Records for Julie Mehretu, Barkley Hendricks Enliven Sotheby’s $310 M. Contemporary Sale

On Wednesday night, Sotheby’s brought in a combined $310 million (inclusive of fees) from two back-to-back evening sales of contemporary art, including the latest iteration of its “Now” evening sale, which also saw several new auction records. The total hammer price for the entire grouping of 61 lots sold came to $260 million, falling toward the high end of its presale estimate of $202 million–$289 million, and just below last year’s equivalent sales, which brought in a collective $314.9 million.

The sale set records for Marina Perez Simão, Mohammed Sami, Julie Mehretu, Barkley Hendricks, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Ad Reinhardt, and Amy Sillman.

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As is typical of evening sales staged in New York, a significant portion of the lots came to the sale with financial arrangements that the house secured in advance to ensure risks were offset for consignors of major lots: 42 lots—nearly 70 percent of those on offer—were backed by presale financial guarantees.

Julie Mehretu Tops ‘Now’ Sale

Kicking off the evening, the Now sale lasted exactly an hour, and turned out to be a white-glove event, meaning all the 18 lots offered found buyers. Sotheby’s launched the “Now” series after the height of the pandemic, and it quickly began racking up speculative demand for rising painters. Three years later, the bullish demand for artists still early in their careers has notably cooled, but tonight’s edition saw success for artists who have previously exceeded expectations at auction. And nearly 40 percent of the offerings also hammered at prices in excess of their high estimates.

Lisa Dennison, Sotheby’s Americas chairman, won the bid for Julie Mehretu’s Walkers With the Dawn and Morning. The gray-toned abstract painting appeared in the 2008 showcase Prospect.1 New Orleans, at the New Orleans Museum of Art. A catalogue for that show reveals MoMA trustee Michael Ovitz as the Sotheby’s consignor. The painting hammered at $9.5 million, at the high end of its $7 million–$10 million estimate; the final price of $10.7 million (with fees) set a new record for the artist, surpassing Mehretu’s previous record of $9.3 million set just last month. Wednesday night’s result was also the highest public price recorded for an artist born in Africa.

Jadé Fadojutimi’s Teeter towards me, from 2019, nearly reset the record for the young London-based artist, who last year appeared in the Venice Biennale and joined the roster at Gagosian gallery. After several minutes’ bidding, the lot hammered at $1.4 million ($1.8 million with fees), demolishing the low estimate of $600,000 and narrowly missing the record $1.94 million the British artist set at Phillips on Tuesday night. Another record set at Sotheby’s was that for Iraqi artist Mohammed Sami. Six bidders chased his 2021 canvas The Praying Room over the course of nearly 4 minutes, after which it hammered on a bid of $750,000, more than six times its high estimate, going for a final price of $952,000.

Some of the sale’s more anticipated lots, works by Marlene Dumas, Kerry James Marshall, and Jenny Saville sold from the private holdings of Chinese collectors Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei, founders of Shanghai’s Long Museum, saw less action among bidders. The collectors made headlines earlier this fall when they announced plans to part with nearly 60 contemporary art works from their collection. The Marshall painting titled Plunge (1982) hammered at its low estimate of $9 million. Meanwhile, Saville’s Shift (1996), depicting a view from above of five nude figures lying side by side, hammered at $9.2 million, just above its $9 million estimate. Dumas’s 1994 canvas Love your Neighbor, also a figurative work, hammered at $5 million, below its low $5.5 million expectation. Together, the three works brought in a collective $27 million with fees.

Sotheby’s New York Evening Sale, November 15, 2023.

Contemporary Sale Sets Records for Barkley Hendricks, Barbara Chase-Riboud, and Others

Bidding was more restrained in the second half of the evening, when Sotheby’s London-based auctioneer Oliver Barker took over to lead the contemporary art sale. This seemed to follow a trend established during last week’s sales, where tried-and-true blue-chip material by male artists is performing less well than that by women artists from the postwar period, as well as certain artists in the ultra-contemporary category.

One of the night’s most expensive lots—as well as one of the largest, standing more than 9 feet high—was Gerhard Richter’s 1997 canvas Abstraktes Bild. The work was estimated to make $25 million; offered with an irrevocable bid, it attracted only two bids with Sotheby’s New York specialists, hammering at $27.5 million ($31.9 million with fees), placing among the top 10 most expensive Richters to sell at auction.

Blue-chip stars on the auction circuit that typically serve as cover lots in evening sales also failed to surpass expectations. A Basquiat from the important year 1982 and a Diebenkorn hammered at $39 million and $10 million, respectively. Both prices fell below their low estimates.

At another point, a 1962 painting by Frank Stella hammered at $16 million, eliciting applause as it beat its $10 million low estimate. Several lots later came another high point: a 1960 Ad Reinhardt monochrome canvas from his “Black Paintings” series set a record at $3.7 million.

Competing for attention with the Richter were works by two Black artists, Barkley Hendricks and Barbara Chase-Riboud, whose prices are finally catching up with their historical value. Both set records during the sale. Hendricks’s 1984 work Yocks, a portrait of two men standing casually with one’s hand on the other’s shoulder, sold for $8.4 million on a $6 million estimate. Sotheby’s New York head of private sales David Schrader competed for the work for a phone bidder, losing out to another New York specialist, whose client scored with a hammer price of $7 million. The result broke the previous record of $6.1 million set for Hendricks at Christie’s New York earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the sculptor and writer Chase-Riboud’s La Musica / Amnesia, a bronze figurine from 1990, hammered at $647,700 with fees, five times its $120,000 high estimate. The record comes nearly a year after Chase-Riboud, whose practice centers on Black activists and political figures, was the subject of a retrospective at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, and less than a year after she joined gallery giant Hauser & Wirth.

More than anything, the solid sale served as reassurance for the art trade, which went into this auction season with a fair amount of jitters. “The market remains selective,” Sotheby’s New York contemporary art specialist David Galperin said after the sale, “but overall tonight proved that, at its core, the market is deep and remains hungry for works that are smartly brought to market and estimated competitively.”

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