Sotheby’s held two back-to-back Contemporary Art sales on Thursday night, bringing in a combined total of $283.4 million including fees.
The 50 lots on offer covered works by young newcomers like Anna Weyant and pieces by well-established figures like Francis Bacon. 49 works sold, including two withdrawn in advance. Eighteen auction lots were guaranteed; 14 of them were secured by irrevocable offers.
The total hammer price for the entire bundle before fees was $241.4 million, falling down from its pre-sale estimate of $222 million to $328.1 million.
The first sale, which took place under the title “The Now”, was devoted to art produced from the 2000s. These types of works appear more often in contemporary art sales, although Sotheby’s has first tried to separate them last November to further capitalize on the bullish demand for emerging artists. The bet paid off, breaking records for nine artists, including Simone Leigh, Anna Weyant, Jennifer Packer and Virgil Abloh.
On the other hand, the atmosphere of the second sale of the evening, devoted to post-war and contemporary art from before the 21st century, was not nearly as energetic. Some of the evening’s most expensive works sold below their estimates, and there were fewer surprises.
If the “Now” sale was distinguished by its large women’s sales, this sale of contemporary art was rather classic, with all the best lots made by men. The sale generated new records for Georg Baselitz and Sean Scully.
Women steal the show at ‘The Now’
Almost always, auction houses’ biggest sales are overwhelmingly made up of male artists. But from the start, auctioneer Matthew McCauley was keen to highlight the number of works by women at auction. Not including the Banksy painting which was removed, 65% of the lots were made by women, marking a rare moment of gender parity on the auction block.
The coveted Lot 1 placement went to Anna Weyant, a 27-year-old painter who recently joined Gagosian Gallery, becoming the youngest artist on its roster. Rumors circulated accordingly: she would be in a relationship with drug dealer Larry Gagosian, and Artnet News reported that his former gallery, Blum & Poe, had sent his painting up for auction as a “revenge shipment”. While the identity of the consignee remains unknown, the painting which sold Thursday, an image of a gaping female figure titled falling woman (2021), had featured in Weyant’s 2021 Blum & Poe show in Los Angeles.
Despite these rumours, Weyant’s painting far exceeded the house’s $200,000 high estimate. The lively auctions moved their sum past Weyant’s record in seconds and hit a new benchmark for her, selling for $1.62 million with a premium.
A series of discs pile up in the ensuing batches. The painting Night has fallen on us (2019) by Christina Quarles, whose work is currently on view at the Venice Biennale, sparked a bidding war that lasted several minutes. By its end, the painting had crossed well over the $3 million mark, selling for $3.7 million to a telephone bidder with David Rothschild, senior vice president of Sotheby’s. With the bounty, that number jumped to $4.53 million.
Another bidding war has been spawned by Simone Leigh’s sculpture birmingham (2012), a bust of a black woman’s head adorned with flowers in yellow porcelain. After winning a Golden Lion for her American pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Leigh saw a new auction record when the sculpture fetched $1.75 million, or $2.17 million with premium, in going to a bidder on the phone with Sotheby’s President of Contemporary Art Grégoire Billault.
Shortly after, a painting by Jennifer Packer that appeared in her recent poll at the Whitney Museum sold for $2.35 million with a premium, and a painting by Avery Singer went for $5.25 million with a premium. . Records were set for these two artists.
Meanwhile, Special guest (2019), a luscious abstraction by rising painter Lucy Bull, sold for $907,200 with a premium, 11 times its high estimate of $80,000. And although it is not a record, the portrait of María Berrío lovers 4 (2016) also struck a deal, selling for a triple estimate of $1 million with premium.
Established stars hold on
“The Now” also brought successful performances for painters whose work has already exceeded expectations at auction.
The best lot of the sale was that of Kerry James Marshall beauty examined (1993), a painting of an all-black figure whose arm has skin peeled off to reveal its veins, a reference to a similar-looking Rembrandt painting. Marshall’s painting was featured in his widely viewed 2016-2017 retrospective, and it was being sold by Loma Linda University in California to fund genomics research. The painting cost $11.5 million, or $13.5 million with premium, from a telephone bidder with Billault.
Matthew Wong, the Canadian painter who killed himself aged 35 in 2019, enjoyed a posthumous auction surge driven by strong bids from Asia, a trend that has continued here. Before a retrospective at the Dallas Museum of Art, and a week after a long New Yorker artist profile has been published, that of Wong The night watchman (2018) sold for $5.9 million with a premium, going to a high bidder over the phone with Sotheby’s Asia Vice President Jen Hua. A record for Wong was set in the process.
Adrian Ghenie’s semi-abstractions were also a hit with buyers, and two went up for auction tonight. A title degenerate art (2016) ended up being the one that set a record for it, selling for $9.29 million with premium.
A sleepy contemporary sale offers few surprises
Sotheby’s auctioneer Oliver Barker concluded the house’s major May auction series with a sale of contemporary art which met with a more subdued response. There weren’t many records here, nor so many surprises.
The most expensive work sold is that of Francis Bacon Study of the Red Pope 1962, 2nd version 1971 (1971), a work related to his famous series of paintings depicting popes in tormented states. It made its way to auction after being held in the same European private collection since 1973. There were only a handful of bids on the painting, which stood at $40 million, selling at the bottom from his estimate to a telephone bidder with Billault. With the bonus, this sum reached 46.3 million dollars.
Similarly, an untitled abstraction by Cy Twombly from 1969 featuring his characteristic swirling forms met with little enthusiasm. Sotheby’s senior manager Patti Wong won it for her phone bidder, with the piece fetching $35.5 million, or $38 million with premium. Even with those costs taken into account, the painting could not exceed its low estimate of $40 million.
Two paintings by Philip Guston have gone up for auction as the artist’s retrospective finally opened at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts this month after a two-year postponement. Both jobs performed respectably. One of the pieces is from Guston’s famous series of works depicting Klansmen; this body of work sparked apprehension from museums hosting its retrospective and caused them to delay the exhibition to 2020, fearing that the public would not understand the paintings. The bidding came slowly, as if the buyers were nervous too, but eventually the piece in question, a painting titled Remorse (1969), sold for more than the estimated $7.8 million.
A quartet of works by Georg Baselitz, all from the collection of the late Hardie Beloff, delivered the only shock of this sale. Baselitz is perhaps best known for his paintings, and so the house has priced his 1990 sculpture Women of Dresden – tour of Prague [Women of Dresden – Visit from Prague]a mustard-colored head with notches, somewhat modestly, giving him an estimate of $4 million.
A surprise bidding war ensued in which Lisa Dennison, executive vice president of Sotheby’s and president of the Americas, fought hard for a buyer on the phone. Dennison’s client ended up winning, buying the work for $11.2 million plus fees. Baselitz also, in a way, which now has a new record.
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