Last week's auctions marked the first sifting of the art-market leaves since the presidential election, and there was widespread relief that the top of the market still managed to do fine—in fact, it appeared that any turbulence in the sales was due more to a lack of quality inventory than a flight from everyone's favorite high-brow alternative asset. But what about the lower and middle regions of the market, where the volatility can be less easily absorbed?
For that, let's turn to the day sales, where Sotheby's, Christie's, and Phillips unloaded their work by young up-and-comers, established-but-not-quite-white-hot mid-career artists, and historical artists who are better known to scholars than to bankers. What follows is a deep dive into a part of the market where, shockingly, sanity more or less prevailed.
There Was Support, and Competition, for Favored Painters
– The critically adored quasi-abstractionist Amy Sillman saw one of her people-less portraits from the Ames collection set a new record at Sotheby’s at half a million dollars on a $70,000-100,000 estimate, while another from that sale notched her third best price at $175,000.
– Los Angeles’s Laura Owens, another vanguard painter from MoMA’s “Forever Now” show, also set a new record when a rather goofy menagerie painting sold for $360,500 at Sotheby’s. None of her best work has made it to auction thus far, due to the strength of both her reputation and her dealer network, and once that happens one can expect far higher prices.
– Winning a new high of $4.7 million in the Sotheby’s evening sale, Mark Bradford also quintupled his low estimate in the day sale with a $540,000 red collage painting. Few artists are hotter than this MacArthur Genius, who is about to represent Trumpmerica in the next Venice Biennale.
– The relentless George Condo market kept marching forward, and, while he didn’t top his $1.33 million record from May, three of his paintings from the Ames collection tripled their low estimates at Sotheby’s, with two nearing the million mark.
– What can one say about Adrian Ghenie? Nothing came close to his $9 million record in London last month, and while a lesser “Pie Fight” painting failed to over-impress, selling for squarely between its $500,000-700,000 estimate at Christie’s, a wonderfully creepy Boogeyman work on paper tripled its high estimate to sell for $75,000 at Sotheby’s. Meanwhile, two bravura paintings sold for $1.4 million and $3.9 million in Christie’s evening sale.
– When it comes to creating excitement for works on paper, Jonas Wood could, and did. While his paintings doubled their estimates—without coming near his $839,000 record from last fall—two of his coveted plant drawings more than quadrupled their estimates to sell for $57,500 and $81,250.
– The famous revisionist history painter Kehinde Wiley bucked expectations when he fetched his second-highest auction price with a sculpture—a bust of a black man in the style of Houdon that went for eight times its estimate at Christie’s for $125,000.
– The slow-building market for 78-year-old Danish abstractionist Per Kirkeby got a shot in the arm from the Ames estate, with everything selling for multiples of its estimate, though nothing coming close to his $265,430 record.
– The hyper-prolific Josh Smith, whose autograph paintings were selling in the $70,000 range just three years ago, was cautiously tagged with a $10,000-15,000 estimate at both Phillips and Sotheby’s, and the canvases did well enough: $30,000 and $56,250, respectively.
Collectors Pounced on Undervalued Art of Quality
– Neo-Geo artist Peter Halley, whose market got some warm air under its wings when he recently joined Greene Naftali gallery, achieved his second-highest price when an excellent Day-Glo “Prison” painting from 1985 sold for $243,750 at Phillips
– Fresh off his acclaimed MoMA retrospective, the difficult bricolage artist Bruce Conner had a spate of consignments at Christie’s, where Cannabis Collage (1960-61) doubled its estimate to fetch a new record price at $631,500.
– Alexander Calder, long an auction-night heartbreaker with his astronomical sculptures, is now getting renewed attention for his bold, bright, and unmistakably signature works on paper: two gouache-and-ink drawings quadrupled their estimates to sell at Sotheby’s for $150,000 and $175,000.
