Standout Sales and Key Takeaways from New York’s November Auctions

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Art Market

Brian Ng

View of the salesroom at Sotheby’s on November 14, 2022. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

As the cold starts tightening its grip on the northern hemisphere, and as global markets chug their way back into recession, signs of outright optimism are no longer as plentiful in the New York auction rooms. The city’s last auctions, in May, saw estimates crushed. And while records were broken all over the place this past month (as you’ll see in the major sales listed below), most works went for sums well within their estimate ranges—and many only reached the low estimates after factoring in buyer’s premiums.

This doesn’t mean that the market is tanking, though. All the usual suspects—Larry Gagosian, David Zwirner, and François Pinault (owner of Christie’s)—showed up to the $1.5 billion sale of Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen’s collection at Christie’s on November 9th. “Everything felt super dynamic,” said Parisian gallerist Charlotte Ketabi, who attended auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. She spotted major international and American collectors, as well as dealers from all over the world, in numbers that matched pre-COVID times.

Many Asian collectors have not been able to leave their countries due to COVID-19 restrictions, but have slowly been able to visit the recent art fairs in London and Paris; their return was noted in November’s auctions: Over half of the $45.8 million total at Sotheby’s “The Now” evening auction was attributed to Asian buyers; many of the biggest purchases from the big three houses are on their way to the continent now, too.

Cy Twombly, Untitled, 2005. Courtesy of Phillips.

Outside of the standout record-breakers, sales were not quite so bullish as they were last spring. Sotheby’s hit $1 billion within a week in May, and fell just short of that this November, hitting $856 million. Phillips also had a solid week, bringing in $166 million (a quarter of which came from a massive Cy Twombly painting), which was one of its best-ever weeks, but not the best.

Amanda Lo Iacono, Phillips’s global managing director and head of New York evening sales, told Artsy she had expected a “great deal of momentum” as a result of a stellar past year, which didn’t necessarily gain across the board this month. Still, the auctions all came close to selling through, if not outright doing so. “I think it’s a good thing,” Ketabi said. “Collectors and dealers are both assured of a stable and strong market.”

Five major sales

Piet Mondrian, Composition No. II, 1930. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

  • Georges Seurat, Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version) (1888), a painting of three women getting dressed, sold for $149 million at Christie’s.
  • Paul Cézanne, La Montagne Sainte-Victoire (1888–90), a landscape painting, sold for $138 million at Christie’s.
  • Vincent van Gogh, Verger avec cyprès (1888), another landscape painting, but of a grove, sold for $117 million at Christie’s.
  • Lucian Freud, Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau) (1981–83), a family portrait, sold for $86 million at Christie’s.
  • Piet Mondrian, Composition No. II (1930), a signature geometric abstraction, sold for $51 million at Sotheby’s.

Georges Seurat, Models (Poseuses), 1886–88. Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.

This list of the month’s five biggest sales is dominated by the record-smashing works from Christie’s Paul G. Allen auction. The Seurat, which is a smaller version of the one at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia (measuring just over 25 by 31 inches), more than quadrupled the artist’s previous record of $35.2 million, set more than 20 years ago in 1999. The Cézanne doubled the previous $60.5 million record, and netted a $100 million gain on what Allen paid for it in 2001. Records for works by Gustav Klimt, Paul Gauguin, Jasper Johns, Max Ernst, Diego Rivera, and John Singer Sargent were also broken, but paled in comparison.

While works by female artists like Barbara Hepworth (whose record was also broken) and Joan Mitchell have been showing strong performances both at auctions and fairs—not to mention their institutional recognition—their results were also dwarfed by the Allen sale’s extraordinary records. A work by Edward Steichen, one of the pioneers of fine art photography, sold for $11.8 million, more than triple its estimate of $2 million–$3 million.

All in all, the Allen sale resulted in a plethora of new records, but also may do a lot of good: The late owner’s will dictated that the proceeds all go to charities, none of which have been named yet—presumably to not unintentionally deter bidding.

Marc Chagall, Le Père, 1911. Courtesy of Phillips.

Willem de Kooning, Untitled, ca. 1977. Courtesy of Phillips.

