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A stunning $652.3m-plus was raised in New York this week in three evening sales of postmodern and contemporary art, demonstrating just how rapidly the art market has powered back from the 2008-09 recession.
The week started strongly with Phillips de Pury’s two-part $157m sale, which also set the highest price of the season. Sotheby’s followed on Tuesday with a $222.5m sale and Christie’s topped the tally with $272.9m on Wednesday.
Compared to last year, volumes and prices soared: 26 new artists’ records were set, from auction stalwarts such as Roy Lichtenstein ($42.6m at Christie’s for “Ohhh …Alright …”) and Cindy Sherman (“Untitled #153”; $2.8m at Phillips de Pury), to less familiar names such as Cady Noland ($1.7m for “Gibbet” at Sotheby’s).
However, sellers’ expectations have risen along with market confidence, most clearly demonstrated at Christie’s on Wednesday. Despite the high totals, several big-ticket works failed to reach their high estimate. “Overloaded estimates make people back away,” according to dealer Edward Tyler Nahem.
Hopes had been pumped sky-high by the appearance of a swathe of Warhols – 22 were included in the three evening sales alone. “The more [Warhols] there are, the more the market wants,” noted Christie’s Amy Cappellazzo.
Stand-out lots were “Coca-Cola ” at Sotheby’s and “Big Campbell Soup Can with Can Opener (Vegetable)” at Christie’s, as well as “Men in Her Life”, a blotchy silkscreen showing film star Elizabeth Taylor. This set the highest price of the week, soaring well above its $40m estimate to fetch more than $63m at Phillips. Sotheby’s Coca-Cola bottle made an above-estimate $35.4m but on Wednesday night Christie’s “Soup Can” sold for only $23.8m, half of its target.
“Estimates were too ambitious at the $20m-plus level, and in many cases have gone back to what they were at the height of the market,” admitted Christie’s Brett Gorvy, while pointing out that most works under $10m sold above-estimate.
Despite a few disappointments, the sales showed that the market is in a very different place than even a year ago. As Gorvy put it: “It’s under two years since the recession and we set 11 new records tonight, that’s crazy.”
Niche auction house Phillips de Pury, which usually comes a distant third during the contemporary art sales, shook up the New York season with its new “Carte Blanche” formula. This 33-lot auction was put together by private adviser Philippe Ségalot, and raised eyebrows because one of Ségalot’s major clients is none other than François Pinault, owner of rival Christie’s. Ségalot said the one-off sale was a chance to shake off his customary discretion and reveal “what he was about”.
The event took place in Phillips’ new Park Avenue saleroom, an awkward space with four pillars that hid some bidders from the auctioneer. Again, eyebrows danced as Ségalot, who had sourced the works from his own clients, bid on them for other clients. But the sale was a rousing success, making over $137m, just under its top estimate of $139m (estimates don’t include premiums; results do), and Warhol’s 1962 “Men in Her Life” went to an American buyer for $63.4m.
Will the new formula enable Phillips to challenge the Big Two? The Ségalot part of the sale was certainly successful, if not necessarily profitable for Phillips de Pury. Neither Ségalot nor Simon de Pury would reveal the financial arrangements, but dealers “guestimated” that a good part of the buyers’ premium went to Ségalot. And the second half was far less stellar, raising just $19.9m, well short of its $23.6m low estimate.
One Stephanie was obviously enough for newsprint magnate and art collector Peter Brant, who watched impassively at Phillips de Pury on Monday as a naked bust of his wife, lingerie model Stephanie Seymour, came under the hammer. The sculpture, modelled like a ship’s figurehead by art world joker Maurizio Cattelan, was made in an edition of three: Brant already has one. Estimated at $1.5m-$2m, the bust sold for $2.43m to art trader Jose Mugrabi. Last year Brant and Seymour were embroiled in a monumentally bitter divorce battle, but the couple apparently reconciled this year, appearing hand-in-hand before the divorce judge to call it all off.
Meanwhile in London, a series of ceramic “sculptural objects” by potter Kate Malone have proved highly popular at the London gallery Robilant + Voena, in a show put on in collaboration with Malone’s dealer Adrian Sassoon. Her work – with its characteristic crystalline glaze and baroque forms in subtle colours, includes a new series of monumental, metre-high pieces. Prices vary from £800 to £30,000, and just a week after the show started, 31 pieces had already found buyers. Ends Friday.
Still in London, a surprise bidder for The Magazine, the Grade II listed building in Kensington Gardens just acquired by the Serpentine Gallery, was London’s commercial Halcyon Gallery. Halcyon was one of three finalists – the third being the artist Damien Hirst – vying to redevelop the building. Halcyon, part of a group including the prints retailer Washington Green and Castle Galleries, is expanding rapidly: last year it took a 20-year lease on the “Palace of the Arts” building in Bond Street, opposite Sotheby’s, which was formerly the antiques emporium Partridges. The rent is believed to be over £1m a year.
Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper