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Emerging from the crisis

New York is emerging from the public health crisis. And the art market is following suit. At a time when those who had been vaccinated were permitted to walk around without masks in the United States, the Frieze fair in New York was held from 5 to 9 May, the first in the city since the onset of the pandemic, in a euphoric atmosphere which also applied to the sales, despite the strict limitations imposed on those allowed to enter the event.

Phygital strategy

The following week, from 10 to 14 May, the auctions dedicated to 20th and 21st century art also took place in New York, both live and online (people are now talking about “phygital” strategies, a hybrid of physical and digital).

Real spectacle

Sales at auction seem to be turning into spectacles in their own right. Christie’s claimed to have 1.3 million viewers watching their livestream and Sotheby’s asked a famous Broadway set designer, David Korins, to stage their event. The results each obtained appear to be part of an upward trend. It’s clear that Sotheby’s and Christie’s, aware of their impact on the global market, are showing great caution in what they choose to present at public sales.


Two lots by David Hockney and Morris Louis respectively were withdrawn at the very last minute from the contemporary sale at Sotheby’s. Likewise a certain number of paintings were “presold”, if we can say that, through the system of guarantees. At Christie’s 16 of the 39 lots on offer were guaranteed, the majority of them by a third party, according to Artnet.

Grégoire Billault

However, Grégoire Billault, the global head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, points to what he describes as “the depth of the market”, in other words the extent to which there has been high demand for a number of works presented. This confirms the existence of a certain dynamism focusing on fashionable artworks. Here we present a selection of the results that are indicative of current trends.


Picasso, 1932

The most expensive artwork of the season is a Picasso that we have already reported on (See the report here). It is a work of impressive size dating from a year that has become legendary in the artist’s production. The painting, which officially belonged to a foundation in Liechtenstein, was bought on 5 February 2013 for 33 million euros (39.5 million dollars) after being sold at auction in 1997 for 6.3 million euros. On YouTube you can find the promotional video for the artwork when it was sold by Sotheby’s in 2013. It features the granddaughter of the painting’s subject, Marie-Thérèse Walter.

103.4 million

Christie’s sold it on 13 May for 103.4 million dollars. Various elements have contributed towards it obtaining the second highest ever price for a Picasso at auction. “Femme assise près d’une fenêtre” makes a strong visual impact because it is a large-scale work (146×114 cm). It was painted on 30 October 1932, but the fact that it is less sensual than the paintings made earlier in the year doesn’t seem to have detracted from its hyper-valuation. The record price at auction, 106.4 million dollars, was recorded in 2010 for another Picasso work from 1932. It seemed bold of Christie’s to advertise an estimate that equated to a profit of 15.5 million dollars in eight years, during times of widespread uncertainty. But we must trust in the fact that, as auction house specialist Giovanna Bertazzoni explains: “more than ever, Picasso is a global artist.”


Jean-Michel Basquiat

The contemporary art superstar this season was Jean-Michel Basquiat, the artist turned legend, and both the auction houses’ offerings included some of his major works. An interesting phenomenon is happening around this artist, who for a long time was one of the few African-Americans to be placed on an equal footing with his contemporaries on the international market. But his standing today is even further consolidated since buyers’ tastes are strongly inclined towards artists of colour.

“In this case”

It appears to be the businessman and co-founder of the fashion brand Valentino, Giancarlo Giammetti, who put “In This Case” from 1983 up for sale at Christie’s. The catalogue described this monumental image of a head – a stylised écorché on a red background – as one of the three parts of the New York artist’s “Holy Trinity”. And indeed at the Basquiat retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris in 2018 it was exhibited alongside two further heads, dating from 1981 and 1982 (See here the report about the retrospective). One belonged to the Los Angeles collector who died on 30 April 2021, Eli Broad, and the other was bought in 2017 for 110 million dollars, the record price at auction for a Basquiat, by the Japanese businessman Yusaku Maezawa (See here the interview of Yusaka Maezawa).

Simon de Pury

The advisor to various collectors and Monaco-based auctioneer Simon de Pury recalls that this “vicinity” of 100 million dollars is all the more justified once we learn of the 2020 private sale of a 1982 painting by Basquiat, “Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump”, to the Chicago investor Ken Griffin for 135 million dollars.

Versus Medici

“Versus Medici”, made following a trip to Italy, clearly references the broader history of art to depict a ghostly figure crossed with a majestic warrior covered in writing characteristic of graffiti. Simon de Pury forecasts “even more records for Basquiat. He produced around 600 works. He died prematurely. He is the Van Gogh of our age.”

Jonas Wood

Who’s heard of Jonas Wood? And yet on 11 May one of his canvases sold at auction at Christie’s for 6.5 million dollars. The Los Angeles artist who was born in 1977 and mainly paints interior scenes in a highly graphic – even naïve – colourful and decorative style, has not received any major recognition from museums thus far. He does, however, boast three significant virtues in the eyes of the market.

Gagosian Gallery

The first, which is considerable, is the fact that he is represented by the multinational Gagosian gallery. The second is that the themes of his paintings are simple, decorative and inoffensive. And the third and final virtue is that his simplified figurative style has meant that he was in vogue before a number of artists in the same genre. If we were feeling particularly benevolent we might say this 2013 painting presented at auction is reminiscent of the decorative motifs of Matisse, reimagined for the 21st century, as its title indicates: “Two Tables with Floral Pattern”.

Rising value

Up until now his value has been rising steadily year on year. In 2019 his record price reached 4.1 million dollars and in 2018 it was 1.9 million dollars. In 2020, no less than 107 works by Wood appeared at auction, which implies a substantial creative output.  At Gagosian his recent works sell for around 1.2 to 1.6 million dollars on average.

Robert H. Colescott

He’s one of the African-American artists who is currently the subject of rapid hyper-valuation. But even as early as 1997 this expressionist painter (1925-2001), whose often humorous style also draws on Pop Art, represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. On 12 May Sotheby’s auctioned one of his characteristic paintings from 1975 for 15.3 million dollars. The gallery representing the artist, Blum and Poe from Los Angeles, recently presented some of his works for under 200,000 dollars.

Black Male

At his pioneering 1994 exhibition, “Black Male”, the Whitney Museum explained that Colescott had been censured for a long time. And speaking specifically about the work put up for sale by Sotheby’s, “George Washington Carver crossing the Delaware”, Thelma Golden – who is currently head of the emblematic Studio Museum in Harlem (See here the interview of Thelma Golden) – wrote: “This painting comes out of a series in which Colescott exchanges white faces for black ones creating a racially charged, ironic reading of familiar work. Colescott plays not only on white perceived stereotypes but also on the fear many blacks have about the circulation of these stereotypes.”

Georges Lucas

Up until now the record price for the painter was 912,500 dollars, obtained in 2018. Which goes to show that the wave of interest in African-American art is still going strong. The work was acquired by the successful filmmaker George Lucas for his future museum, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, due to open in Los Angeles in 2023, which apparently already possesses a number of major American artworks.

Lucas Museum of Narrative Art


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