Christie’s Manages Its $219m Return to Live Sales

Third-party guarantees support works at the top while emerging artists soar

“That was a managed white glove sale,” one of Christie’s specialists said to her colleague as they walked out of the Christie’s hybrid salesroom-livestream studio. It is true that Christie’s heavily managed 21st Century Evening sale that opened the November cycle of marquee auctions in New York, the first event since the global coronavirus pandemic disrupted the traditional art market. In the two years since the last New York series of live sales, much has changed in the way the art world conducts business.

Going first in a season with so much high value of work coming back to the market—and all the houses now switching gears from Livestream only sales to truly hybrid sales with the industry’s most interested parties present in the room—is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because you get to set the tone; it’s a curse if you don’t set the right tone.

Last night, Christie’s got it half right. The auction house was focused on posting a successful sales total. Christie’s clearly worked very hard before the auction to line up guarantees and bids. The 100% sell-through rate announced at the end of the sale was a surprise but not unexpected.

The top ten lots in the sale, a quarter of all of the lots in the sale, accounted for $172 million of the $219.2 million total sale. That’s 78% of the value in those 10 lots. Judging from the round numbers presented in the results where the top lot, the Basquiat, sold for $40,000,000 all in (despite hammering for $37 million), and two of the Christopher Wool paintings from the Pictures Generation collection sold for $7,000,000 (both having hammered at $6.5 million,) a significant portion of that total went to guarantors. There was another Wool with orange overpaint that also hammered at the $3 million low estimate and appears to have a discounted buyer’s premium consistent with a third-party guarantee as well as one of the Cindy Sherman Centerfolds, which sold for a hammer price below the low estimate. The buyer paid $2.07 million for the Centerfold. It had been previously auctioned for $2.8 million in 2012. The year before, another one of the 10 examples of this image had sold for $3.89 million to Philippe Segalot.

Such heavy management should have resulted in a crisp sale with plenty of time to get the most out of the lots with deep demand and move quickly through the lots that were a foregone conclusion. Instead, the sale seemed to drag almost from the beginning. Some of that resulted from the awkwardness of managing both the room and the screens representing remote locations and online bids.

The first lot, which came from Xinyi Cheng, the Chinese figurative artist making his auction debut, took five and a half minutes to sell for eight times the $30,000 low estimate or $300,000 with premium. Hilary Pecis, whose work reminds so many of Jonas Wood, continued her market climb after selling six works at strong prices in October’s auctions in Hong Kong and London. Last night it only took a fraction of the time for her $60,000 low estimate to be turned into a $700,000 hammer price. The resulting premium total of $870,000 set a new record for the artist with two more works still to be auctioned during the day sales. Nicolas Party rounded out the opening lot ramp up with a work estimated at $300,000 that sold for nearly $3 million. The final premium total of $3.27 million might have been enhanced by the potential tax deduction offered by the charity sale—his previous high-water market set in Hong Kong last month was half of that—but some of the players in the audience were calling this price almost before the auction began while others judged that market value in the cold light of morning.

Elizabeth Peyton’s Liam + Noel in the 70s just missed the record $2.077 million paid earlier this year for a portrait of David Bowie when it sold for $2.07 million with premium. Abe Steinberger’s collection was heavy with Richard Prince paintings. The High Times work, which was the first to appear at auction, made a strong $1.17m over a $600,000 low estimate. Later in the sale, a 1988 joke painting was sold at the low $3 million estimate or $3.63 million with fees. And a small Cowboy was bought by Los Angeles collector Stavros Merjos for $3.03 million which represents a hammer price of $2.5 million or the lot’s high estimate.

After that, another artist who had a strong showing in London, Issy Wood, continued her momentum with a $468,750 sale over a $150,000 low estimate. That was a new record for the artist by fewer than $20,000.

At this point, the sale shifted gears to Christie’s partnership with the artist known as Beeple. Gravitating toward a physical object that could also be considered an NFT, Beeple was able to beat the $15m whisper number and sell his metaverse-based concept for $25 million hammer or $28.985 million. An online bidder in Switzerland who later revealed himself on Twitter as Ryan Zurrer, an alternative asset investor (you know what that means), ended up winning the work but not before Christie’s Noah Davis failed to coax a bid from his telephone line. Later, Beeple came down to the saleroom to sit in the back and bid on a set of NFTs by Urs Fischer but neither the Fischer works nor the final lot of the sale—a collaboration between an artist, poet and musician—was able to break through seven-figures showing the same power laws in digital art that so many of its advocates had hoped to avoid.

A record was set for Stanley Whitney for a work from 1999 that sold for $1.23 million, triple and double record prices set in the previous six months. As positive as that was, some in the audience thought the work should have or could have sold higher. Peter Doig’s Swamped, a reliable record setter for the artist, got a few bids starting with an opener from Katherine Arnold at $32 million. She was pushed by the auctioneer to $34 million and then sniped by Alex Rotter’s bidder who chopped at $34.5 million. That was enough to move the Doig from $25.925 million paid in 2015 to the $39,862,500 paid last night.

Throughout the night, Christie’s mixed big ticket items with names they might promote to evening sale slots. Jacqueline Humphries performed well, doubling her previous high prices with a $687,500 sale. Barbara Kruger also made progress over a decade-old record price to sell at $1.17 million. Banksy continued his salad days of sales with a $14.55 million price for Sunflowers from Petrol, but the actual bidding was almost as anemic as his wilting bouquet. Nonetheless, it was the artist’s third highest price.

David Hammons also set his third highest price with an untitled 2004 work that made $3.75 million. The hammer price was just $100,000 above the low estimate. Not to break the trend, George Condo’s Linear Connection saw spirited bidding and was sold for his third highest auction price too at $4.95 million.

Christie’s centerpiece Basquiat fizzled, but its understudy attracted several bidders including Helly Nahmad, who broke a standoff between the auctioneer demanding a half million bid above $13 million and a recalcitrant phone bidder offering $13.2 million and then $13.25 million. Nahmad waived a $13.3 million bid only to be countered by phone bidder who finally went to $13.5 million. The work eventually sold for $19,825,000 which was a substantial improvement from the $8,131,000 paid just four years ago.

Dana Schutz’s Smokers was hardly a record price for the artist. At $1.83m, it was the sixth lot in her list of most valuable works. In an era where works are priced to perfection and backed with guarantees, hers was the rare bidding war that ended with the hammer price almost four times the low estimate. Mark Bradford and Mickalene Thomas had works that were bid up slightly from the low estimates but hardly set the night on fire.

Kenny Scharf bested the record set for his work in July with a painting, Travel Time, that made $870,000Helly Nahmad stood by as his companion threw in a few bids on a Mark Grotjahn work on paper that reaffirmed the artist’s market, which will be further tested next week when a red butterfly painting appears in the Macklowe sale.

During much of the evening, Christie’s specialists stood by watching the proceedings just like everyone else. With these carefully orchestrated sales and the emphasis on stage management for the much vaster livestream audience, the idea that marquee sales will revert to the pre-pandemic social occasions they once were seems remote indeed.

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