Auction Watch November 2023: New York Marquee Sales
Christie’s 20th/21st Century Evening Sales

Untitled (Bacchus 1st Version II) by Cy Twombly - Christie's 2023Image © Christie's / Untitled (Bacchus 1st Version II) © Cy Twombly 2004
Joe Syer

Joe Syer, Co-Founder & Specialist[email protected]

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Christie's 21st Century Evening sale kicked off the New York marquee sales, closely followed by its 20th-century sale held at Rockefeller Centre. The demand for blue chip artists was prominently showcased during Frieze week in October. Within Christie's combined 20th and 21st-century sales, a notable number of artworks by renowned artists–Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and David Hockney–commanded impressive seven to eight-figure prices, substantially elevating the total sales figures. Nevertheless, a significant portion of these works fell short of expectations, failing to meet the low estimate.

Equally remarkable was the prevalence of artworks that were secured by auction houses and third-party guarantors, often involving both parties. These patterns and trends underscore the cautious approach characterising the art market, influenced by prevailing economic conditions. Investors are approaching art acquisitions with careful and strategic considerations. It is anticipated that day sales featuring more reasonably priced works by the same artists will gain prominence, further enhancing the credibility of the print market in the current year.


21st Century Evening Sale - 7/11 (Live)

  1. Presale estimate: $100,040,000 - $144,170,000
  2. Sales Total Hammer: $88,380,000 / -12% below low estimate
  3. Sell-through rate: 95%
    1. Above: 34% (14)
    2. Within: 24% (10)
    3. Below: 36% (15)
    4. Unsold: 4% (2)

Christie’s 21st-century sale boasted an impressive 95% sell-through rate. Despite this robust figure, the sale fell short of its projected low estimate by 12%. This shortfall was exacerbated by the withdrawal of two lots: a Jean-Michel Basquiat artwork valued at $4.5 million and a Mark Bradford canvas valued at $5 million. Even if these two works had sold at their low estimates, the sale would still have lagged by 5%, highlighting a cautious approach to art purchasing.

An Untitled painting by Keith Haring - Christie's 2023Image © Christie's / Untitled © Keith Haring 1982

However, the auction did not result in failure. Out of the 36 works that were sold, only 12 fell below the six-figure mark, revealing several significant trends. Firstly, the majority of the sold works belonged to blue chip artists, and their pieces, which did achieve seven to eight-figure results, played a substantial role in the overall sale. On the flip side, many of these high-value works sold below their estimated values. This suggests a nuanced and complex market, indicating the values of these works are set too high and require adjustment—a sobering realisation. This also hints at collectors capitalising on opportunities to acquire artworks at bargain prices. For example, a rare Keith Haring work fetched $2.7 million with fees, but this result was 22% below the low estimate, making it an attractive deal for such a formative work of his career.

Secondly, the superior performance of ultra-contemporary artists compared to established blue chip heavyweights did not go unnoticed. For instance, Jade Fadojutimi’s A Thistle Throb (2021) fetched $1,683,500 with fees, surpassing its high estimate by 2.4 times. Similarly, Llana Savdie’s A High-Pitched Complicity (2020) realised $201,600, exceeding the high estimate by 2.9 times. These performances are noteworthy given the recent cooling of the ultra-contemporary segment.

Lastly, black artists performed remarkably. Rashid Johnson’s Bruise Painting (2021) generated high bidding, realising $1,744,000 against a $1.2 million high estimate. Similarly, Robert Colescott's Eat dem taters (1975) achieved $3,922,000, surpassing the $3 million high estimate. Both these works made their first-time auction appearances, underscoring the sustained demand for black artists within the market.

Here are the most valuable lots:

Star Lots

Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat

Cy Twombly’s Untitled (Bacchus 1st Version II) (2004), emerged as the highly anticipated star lot of the auction. The painting features Twombly’s distinctive vermillion loops at the centre, painted in red, cascading down the yellow background. Infused with energy and dynamism this artwork hammered at $1 million below the low estimate. With fees, this work realised $19,960,000, newly situated within the estimated range, albeit toward the lower end. Despite being the star lot, the price appears as a bargain for a piece belonging to a series showcased in the permanent collection of the Tate.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (1981) is a large-scale creation embodying several characteristics that defined his subsequent career. Originating from 1961, this artwork was crafted when Basquiat was merely 20 years old, serving as a precursor and foundational piece. Having last sold at Sotheby’s over a decade ago in 2007 for $5.7 million, this auction marks its third appearance on the market. Although hammering at the low estimate of $10 million, the artwork realised $11,910,000 (with fees), more than doubling its 2007 sales value hinting at a substantial return. This work secured the position of the second-highest selling piece in the sale.

Twombly's Untitled (Bacchus 1st Version II) was auction house backed and Basquiat's Untitled painting was both auction house and third-party guaranteed.

