Last week, ahead of its upcoming London 20th century art evening sales, Sotheby’s saw its New York mid-season “Contemporary Curated” auction achieve a hammer total of $19.3 million ($24.3 million with buyer’s premium). The result was just above the $18.1 million pre-sale low estimate, realizing an 87 percent sell-through rate across 110 lots.
The sale offered a mix of works by emerging and mid-career blue-chip artists, and its total was below the equivalent March 2020 sale, which made $31.8 million across 209 lots. It was also below the $36.8 million achieved across 265 lots in the spring 2019 edition.
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Despite the contraction in the number works offered in the present sale, the outcome shows that demand is solid for the contemporary art middle market. This was also apparent in Phillips’s historic-high $9.5 million “New Now” sale and Christie’s $23 million mid-season contemporary sale both held earlier this month.
Thirty-five percent of the lots achieved hammer prices above the high estimate, 25 percent hammered within their estimate, and 23 percent landed below the low pre-sale estimate. The auction set new records for Ed Clark, Gene Davis, Chloe Wise, Soil Thornton, Louise Bonnet, Firelei Báez, and Feng Xiao Min.
The top-selling lot across the auction’s offerings was Ed Ruscha’s California Grape Skins (2009), a text on canvas work, which featured in a 2011 solo exhibition that went to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Denver Museum of Art. It hammered at $2.35 million ($2.8 million with buyer’s premium), just below the low estimate.
The next-highest-selling lot was a heart-shaped cake painting by Pop-adjacent California painter Wayne Thiebaud from 2014. The sellers of the Thiebaud, who purchased it that year at Acquavella Galleries in New York, sold it during Sotheby’s sale for $2.4 million with premium against an estimate of $1.8 million. Marlene Dumas’s Handy (1992), a nude portrait of a woman, hammered at its low estimate of $600,000. The final price of $746,000 with premium is 68 percent above the price of $443,633 the sellers paid for it at Christie’s London in 2005.
A vibrant abstract painting titled Made in Manhattan (1961) by Ed Clark, who died in October 2019, set a new record for the artist when it sold for $746,000, nine times the low estimate of $80,000. Clark originally gifted it a New York private collector, and it remained in the family’s estate for decades before coming to auction last week. Hauser and Wirth’s addition of Clark’s estate to its roster last year led to a surge in the late painter’s market. Sotheby’s moved up Clark’s record last year to $576,600 in last year’s equivalent “Contemporary Curated” sale in March. Just one month prior, a record for Clark had been set at Phillips when an abstraction sold for $462,500, against an estimate of $200,000.
Other new-to-market works by well-known postwar artists surpassed expectations. A small-scale four-part gouache by Joan Mitchell from 1967 sold for $327,600, against an estimate of $250,000. Mitchell originally gifted it in 1980 to her Smith College friend Martha Burke Bertolette, whose family inherited it in 2011. Sam Gilliam’s abstract painting Surf (1968) sold for $264,600, three times its estimate of $80,000. Romare Bearden’s paper collage work Mother and Daughter (1968), which had been in a Minneapolis-based collection since 1987, sold for $139,709, more than double the estimate of $50,000.
Elsewhere, up-and-coming artists saw high demand. An untitled 2018 figurative drawing by Bonnet went for $81,900, nearly seven times the estimate of $12,000. The result set a new record for the artist, whose Surrealism-inspired images of exaggerated bodies have gained traction in the primary market. And Tunji Adeniyi-Jones’s 2018 painting Between the Blue Vine, depicting a set of intertwined purple figures with glaring eyes, sold for $138,600, against an estimate of $40,000.
Another record was set for Báez. Her intricate 2015 work on paper Ciguapa Pantera (to all the goods and pleasures of this world), featuring a human figure emerging from a mass of animal fur, sold for a record $63,000, against a pre-sale low estimate of $40,000. The work has been featured in exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai. The result surpasses Baez’s previous benchmark price of $56,700, set in Sotheby’s last “Contemporary Curated” sale in October.