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Art Market#16: Review of the May 2024 Auctions in New York

According to Christie's CEO Guillaume Cerruti, only about 10% of their total sales for the year come from the first quarter. The auction industry's real test traditionally occurs during the second quarter, starting in May with the Modern and Contemporary Art Sales in New York.

This year, New York's May auctions have seen several exceptional works offered by the three major players: Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips.

While there was a lack of single-owner big collections, with the exception of the Rosa de la Cruz Collection sold through Christie’s on May 14, many of the works of this season were fresh to the market.

Let’s start with Sotheby’s. The Auction House has recently introduced a new fee structure for buyers and sellers, except for luxury departments such as cars, wine, and real estate. This change will go into effect globally on May 20, aiming to maximize revenue and attract new clients.

Among the top lots, Sotheby’s was selling Claude Monet's Meules à Giverny from 1893 in the Modern Art Evening Auction. The painting, which was brought to the United States in 1895 by its first owner, was expected to fetch over $30 million. It was sold to a buyer in Asia for $34.8 million with fees.

Le Distractions de Dagobert, an exceptional work from 1945 by the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington – another consignment the experts said could test the market’s strength – sold to Eduardo Costantini, the Argentinian founder of The Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Aires, for $28.5 million with fees reaching a new auction record for the artist.

Costantini was the underbidder when the same painting came to Auction in 1995, setting a record for that time. The Carrington will now join the Museum collection, alongside other iconic works by Frida Kahlo and Remedios Varo.

"The recent surge of interest in previously overlooked women artists connected with the Surrealist movement marks a profoundly significant cultural shift", said the Head of Sotheby's Modern Art Evening Sales, Allegra Bettini. 

From the Contemporary Evening Sale at Sotheby's, great expectations were on the four paintings by Joan Mitchell consigned from the same private collection in a bold move, and covering the artist's career from 1955 to 1989: Untitled (ca. 1955), the large-scale canvas Noon (ca. 1969), Untitled (ca. 1973) and the diptych Ground (1989).

Two years after the major exhibition at Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris that revealed the quality of her painting alongside works by Claude Monet, the question for Mitchell was how much appetite there was among buyers for her works. Three of them sold above their estimate,  indicating continued demand for Mitchell's work.

The Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquiat large-scale painting, probably one of the best of the series of collaborative paintings, has exceeded expectations despite aggressive valuation from experts, selling for a total of $19.4 million and so setting a new record.

A certain disappointment instead for the most expensive lot of the Evening Sale, Francis Bacon’s 1966 Portrait of George Dyer Crouching which failed to meet the lower estimate. The yellow Concetto Spaziale, La Fine di Dio from 1964 by Lucio Fontana (property from The Rachofsky Collection in Dallas) failed to make a record, going hammered beneath its low estimate against an expectation of over $30 million.

From the highlights at Christie’s, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s iconic installation of light bulbs and electrical cords from Rosa de la Cruz Collection, Untitled (America#3), found a buyer for  $11.5 million on an estimate of $8m-12m.

It was interesting also seeing the performance of Julie Mehretu in the 21st Century Evening Sale. The Ethiopian American contemporary artist is currently showing at Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi in Venice concurrently with the Biennale. Her Mumbaphilia (J.E.) (2018), monumental ink and acrylic on canvas, hammered within the estimates. Meanwhile, another contemporary artist representing the USA at the Venice Biennale, Jeffrey Gibson, did not find a buyer at Sotheby's The Now Evening Auction.

From Christie’s 20th Century Evening Sale on May, which closed on May 14 with 91% sold by lot, the highlights included Andy Warhol's Flowers, hammered at $30.5 million, David Hockney's canvas from 1967, A Lawn Being Sprinkled, sold at $24.5 million, and Van Gogh's Coin de jardin avec papillons, sold at $33.2 million with fees.

At Phillips the signature lot of the Evening Sale, a Basquiat painting from 1982 titled Elmar, formerly in the Francesco Pellizzi Collection - who acquired it for just $16,000 via Annina Nosei two years after the canvas was executed – fetched $46.5 million.

As summarized by advisors Beaumont Nathan at the end of the New York week, the market is proving to be more rational and cautious than we have seen in pandemic years, despite the offer of blue-chip artworks. Sensationalism is giving way to a more classical approach to buying and selling.

On a more critical note, Marion Maneker from Art Market Monitor pointed out that despite isolated cases of strong bidding, a lot of works were sold at compromise prices and in general the market is still overpriced. 

However - added Drew Watson, Art Service Specialist at Bank of America - current conditions are also providing opportunities for discerning collectors transacting outside the ultra-high-net-worth segment, where there are broader offerings and greater space for negotiation and rediscoveries.



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