Auction Watch: Sotheby's New York May Sales

A large-scale white canvas features abstract colours of beige and blue with collage-like images of baseball mitts, human heads, skulls, and various numbers, alongside the word 'Zenith'.Image © Sotheby's / Untitled © Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat 1984
Joe Syer

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

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Sotheby's kicked off the highly anticipated “gigaweek,” a week filled with billion dollar art sales across major auction houses. The week commenced in traditional format with The Now, followed by the Contemporary Evening Auction. Despite the anticipation, each sale delivered mediocre results, falling short of their respective low estimates. However, the numbers weren't entirely bleak. The combined sales generated a total of $227.9 million (hammer), marking a 30% increase from the $175 million of the same sales last year, despite only three additional lots being sold. While the results are preliminary, strong sales persisted, with 67% of lots from both sales meeting or exceeding estimates.

What set this year apart?

In contrast to 2023, Sotheby's did not showcase a single-owner collection. The Now Sale individually fell -10% below the low estimate, although this year's sales presented half the number of unsold works (including withdrawals) and featured more than half of the lots by women artists, which added a refreshing dynamic to the sale. Only one work was withdrawn before the sale, a large-scale Cecily Brown piece estimated at $6 million. Had this work sold, it would have surpassed the individual sale's low pre-sale estimate by 9%, and outperforming the results of the same sale in 2023. The star lot of the sale was Kerry James Marshall's Vignette #6 (2005), which sold for $7.4 million with fees, within estimates, and was secured by a house guarantee and irrevocable bid. However, our attention was drawn to two paintings: Tracey Emin's But You Never Wanted Me (2018), making its auction debut with a provenance attributed to White Cube, hammering within estimates and selling for $914,400 with fees; and George Condo's Conversations (2012), also hammering within estimates and selling for $3.1 million.


Portrait of George Dyer Crouching by Francis Bacon 1966Image © Sotheby's / Portrait of George Dyer Crouching © Francis Bacon 1966

Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Auction

The Stats

The main event of the evening, the Contemporary Evening Auction, achieved a total of $201 million (hammer), marking a 38% increase compared to the same auction in 2023. What's intriguing is that the low pre-sale estimate was 98% higher than the previous year's sale, representing a significant leap, especially considering recent discussions, at large, about the need for auction houses to lower their pre-sale estimates to align with buyer realities and broader market conditions. However, despite this substantial increase in the pre-sale estimate, the auction fell short by -8%, with 32 lots compared to the 27 that sold in last year's sale, contributing to the overall $201 million hammer result. Overall these stats highlight the discrepancies between expectations (presale estimates) and actual outcomes, which still resulted in a healthy 91% sell-through rate.

The Highlights

The Top Lots

Altogether, the sale featured five lots that reached eight-figure sums. Francis Bacon's Portrait of George Dyer Crouching (1966) emerged as the standout, realising $27 million with fees, albeit falling short of the expected $30 million low estimate. Secured with a house guarantee and an irrevocable bid, this was the sole Bacon portrait offered among all the auction houses. Similarly, Lucio Fontana's Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio (1964) experienced a semi-lacklustre performance, hammering below the low estimate and achieving just above the $20 million low estimate with fees.



Ifafa I by Frank Stella 1964 Image © Sotheby's / Ifafa I © Frank Stella 1964

Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat

Outperforming even the star lots, by momentum, was the legendary Frank Stella. Just days after his passing on 4th of May 2024, Stella's series of artworks will take centre stage in this week's sales. At Sotheby’s, Ifafa I (1964) made its auction debut, meeting expectations and selling for $15.2 million with fees, setting a record for a gold cutout painting. However, the most highly anticipated lot of the night was a collaborative work by the iconic duo Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, an untitled piece from 1984 on canvas. With a prestigious exhibition history at The Brant Foundation and the Foundation Louis Vuitton in Paris in 2023, this piece made its second appearance at auction, setting a new record by hammering within estimates and achieving $19.3 million with fees, marking a significant leap from its previous record of $2.6 million.

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Campaign by Jean-Michel Basquiat 1984 Image © Sotheby's / Campaign © Jean-Michel Basquiat 1984

Both artists also demonstrated strong individual performance. An Untitled canvas dating to 1981, by Basquiat, interpreted by Sotheby’s as an abstracted geography of the United States, features various skulls and gestural markings in gold, red, and blue. This work sold for $8.5 million with fees, squarely meeting expectations in its auction debut. Basquiat's Campaign (1984) set a new record in its second auction appearance, achieving $10.1 million, a massive doubling of its previous sale price of £4.4 million (GBP) in 2015.

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Late Four-Foot Flowers by Andy Warhol 1967 Image © Sotheby's / Late Four-Foot Flowers © Andy Warhol 1967

Warhol's The Last Supper (1986) established a new auction record in its second auction appearance, reaching $6 million with fees, marking a 1.3-fold increase over its previous sale in 2017. Additionally, a multi-coloured flower canvas, Late Four-Foot Flowers (1967) surpassed expectations, hammering at the upper echelon of the $10 million high estimate and achieving $11.25 million with fees in its auction debut, setting a record price for this size.

Explore our Andy Warhol Investment Guide to learn more about his print market performance.

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The Pacific Ocean by Yayoi Kusama 1958 Image © Sotheby's / The Pacific Ocean © Yayoi Kusama 1958

Women Artists

The auction featured a diverse array of artworks from both female and male artists. Among the female artists, Joan Mitchell stood out, presenting four remarkable works on canvas. Particularly notable was Noon (1969), which fetched $22.6 million, making it one of the five lots that surpassed eight figures. Additionally, from the women artists, Yayoi Kusama's The Pacific Ocean (1958), serving as a precursor to her Infinity Nets series, exceeded expectations, selling for an impressive 2.5 times the high estimate, reaching $4.6 million with fees.

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A Bigger Wave by David Hockney 1989 Image @ Sotheby’s / A Bigger Wave © David Hockney 1989

Other Performances Highs and Lows

The remaining results of the auction sale displayed a mixed performance. Gerhard Richter's Abstraktes Bild (1990) only achieved within estimates with fees, and there were three notable passes of the night, including Richard Diebenkorn's Ocean Park #126 (1984), which had an estimated value of $18 million. Roy Lichtenstein's Women Reading (1980) also passed, but Lichtenstein's performance was compensated by Purple Range (1966), which achieved a solid $3.7 million with fees in its auction debut.

Lastly, of course it wouldn’t be a sale without David Hockney or Keith Haring. A rare Hockney work, A Bigger Wave (1989) achieved $8.3 million with fees in its first time auction appearance. A large-scale Untitled Haring piece from 1986 made its second time auction appearance selling for $4.4 million, just short of the initial sale price in 2021.

Overall, Sotheby’s sale was preliminary, with two other auction houses yet to debut their offerings. Although Sotheby’s fell short of the presale low estimate, there were still strong sell-through rates and records set. However, it's worth noting that the majority of the high-value lots were backed by auction house and third-party guarantees, indicating once again that auction houses are betting on themselves.

Explore our Lichtenstein, Hockney and Haring Investment Guides to learn more about his print market performance.

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Sotheby's Contemporary Day Auction

The Stats

Sotheby’s kicked off the Contemporary Day Auction with a brisk and vigorous pace, swiftly navigating through the lots without delay. With 340 lots on offer, 287 found buyers, yielding an 84% sell-through rate, albeit slightly below the lower end of the presale estimate by 4%. The day sale concluded with a total hammer price of $62.2 million, a mere 0.5% shy of the figures from 2023. This marginal difference was consistent across all metrics, including estimates and number of lots sold, and those within and above estimates.

Here are the highlights:


Panda Bear by Andy Warhol 1983Image © Sotheby's / Panda Bear © Andy Warhol 1983

Following tradition, the highest performing lots took the spotlight right from the start. Undoubtedly, the blue chip artists stole the show, and for good reason. These artists offer the most favourable investment opportunities, particularly during economic downturns, as these works are likely to maintain their value over time.

American Pop

Andy Warhol

An extensive array, precisely 14 pieces, of Warhol’s Toy paintings graced the auction, comprising a unique series first exhibited in Zurich in 1983. These pieces garnered attention during the fourth quarter of 2023 and maintained their allure in this recent sale. Among them, 10 new auction records were established, with Panda Bear (1983) commanding the highest price, achieving $355,600 including fees, surpassing its previous auction record set at £108,614 (GBP) in 2007. Additionally, a handful of rare silkscreen portraits by Warhol, including Jack Nicklaus (1977), depicting the renowned American golfer nicknamed “The Golden Bear,” made its second appearance at auction since 2019, fetching $508,000 including fees, thus establishing a new auction record for the artwork.


Roy Lichtenstein

Lichtenstein also delivered a strong performances across various mediums, notably with Cubist Still Life (1974), making its third appearance at auction. Previously sold in 1992 for £385,000 (including fees), this sale shattered records by hammering at $1.6 million, well surpassing the $1 million estimate and reaching $1.9 million with fees. Remarkably, it secured the position as the third highest performing artwork of the sale. Another notable piece, Yellow Abstraction (1986), exceeded expectations by fetching above the estimated $700,000. Supported by a house bid and an irrevocable bid, this work made its second appearance at auction, setting a new benchmark for its value, fetching just over $1 million including fees. An offset Lithograph of Lichtenstein’s Crying Girl (1963) also performed well hammering well above estimates and achieving $53,340 with fees.

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Visionary by Damien Hirst 2008 Image © Sotheby's / Visionary © Damien Hirst 2008

Alex Katz

Alex Katz saw a strong performance in Sotheby’s Contemporary Day sale, a stark contrast to his previous showing in the Phillips Evening sale. May (1996), a captivating depiction of blooming flowers, surpassed expectations by selling significantly above the conservative presale estimate of $700,000. It hammered at $1.5 million and achieved $1.87 million with fees, indicating a growing demand for his landscape paintings over his portraits.

Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst's Visionary (2008), a round canvas adorned with butterflies, showcased a strong performance, reaffirming their enduring popularity. The artwork fetched $571,500 with fees, landing squarely within the estimated range. Additionally, Hirst demonstrated his consistent appeal with his Spots paintings, as evidenced by the impressive performance of Lumichrome (2005) in its inaugural auction appearance. Surpassing the high estimate, it hammered at $406,400 with fees, further solidifying Hirst's stature in the market.


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In Death, Life. The Mountains and Rivers Remain. by Takashi Murakami 2015 Image © Sotheby's / In Death, Life. The Mountains and Rivers Remain. © Takashi Murakami 2015

Takashi Murakami and Kaws

Despite recent challenges in the Takashi Murakami and KAWS markets, both artists delivered impressive results with their works surpassing expectations. Murakami’s In Death, Life. The Mountains and Rivers Remain (2015), an acrylic and gold leaf on canvas, made its debut, hammering above the high presale estimate and achieving $711,200 with fees. Similarly, KAWS's Untitled (2012), a round shaped canvas featuring the artist's signature caricature with crossed out eyes, surpassed estimates, hammering at $130,000 above the high estimate, and achieving $165,100 with fees.

Christopher Wool

Christopher Wool's market has also encountered challenges in recent years; however, as evidenced in the Rosa de la Cruz collection during Christie’s Evening sale, there appears to be a resurgence in his market, with his works across various media performing strongly. In Sotheby's say sale, Wool featured two identical works in Sotheby’s sale, with Archival material associated with the 1989 Whitney Biennial Cover (1989) hammering above the high estimates.

Don’t miss our Christie’s and Phillips May new York Auction Reports


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