Against all odds the market for 20th and 21st century art is becoming increasingly expensive. This is what we learn from observing the recent results in the auction rooms of New York and London. We recall that in November 2022 Christie’s staged the sale of the Paul Allen collection over two days and that alone brought in the colossal sum of 1.6 billion dollars, an amount that had never before been attained for a private collection (See the report about the Paul Allen collection here). The operation to liquidate the collections of the Microsoft co-founder continued on 11 May with seven works (including pieces by Georgia O’Keeffe and David Hockney) auctioned for a total of 88 million dollars against an estimate of 30 million.
Le Douanier Rousseau
The 20th-century sales at Christie’s on 11 May amassed 506.5 million dollars with 86% of lots sold. The star of the sale was a rare painting depicting an Edenic scene with pink flamingos, an imaginary vista created by Henri Rousseau (also known as “le Douanier”), setting a record price for the artist of 43.5 million dollars…
1.5 billion dollars
Until 19 May the entire New York art market will be reverberating with the sounds of the auctioneers’ hammers. Although these figures are not as stratospheric as those of last November, the estimates put forward do not buck the trend. The works due to be auctioned by Sotheby’s and Christie’s have a total value of 1.5 billion dollars.
Symbolic threshold of 1 million
According to a study commissioned by Sotheby’s from the specialist firm ArtTactic, the symbolic threshold of 1 million dollars seems to have become a trivial amount in the Anglo-Saxon auctions game. If we add up the sales of Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips, ArtTactic estimates that the “over a million” category represents 77.8% of the total number of transactions, across all areas.
The responsibility of the auctions
However, these estimates cannot go on increasing ad infinitum. The auction houses bear a heavy responsibility in what they are offering here, which set the art market trends for the coming six months. This is why, during these times of economic, political and strategic hardships, the May 2023 sales tend to play it safe. Their selection of artworks is a perfect match for the current zeitgeist in a bid to avoid lots left unsold. In the area of very contemporary art, for example, we are in the age of the figurative. And professionals and collectors are, more than ever, keeping a close eye, even though recent signs have been positive.
50 million dollars budget
Alexandre Errera, for example, the private dealer based in Milan, believes that “a number of quality artworks have very high estimates but, like every year, there are new buyers, Asia included, arriving on the market with substantial budgets ranging from 20 to 50 million dollars. They want to buy art not only to decorate their homes but also because it makes for an excellent investment in a context where other markets are volatile. Their targets are well-established artists like Pablo Picasso or Jean-Michel Basquiat”.
Another private dealer, the Swiss Thomas Seydoux, who is based in Paris, observes that at the moment “we are witnessing a change in tastes with a shift from impressionist and modern art towards contemporary art. There is very steady demand for modern artworks between 4 and 10 million euros. This market doesn’t aim for the most publicized masterpieces, so how is it doing?” asks the specialist.
The art-market darling and rebel artist who died at the age of 28, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), currently celebrated in Paris through his collaboration with Andy Warhol at the Fondation Vuitton (See the report here) and going on to be the subject of an exhibition at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel in June, is present here with standout lots at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.
Now’s the time
On 18 May at Sotheby’s, a painting by Basquiat is presented from 1985 in the form of a giant black disc marked with a white inscription: “Now’s the time”. It references a famous composition recorded by the jazz musician Charlie Parker in 1945. Estimate: 30 million dollars. The panel was exhibited in 2018 at the Fondation Vuitton in Paris (See the report here). It was acquired in 1996 by the current seller.
“Three-quarters of the artworks that we’re presenting this season have never been seen at auction before,” points out the head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, Grégoire Billault, emphasizing the quality of the sale.
The lucky owner of this round painting was easily identified. It is the famous New York collector Peter Brant. He has a foundation in the downtown area that is currently exhibiting an exceptional group of around one hundred works by Andy Warhol under the title: “Thirty are better than one”, including one painting, a “White Disaster (White Car Crash 19 Times)” from 1963, auctioned for 85.3 million dollars on 16 November 2022.
The sale of the circular Basquiat could be explained by this pricey purchase, the second highest ever recorded for Warhol. We note that in May 2022 a blue Marilyn portrait from the collection of the dealer Thomas Ammann sold for 119.5 million dollars, the absolute record price for the high priest of Pop Art.
El grand espectaculo
The auction houses’ marketing strategies are not always logical. In 1983 Basquiat painted “El grand espectaculo”, a painting measuring 3.5 metres that belongs to the couturier Valentino. It is now being offered on 15 May by Christie’s as part of the auction entitled “21st century”. 45 million dollars are anticipated. In 2005 this three-part painting, which then belonged to the French dealer Enrico Navarra, was sold for 5.1 million dollars. That is to say, the importance of Basquiat’s work has been re-evaluated in close to 20 years.
But Sotheby’s is also capable of anachronism, since in their modern art sale on 18 May they are proposing a painting made around 1620 by Rubens (1577-1640) with an estimate of 20 million dollars. No doubt the auction house is trying to attract a new audience for this old masters work. Although Rubens is one of the stars of art history, here he has depicted a man wearing armour. The subject is therefore very dated. It’s difficult to repeat the Christie’s “feat” of the sale of the Salvator Mundi by Leonardo for 450 million dollars… The Rubens already sold at auction in 2000 for 8.2 million dollars and again in 2002 for 6.8 million dollars.
The rules of valuation in art are complex. Rarity is not always a virtue. Let’s take the example of one of the most in-demand paintings by the Belgian surrealist Magritte: “L’empire des lumières”. We dedicated an entire article to it in 2018 (See the report here). We see here, plunged into darkness, a large house surrounded by trees, a lamppost illuminating the scene, everything watched over by a huge luminous sky. The lower part of the artwork is a night-time scene, whereas the upper part is bathed in sunlight.
18 times L’Empire des Lumières
After the war, the painter didn’t hesitate to produce prolifically to keep up with the demand of his dealer in New York, Alexandre Iolas. So he painted no less than eighteen version of “L’empire des lumières”. But this one, dating from 1951, which depicts the house in the distance, is “one of the best”, according to Charly Herscovici, who is the artist’s moral rights holder.
Since 1979 the canvas belonged to the American music producer Mo Ostin. It has an estimate of 35 million dollars, but it could easily exceed this sum because it is now what we call a “modern art trophy.” On 2 March 2022 a version of “L’empire des lumières” dating from 1961 was auctioned for 68.7 million dollars.
Young artists of the season
Lastly, as in every season, young artists emerge in these sales who do not usually appear in the spotlight of the international auctions. This is the case for the Czech artist Vojtěch Kovařík (born in 1993). His canvas “Aphrodite” from 2020 is presented on 15 May at Christie’s. It draws somewhat on the cubist style of Fernand Léger, only with more acid-toned colours and more massive forms.
Kovařík was discovered in 2020 by the French gallery Derouillon, then exhibited jointly by the gallery of Brazilian origin which will be based in Paris from October 2023, Mendes-Wood. This is how in three years the prices for Kovařík’s canvases have gone from 10,000 euros to 70,000 euros. Aphrodite, with her large eyes and voluminous form, with an estimate of 80,000 dollars at Christie’s, is presented in the same catalogue as Basquiat, along with a pumpkin painting by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (born in 1929) (estimate: 4 million dollars) and a painting by Jeff Koons (born in 1955) (estimate: 800,000 dollars).
The risks of speculation surrounding this painter seem now to be inevitable.
According to ArtTactic, since 2018 works by younger artists (born after 1977) selling for over a million have increased by 366%.
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