The so-called “midseason” auctions of contemporary art are often overlooked in comparison to their marquee counterparts in November and May. But, with the art market continuing to race ahead at a heady clip, this week the events at Sotheby’s and Christie’s turned heads with a few surprise records.
On Wednesday, Sotheby’s “Contemporary Curated” sale brought in $13.8 million—its highest-ever total for a midseason contemporary auction—and set a new record for Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford. Five bidders battled it out for the painter’s massive collage of twisting, dendrite-like channels that ultimately went to pharmaceuticals billionaire Stewart “The King of All Fun” Rahr for $2.3 million—double Bradford’s previous auction record and the top lot of the day.
Bradford shared the spotlight with fellow rising star Oscar Murillo, the London-based painter who stunned observers with a new $400,000 record at Phillips last week that overshot its estimate by tenfold. Murillo once again defied expectations on Wednesday with the sale of one of his signature stack paintings for almost $200,000, against an estimate of around $70,000. (The next day, at Christie's, Murillo sold a color-block painting dirtied with studio detritus for $197,000, also well above its high estimate.)
But there was some welcome attention paid to earlier (and undervalued) female artists as well. Fresh off her survey at the Whitney Museum, San Francisco Beat generation icon Jay DeFeo also set a record with Sotheby’s sale of a late, shadowy abstract painting for $233,000—rocketing past its estimate of just $30,000-$40,000. And a radiant portrait of a young judge by painter Alice Neel nearly quadrupled its estimate to fetch $437,000.
Christie’s did only slightly less impressively at its “First Open” sale yesterday, which totaled $13.2 million, the highest-ever tally for the auction. The top lot went to recurring salesroom star Andreas Gursky, whose photograph of a tensely choreographed parade of thousands in North Korea—a locale that turns out to be perfect fodder for the order-obsessed artist—sold for just shy of $1 million.
Among the surprises was an Alexander Calder starfish sculpture that garnered $460,000—four times its estimate—and the $270,000 sale of a silver-wire necklace by the artist, which was previously purchased at a Brooklyn flea market for $15. And a lesser-known midcentury artist, Alfred Jensen, sold a geometric painting of symbols for $478,000, far over its $125,000 estimate.
The week capped off a series of contemporary sales in New York, but art-market observers might also want to look elsewhere on the globe—especially at Shanghai, where Christie's just staged the first-ever sale in mainland China by a Western auction house with a staggering success that brought in $25 million and boasted a 98-percent sale-through rate, with one of the lots being the first Picasso to be auctioned in the region. The parade of contemporary art will return to the city in November, when all three auction houses' hold their main-stage events.