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10 Records Anchor Sotheby’s $183 Million Contemporary Art Sale in NYC

On Thursday night, Sotheby’s held two consecutive evening sales at its Upper Manhattan headquarters that brought in a collective $204.7 million. The sales hammered at $183 million, below the expectation of $169 million.

The first portion of the night during Sotheby’s “Now” evening that is dedicated to in-demand works made within the last five years brought in $37.2 million. The following section of the night, the Contemporary evening sale, generated a total of $167.5 million. That sale hammered at $145.8 million after five lots, each carrying estimates below $1 million, were withdrawn before the second sale began. It was originally expected to bring in $154.9 million before the lots were pulled.

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Some figures in the trade anticipated a correction to the market’s top end, a return to a period of lesser frenzy as the era of cheap money has come to an end. Other advisors in New York told ARTnews that the heat around some ultra-contemporary artists had cooled, a signal that the category had been oversaturated for the past few years.

Still, there were positive signs for Sotheby’s on Thursday night, which saw records for six artists in the opening Now sale: Justin Caguiat, Henry Taylor, Nicole Eisenman, Simone Leigh, Portia Zvavahera and Steven Shearer. Four additional artist records were set in the second portion of the night.

How economic headwinds amid multiple bank failures in the U.S. and Europe have affected the maneuvering of the market’s top players is a minor concern, sources told ARTnews. Though higher interest rates might deter a smaller group of finance types used to leveraging art collections against debt, its may have little effect on the results of the behind-the-scenes financing of the sales.

A New York-based chairman at a competing auction house told ARTnews that business ahead of the sale was still fundamentally sound, explaining that compared to the fall, the houses have been “sensibly aggressive” in their negotiations with consignors to bring high value lots to the May sales. Another advisor who runs a London-based art fund and wealth management firm, Phillip Hoffman, said that despite the chillier financial climate, clients were still willing to take on financial risk in the form of guarantees ahead of the sale.

One major lot that was scheduled to go on the block was a painting by Yoshitomo Nara, featuring the doe-eyed protagonist that recurs throughout the Japanese artist’s work. The painting, which had an $18 million low estimate, was withdrawn by the consignor before the sale’s start. The move put a dent in Sotheby’s overall expected total.

The big-ticket item of the night was a massive bronze cast of Louise Bourgeois’s Spider, which hammered at its $30 million low estimate, going to a bidder on the phone with Sotheby’s Americas chairman Lisa Dennison. The final price was $32.8 million with fees. The second most valuable work of the evening was a 1985 painting by Jean Michel-Basquiat’s titled Now’s the Time, a disk-shaped canvas that pays homage to the musician Charlie Parker. Offered with a pre-sale estimate in the region of $30 million, the work hammered for $25.5 million after opening at a $23 million bid. It sold for a final price shy of its expectation at $28.6 million with fees.

Henry Taylor’s From Congo to the Capital, and black again (2007).
Henry Taylor’s From Congo to the Capital, and black again (2007).

Among the most anticipated lots of the night was Henry Taylor’s canvas From Congo to the Capital, and black again (2007), a riff on Picasso’s portrait of sex workers, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Taylor’s piece, which replaces Picasso’s figures with Black women, appeared in “B Side”, an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles dedicated to Taylor’s work. The painting’s sale caused a bidding spar, but eventually went to a telephone bidder for a record price of $2.5 million, hammering above its $1 million estimate.

Elsewhere, another record price was set by a Simone Leigh figurative sculpture. Las Meninas II (2019)one of her signature raffia-skirted women, had changed hands three times in the last four years. It sold for $3 million at Sotheby’s; a previous record for Leigh was set a Phillips earlier in the week. Zimbabwe-based painter Portia Zvavahera’s 2016 canvas Vese Vakanddibata (They all gave me strength, 2016), depicting a group of four figures merged into one, sold for $355,600 with fees, also a record for the artist.

Others lots coming from high-profile New York collection was Nicole Eisenman’s Night Studio, a view of two women embracing in bed, which sold for $2.4 million. According to previous museum catalogues, the work came from the collection of Joshua Gessel and Yoel Kremin. Matthew Wong’s 2017 landscape The Jungle, sold by a former Guggenheim trustee and private investor David Shuman, went for $1.8 million. It was offered in New York after being pulled from a Hong Kong sale in April.

Alex Greenberger contributed reporting.

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