being solely driven by economic factors.”
Sheena Carrington, Market Editor at MyArtBroker

Is A Corrective Period Ensuing in the Art Market?

In the past fortnight, Christie’s total hammer stands at $730,699,600 across seven sales, and the Phillips total hammer stands at $86,884,500 - both above their presale low estimates, though not by a wide margin. The two auction houses had a total sell-through rate of 87.04% and 83.55%, respectively.

Indeed, it may well be the case that the art market is finally beginning to the feel the effects of global macroeconomic conditions. Although, conditions are certainly not as grave as it might seem, as blue chip artist markets continue to remain resilient. The slight dip in sales shows that the art market is not totally immune to economic volatility - but no market truly is. However, the sales at Christie’s and Phillips prove that appetite is certainly still there. Trends might fluctuate within this precarious socio-economic climate, but the art market is proving resilient thus far.

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