At Art Auctions Market Seeks Its Footing After Stumbling Sales and a Hack at Christie’s

Estimates still exceed the $20 million mark and the paintings still bear the signatures of reliable luminaries like Warhol, Basquiat and Picasso. But a shadow hangs over the spring auction season which begins Monday.

A cyberattack at Christie’s brought down the company’s website on Thursday, and as of Sunday morning, Christie’s had not yet regained control but had promised that the auction would take place, at least in person. (A dedicated website was created to allow access to the digital catalogs, but did not allow online bidding.) With the site unavailable and questions still unanswered about the fate of the confidential data, analysts are uncertain about to the impact on buyers and sellers.

Over the next week, more than 1,700 works of modern and contemporary art are expected to be on offer at the big three houses – Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips – with an estimate of between $1.2 billion and $1.8 billion.

This represents a sharp decline from the market’s most recent peak, in 2022, when the spring season generated an impressive $2.8 billion. But the bidding wars that characterized the pandemic spending frenzy have largely dissipated in favor of pre-established “guarantee” agreements that guarantee that paintings will sell at a minimum price. Young artists also saw their secondary markets collapse as speculators withdrew from the market. And a recent Bank of America Private Bank study found that the average price of artwork sold at auction in 2023 declined 32%, the largest annual decline in more than seven years.

“There’s all kinds of finger-pointing going on in the business, even among auction houses,” said Drew Watson, head of art services at Bank of America Private Bank. “The feeling is rather cautious. Either people adopt more conservative estimates or they decide to sit on the sidelines and wait to see how things develop over the next 12 months.

Watson and others said several factors contributed to the market decline. Wars preoccupy Russian and Middle Eastern collectors. A prolonged period of high inflation rates in the United States has created less liquidity in the financial market. And the general lull in purchases in Asia, against a backdrop of economic volatility and the real estate crisis in China, has led to a slowdown in modern and contemporary art auctions.

“There were expectations of growth that didn’t deliver on their promises in recent years,” Brooke Lampley, global head of fine art at Sotheby’s, said of the Asian market.

But she rejected the impression of a sluggish art trade, saying her team was proud of the evening sales it held. While previous seasons have been buoyed by nine-figure collections from estates of patrons like Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen ($1.6 billion including daily sales, breaking records at Christie’s) and Emily Fisher Landau (totaling $425 million last fall at Sotheby’s), this year’s auctions were organized lot by lot.

“We’re pounding the pavement, no matter what, to find the greatest works,” Lampley said, adding that the sales were built “with today’s market appetite in mind.” .

For anyone cautiously awaiting auction results, here are six artists attending the evening sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips to find out who experts say could test the strength of the art market.

While many segments of the art market are more fragile than they were a few years ago, one artist remains as sought-after as ever: Jean-Michel Basquiat.

A nearly eight-foot-wide canvas by Basquiat, who died in 1988 at age 27, claims the spring’s highest estimate. “Untitled (ELMAR)” Since 1982, which depicts a warrior shooting arrows at a falling angel, is expected to gross $40 million to $60 million at Phillips on May 14. (It carries a third-party financial guarantee, meaning it is certain to sell.) Anthropologist and art collector Francesco Pellizzi purchased the painting from Basquiat’s first dealer, Annina Nosei, and l ‘kept all his life. (Pellizzi died last year.) The work, along with two less valuable Basquiats, are being sold at Phillips by a trust affiliated with the collector’s family. In total, seven Basquiats (including a work created by the artist with Andy Warhol) will be offered this week during the evening sales of the three houses.

« Untitled (ELMAR)” is one of approximately 200 paintings the prolific artist created in 1982, which collectors consider his best year. Basquiat auction revenues are down 46% in 2023 from their peak two years earlier, according to analysts at the Artnet price database. But experts attribute this decline to the absence of solid works coming to market, and not to a change in demand. “The Basquiat market appears stronger than ever, although the range of works on the market this season will test it,” said art dealer Nick Maclean.

