Auction Watch May 2023: Sotheby's
Modern & Contemporary Sales Remain Steady at Sotheby's

Andy Warhol's silkscreen ink on paper appropriation of Sandro Botticelli's ‘Birth of Venus’. Botticelli's original composition is cropped, focusing on Venus' portrait. The portrait is executed in black ink on beige paper, with graphic lines delineated in yellow and orange in Venus' hair and eyes.Image © Sotheby's / Birth Of Venus (After Botticelli) © Andy Warhol c.1984
Rebecca Marsham

Rebecca Marsham, Sales Director[email protected]

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The Spring New York auctions, concluded on Friday, 19th May 2023, marked a significant moment in the art market. Christie's, Sotheby's, and Phillips strategically aligned their auctions with Frieze's annual return to The Shed in Manhattan, creating a week of heightened anticipation and excitement. These timed events provided valuable insights into the market's performance during the second quarter shedding light on the current state of the art market and its trajectory.

Our recent auction report focused on the sales conducted by Christie's and Phillips, which received widespread coverage concerning ‘sobering’ sales figures compared to the previous year. This trend aligns with the predicted conservatism that would permeate the art market in 2023 given the lingering macroeconomic uncertainties that characterised the end of 2022. The Fine Art Group and Guillaume Cerutti, CEO of Christie's, both noted a sense of caution within the market, resulting in adjusted estimates and prices of works. Despite this, the past week witnessed an impressive influx of new artworks, indicating that collectors are actively engaged, and there is still a strong appetite for acquiring works.

Below are the highlights from the main Sotheby’s sales:

Sotheby's New York: The Mo Ostin Collection 16 May

  1. Presale estimate: $103,300,000 - $155,300,000
  2. Sales total (hammer): $104,950,000, +1% low presale estimate
  3. Lots sold: 44/54
  4. Sell-through rate: 81%

Kicking off Sotheby’s consecutive sales was the highly anticipated Mo Ostin collection, a legendary music executive known for his creative genius and unwavering support for artists. The top lots of this opening sale showcased a bold and forward-thinking collection predominately composed of Modern and Contemporary artworks. Notably, all of these works were sold without third-party or house guarantees, underscoring the confidence in their artistic merit and ability to command strong prices.

The star lot of the sale is accredited to the renowned surrealist artist René Magritte, who has garnered significant attention since his record-breaking sale at Sotheby's in March 2022 for the work L'Empire des lumières (1961), achieving an astounding price of £60 million (fees included). Building on this ongoing momentum, Sotheby’s presented L'Empire Des Lumières (1951) in this sale, belonging to the same iconic series, ”The Empire of Lights’’, as the record-breaking work.

The artwork itself is remarkable, characterised by its uncanny and ironic merging of the possible and seemingly impossible. While it didn't reach the same selling price as the other work from the series, it secured the second-highest selling price for Magritte, realising an impressive $42,273,000. This price serves as a testament to the enduring popularity of the series and the artist's profound influence. Notably, the hammer price of this work accounted for 34% of the total sale.

Other noteworthy achievements in this sale included Roy Lichtenstein's Leda And The Swan (Study), 1968, which surpassed its high presale estimate by an impressive 45%, selling for $2,903,500.

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The performance of Jean-Michel Basquiat's Moon View (1984) was equally remarkable, also exceeding its high presale estimate. Basquiat, alongside Lichtenstein, continues to demonstrate market sustainability. Recent exhibitions have contributed to his significant presence in the Contemporary Art market and art history: including a show at Foundation Louis Vuitton in Paris, alongside the King of Pop Andy Warhol, and a retrospective of his rarely seen works in Los Angeles contributing to his significant presence in the Contemporary Art market and art history.

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Sotheby’s New York: Modern Evening Auction 16 May

  1. Presale estimate: $103,300,000 - $155,300,000
  2. Sales total (hammer): $258,110,000, -6% low presale estimate
  3. Lots sold: 40/48
  4. Sell-through rate: 83%

Immediately following the Mo Ostin collection Sotheby’s presented its Modern Evening sale. This sale boasted 48 lots, and among the most anticipated and marketed was Austrian painter Gustav Klimt’s Insel Im Attersee (Island in the Attersee) (circa 1901 - 1902). With an undisclosed estimate, this piece was unsurprisingly the top-performing work achieving a staggering $53,188,500, solidifying its place as the fourth-highest price paid for a Klimt painting at auction and accounting for 20% of the total sale.

Despite other impressive performances from male and female modern masters, including a range of works from Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger and Georgia O’Keefe, ultimately, this sale hammered just below its low presale estimate. Predominately made up of Modern and Impressionist works, this auction reaffirmed the significance of blue chip modern works on the secondary market while also hinting at a shift in buying preference as collectors increasingly directed their interest towards Contemporary and Post-War influences. This evolving trend is anticipated to gain prominence in the auction year's second half.

Download our Ultimate Five Year Print Market Report and our Modern British Prints Report to learn about the biggest players in the current art market.

Sotheby’s New York: The Now Evening Auction 18 May

  1. Presale estimate: $6,298,000 - $9,512,000
  2. Sales total (hammer): $30,070,000, +2% low presale estimate
  3. Lots sold: 19/23
  4. Sell-through rate: 82%

Sotheby’s The Now Sale exclusively features young contemporary works by artists under 40 and kicked off on the 18th May. Despite concerns of a potential decline in this thriving artistic category due to the current economic climate, these carefully curated sales have historically garnered immense popularity and success. This latest sale proved no different surpassing the low presale estimate with healthy performances by the youngest rising stars of the art world. However, it is worth noting that the estimates for these artists' works were more conservative than previous sales, including a piece by Gagosian-represented star Jadé Fadojutimi.