The utter dominance of the Paul G. Allen sale has meant other important sales have received less notice, such as the Mondrian sold at Sotheby’s. The artist’s Composition No. II (1930) sold for $2.2 million back in 1983 and set the record then for the highest amount paid for an abstract work ever. Its $51 million price tag this month once again set the record for Mondrian.

At Phillips, Marc Chagall’s Le Père (1911) sold for $7.4 million, which was one of the first of 15 works restituted by the French government last year. Between the death of the original owner, David Cender, and the eventual return, it was shown at the Musée National d’Art Moderne and Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme. Notable, too, were works by Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning that came from the artists’ families, entering the secondary market for the very first time.

Five breakout sales

Louis Fratino, An Argument, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Sotheby’s.

  • Salman Toor, Four Friends (2016), a painting of four friends hanging out in an apartment late at night, sold for $1.6 million at Sotheby’s.
  • Louis Fratino, An Argument (2021), a painting of two men sleeping, one in a loft bed and another on a couch, sold for $730,800 at Sotheby’s.
  • Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, I See Red: Talking to the Ancestors (1994), a collaged work depicting two figures, sold for $642,000 at Christie’s.
  • Danica Lundy, Miss Fist Kiss (2019), a painting of a chaotic crowd moments before a sporting event, sold for $189,000 at Phillips.
  • Ilana Savdie, Marimonda Desplegada (2020), a multimedia painting depicting marimonda, or Colombian jesters, sold for $176,400 at Phillips.

Danica Lundy, Miss Fist Kiss, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Phillips.

Up-and-comers exceeded expectations across all themes and media. It would be hard to pinpoint any underlying trend—figurative paintings by Black artists Amy Sherald and Amoako Boafo achieved good prices, but rarely in the higher ends of their estimate ranges, for instance. It would appear it is individual artists’ own allure that has driven these prices.

A work by Salman Toor, the buzzy queer Pakistani American artist coming off a recent New Yorker profile by Calvin Tomkins, may have hit $1.6 million at Sotheby’s on November 16th after a battle between 15 bidders, but it was one of five of the artist’s works that sold last week. Toor himself donated 4 Guests (2019), which sold for $856,800 at Christie’s November 17th evening sale, to raise money for CORE’s emergency response to the Pakistan floods. Louis Fratino, another queer artist, has been gaining prominence these last few years, mirroring the general rise in queer art’s popularity; his painting reached more than double its estimate of $200,000–$300,000 in a bidding war between 13 bidders.

Salman Toor, Four Friends, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Sotheby’s.

Indigenous art—of any country—was light on the ground, so it was nice to see Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s painting rush past the upper estimate of $120,000 to reach a final price of $642,600. Phillips also sold a work on paper by Smith for $56,700, more than triple its estimate.

On the more emerging side of the spectrum, Danica Lundy and Ilana Savdie had strong auction debuts with Phillips; the artists’ works were the opening two lots for its 20th-century and contemporary art evening sale on November 15th. Notably, both artists joined the roster of White Cube this year and had solo shows at the London gallery this past summer.

Key takeaways

View of the salesroom at Phillips on November 15, 2022. Courtesy of Phillips.

  • The fact the art market isn’t as frothy as it was earlier this year is a good thing—without the bloat, “this is a market where there are real opportunities and the seasoned buyer knows this,” said Jean-Paul Engelen, Phillips’s president of the Americas and worldwide co-head of 20th-century and contemporary art, at the press conference after the November 15th evening sale. “We’re living in different times than a year ago,” he said.
  • While the huge sums are still being predominantly paid for the same white male artists, those from historically lesser represented backgrounds are making good ground, with estimates being surpassed time and time again. The idea of what “good art” is—and thus, what will be a good store of value—is ever-increasing and -encompassing.
  • The biggest sale this month was not the only one to come from an individual’s large collection: Sotheby’s namechecked the former Whitney Museum president David M. Solinger’s collection, as well as media executive William S. Paley’s and that of Sherry and Joel Mallin (whose collection the auction house is slowly selling off over several years). Outside of the art world, author Joan Didion’s possessions were recently sold, too, with prices well above estimates being paid for items as intimate and iconic as her sunglasses through to blank notebooks. The cult of the individual and how they shape and decide what they own very much continues to play a part in how those objects are valued by others. The question “What does your collection say about you?” has never rang more true.

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