– On the heels of his $1.2 million auction record at Christie’s this June and amid a surge of interest among Chinese collectors, Sean Scully was repeatedly bid up to multiples of its estimates last week, with the highest notch being $540,500 at Sotheby’s. (The fact that he has a Hirshhorn show coming up next year couldn’t hurt.)
– Robert Longo’s painting-scaled drawings have been enjoying a market comeback for quite a while, but could his sculpture now be not to far behind? A vividly painted 1999 bronze of an unfurled American flag, with the depressing title Castles Made of Sand, achieved $237,500, a high water mark for a sculpture by the artist at auction.
– Remember Michael Raedecker? A Turner Prize-nominated market star in the aughts, when his paintings sold in the six figures at auction, he got a boost when a nice painting from the Ames estate burst out of its low, low $5,000-7,000 estimate to sell for $27,500.
– Alice Neel, whose fame as a portraitist far outstrips her prices in the auction market (possibly due to collectors clinging to the best ones), experienced her third-highest price under the hammer last week—strangely enough for a Jonas Wood-esque painting of a potted plant (without people), which sold in the Christie’s morning sale for $547,500.
– Pretty much everything by Yayoi Kusama, Sam Francis, Adolph Gottlieb, and Helen Frankenthaler—in other words, artists who could be considered key proponents in the history of 20th-century abstraction—fetched healthy multiples of its estimates.
– Speaking of history, one legend of West Coast art, the Light and Space pioneer Larry Bell, won his second-highest price when an etched version of one of his vacuum-coated glass boxes sold for $372,500 at Sotheby’s on an estimate of $60,000-80,000.
With Reserves Battled Back, Serious Deals Could Be Had
– A red-but-still-uncharacteristic Barnaby Furnas painting of the Misfits playing in a disco-ball-illuminated concert hall had an estimate of $40,000-60,000… and sold for $10,000.
– Want a rock that Dan Colen painted to look like a green peanut M&M? That went for just $5,000, under the $7,000-9,000 estimate.
– A Mark Flood pink-and-blue abstraction went for just $18,750 on a $30,000-50,000 estimate.
– Painting star Joe Bradley, who got his $1.8 million record in Christie’s evening sale, saw major deals on sub-par works in the day sales, including one green canvas that sold for $346,000 at Phillips—a juicy 150k discount on the low estimate.
– The painted wooden “apparatus” by Fredrik Vaerslev, pegged to sell at $3,000-5,000? Some lucky son of a gun took it home for just $375.
No Young Up-and-Comers Got Burned
– An Eddie Peake painting very similar to the one that set his $64,000 record two years ago was put under the hammer at an aggressively low estimate of $8,000-10,000 and did fine, going for $27,500.
– Matt Connors, another “Forever Now” painter, had second auction showing at Phillips—fetching the exact same price of $112,500 against the exact same estimate of $30,00-40,000 as the piece that went in September’s “New Now” sale.
– Hardware store aficionado Matias Faldbakken notched a new record, with some electric tape stretched across an MDF board selling for $262,500 at Sotheby’s.
– Despina Stokou, who has been hot among collectors but only made her first auction appearance at Phillips this May, also set a new record when a 2014 painting from the Ames collection earned $18,750 at Sotheby’s.
– Another young painter from the Ames collection, Scott Olson, doubled his estimate for $21,250.
– Even Charlie Billingham failed to drop below his low estimate with a suite of his Hogarthian butt paintings, getting $12,500 against expectations of $12,000-18,000.
– The most “emerging” artist of the sales, Andrew Schoultz, proved himself capable of vastly exceed expectations—even if they were low expectations indeed. His gold-leaved Melting Flag 2 overshot its $3,000-4,000 estimate to sell for $27,500.
– Biggest breakout success of the week? That would be Harold Ancart, whose untitled abstract triptych from 2014 flew high above its estimate to fetch a price ten times higher than any of his previous auction records: $751,500. The next Oscar Murillo?