The standout lot in this auction was Kerry James Marshall's Untitled (Mask Boy) (2014), showcasing the significance of collecting works by black artists and their enduring investment potential. Making its auction debut, the artwork achieved the sixth-highest price paid for a James Marshall piece since 2019, with a realised price of $5,734,800. This sale fell within its estimated range of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000, marking continued success in his market performance.

Sotheby’s New York: Contemporary Evening Auction 18 May

  1. Presale estimate: $139,850,000 - $192,250,000
  2. Sales total (hammer): $145,250,000, +3% low presale estimate
  3. Lots sold: 27/27
  4. Sell-through rate: 100%

The second white-glove sale of the May Marquee auction week, in addition to the S.I. Newhouse Collection presented by Christie’s, was Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Auction which yielded positive results with a 100% sell-through rate by presenting attractive works by top-performing contemporary artists.

The first offered lot was a captivating work by the beloved artist David Hockney. Drawing Of A Pool And Towel (1971) is a work on paper depicting a serene backyard pool with vibrant, spontaneous, squiggled yellow ripples that beautifully reflect the sun's rays perfectly encapsulating the essence of what Hockney enthusiasts seek in his art.

Previously sold at Christie's London in December 1999 for £100,500, this work realised an astounding price of $3,085,000 in the current sale surpassing its high presale estimate by over 2-times and marking a remarkable increase of 30-times its previous value in 1999.

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The standout moment of the auction unfolded with the awe-inspiring 11-foot Spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois created in 1996. This remarkable creation showcased Bourgeois at the pinnacle of her artistic prowess, where her spider works reign supreme, exuding an exquisite blend of haunting elegance and otherworldly allure. This sale marked the first appearance of a large-scale spider sculpture on the market since 2019. Therefore, the auction-record price of $32,804,500 was expected, given its significance and appeal as edition one out of six.

For more information about buying and selling Louise Bourgeois works, head to Edition Magazine to explore our comprehensive guides.

Midway through the sale, the spotlight shone brightly on Jean-Michel Basquiat, underscoring his unmistakable presence across the May Marquee sales. A standout piece and first-time auction appearance Now's The Time (1985), is a unique recreation of the vinyl pressing of renowned Jazz musician Charlie Parker's composition from 1945. This artwork unmistakably intertwines the intersections of music and art and is fortuitously included in a sale that coincides with the Mo Ostin collection whose record label Verve was home to Parker. Furthermore, the title symbolically affirms Basquiat's current dominance in auction sales: Now’s the Time! The work achieved an impressive price of $28,634,000, against an undisclosed estimate.

Sotheby’s New York: Contemporary Day Auction 19 May

  1. Presale estimate: $62,658,000 - $89,176,000
  2. Sales total (hammer): $65,678,100, +4% low presale estimate
  3. Lots sold: 291/346
  4. Sell-through rate: 84%

Wrapping up New York's May Marquee week, Sotheby's held its Contemporary Day auction on 19th of May, presenting a staggering collection of 291 artworks across two sessions. Among this extensive offering, Yayoi Kusama's captivating piece, Infinity-Nets TWXOB (2014), emerged as the standout performer. Making its debut in the market, it achieved a remarkable price of $2,964,000, surpassing its high presale estimate of $1,800,000.

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Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein showcased their unwavering influence, securing top positions among the formidable lots in this monumental auction. Lichtenstein's Water Lily Pond With Reflections (1992), a printer's proof, claimed the fourth top spot by surpassing its high presale estimate by an impressive 4.7-times, reaching a record-breaking price of $1,875,000. This marks a significant increase from its previous record of $742,000 (fees included) set in 2015.

Warhol's Birth Of Venus (After Botticelli) (1984) made its auction debut and astoundingly achieved $2,691,000, surpassing its high presale estimate by almost 6-times. The work's rare and sizable dimensions undoubtedly contributed to its remarkable price.

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Finally, we cannot overlook the inclusion of a David Hockney’s, Lithographic Water Made Of Lines, Crayon And Two Blue Washes (1980). While various iterations of this highly sought-after series have emerged in the secondary market, read about appearances in our April 2023 Auction Report, this particular rendition stands apart with its captivating colours, commanding the highest price ever paid for a print in this series. Surpassing its high presale estimate of $150,000, the artwork achieved an impressive $215,900 in the sale.

Text table breaking down May 2023 New York auction results at Christie's, Phillips and Sotheby's.May 2023 New York Auction Summaries © MyArtBroker 2023

The Second Half of The Art Market: Trends, Expectations, Opportunities

New York concluded an eagerly anticipated and eventful sales week, showcasing a diverse range of artworks. As anticipated, the art market has witnessed several significant trends predicted at the end of 2022. These include the rising prominence of black and women artists, a moderation in demand for young contemporary works, an increase in offerings from single-owner collections, and a general cooling in the global market. Despite this overall cooling, there remains a fervent appetite for art, benefiting sellers more than buyers. The recent auction sales showcased not only a substantial volume of artworks but also impressive transactions, indicating robust activity in the market.

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