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Abstraktes Bild (890-2) by Gerhard Richter - Christie's 2023 Image © Christie's / Abstraktes Bild (890-2) © Gerhard Richter 2004

Blue Chip Artists Who Made It

Gerhard Richter and Damien Hirst

Gerhard Richter and Damien Hirst had favourable outcomes when compared to those that hit within estimates only after fees. Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (890-2) (2004) hammered within the estimates at $2.1 million, ultimately realising $2,591,000 with fees. Similarly, Hirst, who has experienced significant success with his Spots series this year in the print market, mirrored that triumph with Veil of Imagination (2017). This artwork, featuring jubilant and confetti-coloured dots, hammered at the low estimate of $1 million and achieved $1,260,000 with fees.

Richter's Abstraktes Bild (890-2) was auction house and third-party guaranteed.

Blue Chips Artists Who Just Hit The Bar

Andy Warhol, Yayoi Kusama and Jeff Koons

Andy Warhol and Yayoi Kusama delivered modest performances; however, their contributions remained significant to the overall sale. Warhol's Diamond Dust Shoes (1980) in various colours, fetched $1,683,500, slightly surpassing the $1.5 million low estimate with fees. Nevertheless, this result pales in comparison to the previous record set at the recent Sotheby’s London marquee sale, where a pink hue achieved £3.3 million (GBP).

Kusama, on the other hand, fared better in this Christie’s sale compared to her performance during the London marquee auctions where Flame (1992) went unsold at Christie’s. In this sale, Infinity Nets (ACWRTO) (2013) realised $2,107,000, falling within the lower end of the low estimate with fees.

Jeff Koons also made an unexpected appearance. Koons' art market has experienced a noticeable adjustment in 2023. A win for his market, but following a similar trajectory as Warhol and Kusama, a sculpture work, Aphrodite (2016-2021) sold for seven figures, but only managed to reach the estimated value with fees. Aphrodite, Koons’ representation of the Greek goddess, was sold for $4,043,000, just over the $4 million low estimate.

Kusama's Infinity Nets (ACWRTO) was auction house and third-party guaranteed.

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20th Century Evening Sale - 9/11 (Live)

  1. Presale estimate: $318,240,000 - $467,400,000
  2. Sales Total Hammer: $543,475,000 / +69% above the low estimate
  3. Sell-through rate: 93%
    1. Above: 25% (17)
    2. Within: 21% (14)
    3. Below: 38% (25)
    4. Unsold: 6% (4)

Christie's 20th Century sale commenced on the evening of November 9th, drawing high anticipation not only for the artworks being sold but also because it marked the final performance of auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen. Pylkkänen's swan song seemed to be a success, given the $543,475,000 at the hammer in the current market climate. However, the reality is that almost half of the works went unsold or failed to reach the low estimate, similar to the 21st Century sale. Also similar was the substantial number of works backed by the auction house itself, surpassing those with third-party guarantees. This observation is intriguing as it suggests that auction houses are actively investing in the art market, bolstering confidence and cash flow.

The auction featured an array of Impressionist works by 20th century masters including Paul Cézanne and Claude Monet, both contributing significantly with results reaching eight figures. Claude Monet's Le bassin aux nymphéas (1917) achieved a remarkable $74,010,000 (with fees) making it the star lot of the sale. Overall, the 20th Century sale underscored the unwavering appeal of modern artworks, significantly outperforming their contemporary counterparts in the 21st century sale. However, the auction was still speckled with select works by heavyweight blue chip contemporary artists, a strategy employed by auction houses to diversify spending across different sales.

Beginning with 21st century artists, here are the highlights:

Self-Portrait a painting by Andy Warhol - Christie's 2023Image © Christie's / Self-Portrait © Andy Warhol 1967

21st Century Contemporary Visionaries

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol had several offerings in the auction, with the most expensive lot being Sixteen Jackies (1964). This piece, part of Warhol's Death and Disaster series, generated high anticipation following the record set by White Disaster (White Car Crash 19 Times) (1963) in the previous year's marquee sales. While this work didn't break a new record, it reflected the current economic conditions by just reaching its $25,000,000 low estimate with fees. Regardless, the eight figure sum did contribute to the overall sale, reaching $25,940,000. Once again, it seemed like a remarkable price for a work from this highly sought-after series.

Another Warhol work that met expectations with fees was Self-Portrait (1967). This vividly extravagant piece portrays Warhol with his striking golden hair and fair skin against a cerulean blue background, placing him among the Hollywood celebrities he often painted.This sale marked the work's second auction appearance, resurfacing after 36 years. It previously sold for $49,500 in 1987, but in this sale, it achieved $5,495,000 (with fees), demonstrating the substantial growth and potential of Warhol's dominant market.

