When the sun never set
In a past now relegated to the history books, the English used to say that the sun never set on the British Empire. On 10 July 2020, Christie’s will be able to use the same slogan for their auction. On that day auctioneers from Hong Kong to New York via London and Paris will be using online streaming technology to hold a sale of around 80 selected 20th-century artworks (1).
The operation, which has been named ONE, is in lieu of the flagship sale usually staged by the François Pinault-owned company, acting as a one-off replacement for the spring auctions of modern and contemporary art in New York. It’s currently impossible for these to take place, not only due to the public health crisis surrounding the coronavirus but also evidently because of the rather rarefied nature of these top-range artworks soon to be publicly presented at auction.
These are uncertain times in terms of prices in the art world, and it seems to be proving very difficult to attract sellers of major pieces.
According to Alex Rotter, the global head of contemporary art at Christie’s who conceived the idea for ONE, “the new ‘Zoom society’ which has emerged with the onset of the coronavirus has paradoxically brought us together. The ONE concept is the product of this new world. We must create some entertainment.” He explains from his house in the countryside, where he has been in lockdown not far from New York for the past three months, that he has deliberately reduced the scale of the sale.
Over 20 million dollars
“For works over 20 million dollars, right now the owners don’t want to sell. I’m sure that in this price range there will be no corona effect on values. Guarantees by third parties (2) are proof of this since they are being raised, as in previous times, for around half of the lots presented. On the other hand, for works that are less than 2 million dollars I ask my teams to systematically fix the estimates lower.”
In Paris, the president of Christie’s France, Cécile Verdier, observes that this new concept has generated enthusiasm in potential buyers. “They’ve found the project very exciting. We are in a global market. We are therefore presenting a truly global sale for the first time.”
8 o’clock am in Hong Kong
This feat of technology taking place across four consecutive sessions will start at 8 o’clock in the evening in Hong Kong local time, which is 8 o’clock in the morning in New York and 2 o’clock in the afternoon in Paris.The selection of around 80 lots has a total estimate of approximately 250 million dollars, according to Alex Rotter.
Challenging the principles
The sale is challenging the principles habitually applied to “prestigious” sales. Starting with the fact that there’s no printed catalogue. As well as this presenting the advantage of being more eco-friendly, it also allows the organizers to assemble the artworks right up until the last minute. Moreover, all the disciplines have been thrown together here, with photography alongside design, paintings, contemporary art and impressionist art. Ordinarily, lots are sent to the places where they’re likely to have the most public support. But in this case, as the circulation of works has slowed, the site of the sale is decided according to where the lot is located.
A Modigliani in Paris
Paris is presenting 15 works estimated at around 20 million euros in total. This includes a painting by Modigliani from a private collection featuring a portrait of his peer, the painter from Montmartre Maurice Drouard (1886-1915), estimated at 3 million euros. While the market is more inclined to favour portraits of women, this depiction of a man with deep blue eyes is particularly powerful.
The most sought-after design object in the sale is a monumental hippopotamus from the late 1960s in blue resin made by François-Xavier Lalanne (1927-2008), whose initial example was designed, according to Cécile Verdier, for Marcel Duchamp. There is a basin concealed in the creature’s head, while its body serves as a bathtub (estimate: 800,000 euros). We shall see if the menagerie designed by Lalanne, which is highly prized by the wealthiest on the planet and has been attracting sales exponentially rising in value for several years (see the report on the subject), will withstand the lockdown.
In London, Jussi Pylkkanen, president of Christie’s global, seems particularly optimistic: “We will see confidence return. The market has adapted very quickly to only being able to see reproductions of artworks. People can recognize a good Riopelle, a good Pissarro or a good Magritte,” he says, referring to works being presented at the ONE auction. “Our estimates are those that we would have given in February. The policy at Christie’s has long consisted of offering reasonable estimates to generate the most sales possible”.
One of the London stars is a painting by Magritte from 1962, a very commercial work entitled “L’arc de triomphe”. But what you wouldn’t know from its title is that it depicts a tree against a background of green leaves which seem to be laid out like a wallpaper design (estimate: 8.1 million dollars).
In Hong Kong, Jacky Ho, the head of contemporary art, believes that in Asia among art fans there’s still a big appetite for consuming art. “We have entered an age when clearly there is highest demand for the artists and artworks that look the most appealing on screens.” He cites the example of the very popular Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (born in 1929). “Today her ‘Pumpkins’ are favoured over her ‘Infinity Net’ paintings, which are less easily perceptible on a phone or a computer screen.”
In Hong Kong he is presenting, among others, a painting from 1963 measuring 200 x 180 cm by the French artist of Chinese origin Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013) (estimated at 10 million dollars). According to him, the exhibition of his large-scale works at the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris in 2018 (see the report on the subject), served to boost the artist’s profile and his prices increased by 30% on average over the past 5 years.
But the most important lots of the season will no doubt go to auction in New York, with a pure Californian Pop Art painting from 1962 by the veteran of the genre, Ed Ruscha (born in 1937), estimated at 20 million dollars, and above all a canvas by Picasso from the series inspired by the “Femmes d’Alger” by Delacroix, dating from 1955 and estimated at 25 million dollars, which is the highest sum in this global sale.
(1) The sale catalogue has not yet been finalized at the time of writing.
(2) Guarantees by a third party are fixed sums arranged before auctions in agreement with the auction house and the seller, which establish that a specific sum will be paid out by a third party to the seller, and this third party will then become the owner of the work in the case that the lot remains unsold at that level. If it sells for a higher sum, the external guarantor will receive a percentage of the profits (See the report about guarantees).
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