Christie’s Robust 20th Century Sale Nets $640.8 M., with Six Auction Records 

Christie’s New York staged a marathon two-and-a-half-hour sale of 20th-century art on Thursday night that netted $640.8 million and notched new auction highs for Fernando Botero, Richard Diebenkorn, Arshile Gorky, Barbara Hepworth, Joan Mitchell, and Joan Snyder. All but two of the 63 works found buyers and two lots were withdrawn. 

The night was notable for the depth of bidding both in the room and on the phones; American bidders were an especially strong presence throughout the evening, the house saidat a post-sale press conference. Applause broke out no fewer than six times in the course of the evening, including a round of applause for auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen, who helmed the first half of the sale and gave his final performance before retiring after 38 years with the house. 

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“It was a solid performance,” advisor Todd Levin told ARTnews on his way out of the sale room. “They did a good job with the estimates, and it was livelier than the last two nights.”

Advisor David Norman described the sale as “quite remarkable, especially when world events are so perilous.”

“It was an excellent sale, with lots of good, fresh material, which is exactly what the market wants,”  Norman told ARTnews after the auction. “Works that were making a repeat performance, like the Magritte, did extremely well,” he added, referring to L’empire des lumières (1949), which sold for a $30 million hammer price, or $34.9 million with fees, just shy of its high estimate.

Thursday’s sale marked the third night of New York’s marquee fall auction season. It followed a subdued $107.5 million debut sale of 21st-century work on Monday, which nonetheless set several records, and a white-glove sale of 31 works from the Emily Fisher Landau Collection at Sotheby’s on Tuesday that totaled $406 million, led by Femme à la montre, a 1932 Pablo Picasso painting of his young lover Marie-Thérèse Walter that fetched $139 million to become the second-priciest painting by the Spaniard ever to sell at auction. 

Thursday’s sale at Christie’s was led by Impressionist Claude Monet’s Le Bassin aux nymphéas, ca. 1917-1919, spanning nearly seven feet wide. It hammered for $64 million against a high estimate of $65 million to a phone bidder courtesy of the house’s Alex Marshall after just over a minute’s worth of bidding. With the house’s fees, the painting cost $74 million.

Alex Rotter, chairman of the 20th- and 21st-century art department, secured the night’s second highest sale, Francis Bacon’s Figure in Movement, 1976, also after about a minute-long contest, at a hammer price of $45 million. That was shy of the $50 million estimate but good enough for the seller, and with fees, the painting went for $52.2 million. The work had been off the market since the year after it was created and is considered part of a group of works painted following the death of the artist’s beloved partner George Dyer in 1971. 

Le Bassin aux nymphéas, ca. 1917-1919, Claude Monet.

Among the other top lots of the sale, and one of the record-setters, was California artist Richard Diebenkorn’s Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad, 1965, which had been off the market since 1969 and shows the deep influence of Henri Matisse, whose work he saw in quantity on a trip to the Soviet Union. It hammered at $40 million on an estimate of $25 million, or $46.4 million with fees to become the fourth-priciest lot of the night, after a five-minute contest between a bidder in the room and a phone bidder, ultimately going to the latter. 

Another major record was set for Arshile Gorky, whose 1946 painting Charred Beloved I, made shortly after a fire in Gorky’s home that year in which he lost some 20 paintings, hammered at $20 million, its presale estimate, or $23.4 million with fees. The painting was being sold by David Geffen, who had owned it for 30 years; it had a great provenance, including having been owned by publishing magnate S. I. Newhouse. Gorky’s previous record of $14 million was set in November 2018 by the 1944 painting Good Afternoon, Mrs. Lincoln, which was sold as part of the collection of Barney Ebsworth.

The number four lot was Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange), 1955, which hammered for $40 million to a phone bidder via the house’s Vanessa Fusco against a $45 million estimate, selling for $46.4 million with fees. The artist is currently the subject of a massive retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. The same work was sold at Sotheby’s as part of the legendary Paul and Bunny Mellon’s collection in 2014, after they had owned it for more than four decades, and was on display at a recent Art Basel fair for $60 million. 

Femme endormie, 1934, Pablo Picasso.

One of the longer contests was for Picasso’s Femme endormie, a painting showing the shape of his sleeping young lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter. Against a high estimate of $35 million, it hammered for $37 million to a phone bidder via the house’s Xin Li, who works with Chinese buyers, after a three-and-a-half-minute contest to rank as the fifth-highest-selling lot, for $43 million with fees. 

And a record was set for Fernando Botero, who died earlier this year, by the same painting that set his record at auction in 2006. The painting The Musicians from 1979 sold for a $4.2 million hammer price against a $3.5 million estimate to Christie’s specialist Maria Los on the phones, or $5.1 million with fees.

Meanwhile, the three Paul Cézanne  works being sold by the Museum Langmatt, which the Museum has said is necessary to maintain solvency, were all successful. Fruits et pot de gingembre (1890-1893) led the three, hammering at $33.5 million to Christie’s Rotter with a bidder on the phone, or $38.9 million with fees. That figure was just above its low estimate of $35 million.

The Family of Man: Ancestor II (1974), Barbara Hepworth.

The sale was also notable for the strong results for work by women artists, including new records for Joan Mitchell, Joan Snyder, Tamara de Lempicka, and Barbara Hepworth. Mitchell’s auction record was reset when an Untitled painting from circa 1959 sold for $29.2 million with fees. The Abstract Expressionist’s previous record was set in 2018 by Blueberry (1969), which sold for $16.6 million at Christie’s in New York. Meanwhile, Hepworth’s sculpture The Family of Man: Ancestor II (1974) sold to a woman in the room for a 9.7 million hammer price, or $11.6 million with fees. It had an estimate of $4 to $6 million.

Some of the drama may have been drained for observers who noted that about half of the lots in the sale were guaranteed to sell, with either a guaranteed price by the house or a third-party bidder. Many of the bidding contests for high-ticket items went by quickly, with the more spirited contests coming for some of the night’s lesser-known artists. 

“Third-party bids are essential elements for the success of the auctions and are here to stay,” Norman said, “whether they insure a sale to one bidder or spur competition by giving confidence to other bidders that the value was corroborated by the secured bid.

“And,” he added, “I think it might have been Jussi’s best auctioneering ever.”

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