Also making an appearance was the timeless Flowers (1964) by Warhol. The bold yellow hibiscus flowers set against green foliage made for an attractive work that hammered above the $2 million estimate at $2.8 million and realised $3,438,000 (with fees).

Warhol’s Sixteen Jackies and Self-Portrait were both auction house backed and Flowers had both house and third-party guarantees.

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Track and Hedgerow, January a painting by David Hockney - Christie's 2023Image © Christie's / Track and Hedgerow, January © David Hockney 2006

Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Hockney

Jean-Michel Basquiat, a perennial presence in auctions this year, showcased Orange Joy (1984). This intriguing composition deviates somewhat from his traditional motif paintings, featuring a figure surrounded by a golden halo of deep yellow and orange. Drawing attention to the African diaspora and showcasing Basquiat's diverse aesthetic skills and emotional depth. The sale marked the work's first auction appearance, with a provenance acquired directly from the artist. This rare piece sold for $4,769,000 (with fees) boasting no auction house or third-party backing, slightly surpassing the $4 million low estimate.

Another exciting appearance was made by British luminary David Hockney, whose absence in the previous 21st-century sale didn't go unnoticed. Track and Hedgerow, January (2006), a large-scale painting which demonstrated a prestigious exhibition history with its inclusion in Hockney's landmark 2012 retrospective at the Royal Academy. With loose, impressionist brushstrokes, this work beautifully captured Hockney's native Yorkshire landscape, even in the cold of January, highlighting the timeless and transient nature of nature itself. As with other blue chip contemporary works, it fell short of the low estimate at the hammer but eventually reached $6,342,000 (with fees), offering an exceptional value for such a coveted piece.

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Femme endormie a painting by Pablo Picasso - Christie's 2023Image © Christie's / Femme endormie © Pablo Picasso 2023

20th Century Masters

Picasso Auction Triumph

In the most recent New York marquee auctions, the enduring prominence of Pablo Picasso has been evident, highlighted by impressive achievements such as the extraordinary $139 million sale within the Emily Fisher Landau collection. Christie's 20th-century sale continued to underscore Picasso's significance in the art world, as his presence was once again impossible to overlook.

Two of his works delivered outstanding performances. Nu couché (1968) achieved hammer prices well within the estimated range and ultimately fetched $13,635,000 (with fees). This sale marked the first auction appearance of this particular piece in over 45 years.

Even more impressive was Femme endormie (1934), a portrait capturing Picasso's lover and muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter. Portraits of Marie-Thérèse Walter consistently command some of the highest prices in Picasso's oeuvre, and this one was no exception. The piece exceeded estimated values, hammering at $37 million and realising $42,960,000 (with fees), a remarkable 22% above the high estimate.

Picasso's Femme endormie was auction house and third-party guaranteed.

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Figure in Movement a painting by Francis Bacon - Christie's 2023Image © Christie's / Figure In Movement © Francis Bacon 1976

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon commanded significant attention in this sale, particularly with Figure In Movement (1976), which emerged as the second-highest valued artwork of the event. This expansive canvas is quintessential Baconian, serving as a monument to George Dyer, his beloved and enduring muse. While undeniably dark, these paintings reveal Bacon's brilliance in capturing the anxiety and transience of our deepest psyche. This sale marked a first-time auction appearance for this work, achieving a remarkable result of $52,160,000 (with fees), against an undisclosed estimate. This sale Is a record-breaking outcome for a single large-scale portrait 1970s portrait of Bacon's oeuvre, surpassing the previous record set at Christie's in 2018, where a similar 1970s portrait sold for $49 million.

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L’empire des lumières a painting by Rene Magritte - Christie's 2023Image © Christie's / L’empire des lumières © Rene Magritte 1949

Rene Magritte and Mark Rothko

Rene Magritte, the surrealist master, also played a notable role in this sale. One of his highly coveted L'empire des lumières paintings made it’s second appearance at auction. The presented L'empire des lumières (1949) was the first painting from the series, each of which offers subtle variations, depicting a solitary house shrouded in mystery and devoid of human presence. Previously offered in 2017, it set a record at that time, selling for $20,562,500 (with fees). This record was eclipsed in the current sale, as the artwork commanded a remarkable £34,910,000 (with fees), comfortably within the high estimate range, and notably, it achieved this result without the backing of a house or third-party guarantee.

Demonstrating the aesthetic diversity of this sale, Mark Rothko, the abstract genius, also garnered attention. Two works from this abstract painter were presented, but Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) (1955) turned heads with its vast size, psychological intensity, and spectral allure. Making its debut in the auction world, it achieved a significant result of $46,410,000 (with fees), although the estimate remained undisclosed. This painting secured the position of the third-highest valued work in the sale.

The above mentioned works by Bacon and Rothko were guaranteed by both the auction house and third parties.

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