For nearly 40 years, the health of the auction market could be diagnosed by the rise and fall of prices for Warhol paintings. This is how experts noticed last year that the evening sales did not include any significant work by the Pop Art superstar. It was a shocking omission after he broke the auction record for American artists in 2022 with the $195 million sale of a portrait of Marilyn Monroe.

Christie’s is now offering a 1964 painting “Flowers” ​​by Warhol on May 16, estimated at between $20 and $30 million. The work contains hand-painted petals and a provenance that includes a stay at a company named Search Investment Ltd., London. , who acquired the painting from Thomas Ammann Fine Art in Zurich before the 1990s.

Some analysts have noted that Warhol’s early definitive works are mostly held in museums, leaving iconic examples rare. There are dozens of flower paintings by the artist, which may have given rise to his current estimate. But with few other important Warhols available this season, the selling point could indicate collectors’ tolerance for digging a little deeper into the bench.

Not every auction consignment begins with a collector looking to sell. Sometimes it starts with an enterprising specialist who manages to convince a collector that it is time to part with a valuable possession. This is the story behind “Les Distractions de Dagobert” (1945) by Leonora Carrington, Mexican painter and author of British origin, estimated at between $12 and $18 million at Sotheby’s on May 15.

Carrington – whose colorful life included several expulsions from school, estrangement from his family and a stay in a psychiatric hospital – created this work at the age of 28, shortly after moving to Mexico. The artist, who died in 2011, is the subject of renewed interest as the public reevaluates female surrealists. Carrington’s children’s book, “The Milk of Dreams,” inspired the title of the 2022 Venice Biennale.

The still unknown seller purchased the painting at auction in 1995 for $475,500 (or $974,500 today, adjusting for inflation). Because the work is guaranteed, it will certainly constitute a new reference for the artist. The current low estimate is more than triple Carrington’s maximum auction price of $3.3 million, set for 2022. That’s a significant jump. But Julian Dawes, head of impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s, said his works have sold for about $10 million privately.

Journalists and auctioneers are alike in one way: they both love news.

Over the past year, Jeffrey Gibson has won two of the contemporary art world’s highest honors. The Indigenous and queer artist represented the United States at the Venice Biennale and was selected for one of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s façade commissions. His first serious arrival in the evening sales came with a 2015 beaded work titled “Make Me Feel It” for a high estimate of $60,000 at Phillips and a 2014 figurative sculpture titled “Always After Now” for a high estimate of $200,000 at Sotheby’s.

What makes these works remarkable is not their appearance but their price, which appears to be well below the primary market, where one of Gibson’s iconic punching bags costs more than $400,000. Going below retail price is a strategic move by auctioneers to encourage collectors to bid frenziedly. But artists can suffer when that gamble fails at public auction, depressing their market and telling collectors who just bought more expensive works on the primary market that they got a bad deal.

“While we are transparent about the retail prices of works featured in our exhibitions, we do not comment on the market,” said a spokesperson for one of Gibson’s dealers, Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

A record auction for an Abstract Expressionist star like Jackson Pollock ($61.2 million, set for 2021) or Mark Rothko ($86.9 million in 2012) could happen once a decade. But the two highest prices ever paid for a Joan Mitchell at auction were recorded in as many weeks last fall – even though her results continue to lag those of her male peers. This season, Sotheby’s and Christie’s will try to continue their momentum by offering six Mitchells during their evening sales. Together, they are estimated to bring in more than $53 million. The four works guaranteed at Sotheby’s come from the same American collector.


With a penchant for words, Eleon Smith began writing at an early age. As editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper, he honed his skills telling impactful stories. Smith went on to study journalism at Columbia University, where he graduated top of his class. After interning at the New York Times, Smith landed a role as a news writer. Over the past decade, he has covered major events like presidential elections and natural disasters. His ability to craft compelling narratives that capture the human experience has earned him acclaim. Though writing is his passion, Eleon also enjoys hiking, cooking and reading historical fiction in his free time. With an eye for detail and knack for storytelling, he continues making his mark at the forefront of journalism.
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