Crypto, Picassos Headline Strangest Auction Week in Memory


For the first time in 14 months, the auction calendar is behaving as it used to before Covid-19, as rivals Christie’s and Sotheby’s gear up for a week of marquee evening and day sales in New York. The events will begin on May 11 and end on May 14.

The phrases “masterpiece” and “museum-quality” are once again straining from overuse by auction specialists, and Sotheby’s will even allow in-person bidders, though in a highly limited capacity. In other words, it should be a return to normal.

But even though the calendar looks like it used to and auction house specialists are sounding the same notes, the makeup of the auctions themselves, particularly in the contemporary art categories, is strikingly different than in years past.

“I think you’re right to do a double take, because we intentionally decided this season to mix it up,” says Sara Friedlander, the deputy chairman of the postwar and contemporary art department at Christie’s in New York. “It’s a sale that I think has more variety of price points than we’ve ever done before.”

Big Ticket Items

Crypto, Picassos Headline Strangest Auction Week in Memory

New York’s May evening sales are typically occasions when spectacularly expensive artworks trade hands. Despite prognostications about diminished price points, and despite the absence of paintings that cost more than the gross domestic product of a small country, there’s plenty to whet a billionaire’s appetite.

At Sotheby’s, an hour before its contemporary art evening auction on May 12, works from the estate of the late oil heiress Anne Marion will hit the block, including a rare Clyfford Still from 1948 that carries a high estimate of $18 million and above.

Then, in the official evening sale, Sotheby’s will offer Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 7-foot tall Versus Medici, with a high estimate of $50 million, and a “blackboard” painting by Cy Twombly from 1970 that carries a high estimate of $45 million.

Crypto, Picassos Headline Strangest Auction Week in Memory

Together, Sotheby’s Marion sale and its contemporary art evening sale carry a high estimate of $400 million. “The trend over the last several years is a growing divergence between the market value of the very best and second-best,” says David Galperin, the head of contemporary art evening sales at Sotheby’s in New York. “In our efforts to put together this sale, we were trying to put together what the market wanted.”

Not to be outdone, Christie’s also has a Basquiat priced “in excess of $50 million” in its May 11th 21st century evening sale. Two days later, in its 20th century evening auction on May 13th, the auction house will feature a Claude Monet painting of Waterloo Bridge from 1903, estimated in the region of $35 million; a Picasso portrait of his lover Marie-Thérèse from 1932 that carries an estimate around $55 million; and a deep blue and green painting by Mark Rothko from 1970, the year he died, which carries an estimate in the range of $40 million. 

Christie’s 21st century evening sale carries a high estimate of $200 million; its 20th century evening sale carries a high estimate of $440 million.

Art in Demand

Yet this week’s auctions are primarily notable for the abundance of smaller-ticket items, which serve as a surprisingly diverse cross section of what Friedlander says is currently in demand.

Crypto, Picassos Headline Strangest Auction Week in Memory

“There were certain artists we specifically went after for this sale,” she says. “They’re the things our clients are looking for.”

A work by Alex da Corte, an artist whose installation on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s roof garden is igniting New Yorkers’ Instagram feeds, is estimated at just $60,000 to $80,000, and a 2019 painting by Salman Toor, whose recent solo show at the Whitney Museum was a must-see, carries an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000.

Crypto, Picassos Headline Strangest Auction Week in Memory

Other artists Christie’s “definitely wanted”—and got—Friedlander says, include Nina Chanel Abney, who recently got the profile treatment in T, the New York Times style magazine; Jordan Casteel, who had a solo show at the New Museum in New York last year; and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who currently has a solo show at the Tate Britain in London. 

“It’s been a feverish 2 1/2 months,” Friedlander says. “The sale was really built brick by brick, and part of that was working with what comes to you retroactively—‘Here are things that people want to sell, how do you deal with them, where do you position them?’—but a lot of this, more than ever, was proactive.”

Crypto, Picassos Headline Strangest Auction Week in Memory

Sotheby’s has a more established mix in its contemporary evening auction, with prices that get a lot higher a lot faster. But it also has a Toor (The Arrival) which was in the Whitney show and is estimated to draw from $60,000 to $80,000. “We had a work by Toor in our Hong Kong sale, called Three Boys, priced at a similar level that sold for multiples of what we expected,” says Galperin. “We wanted to keep the estimate where [previous] estimates have been. One price doesn’t make the next estimate increase tenfold.”

Crypto Breaks Through

In another major break from tradition, Christie’s will include a group of NFTs called Crypto Punks. The rough, digital images of cartoon heads are connected to blockchain technology and have become a cult collectible in the crypto space. Bidders can pay for the collection, which carries an estimate of $7 million to $9 million in Ether.

Crypto, Picassos Headline Strangest Auction Week in Memory

And over at Sotheby’s, a work by Banksy, Love is in the Air, which is estimated from $3 million to $5 million, can also be paid for in Ether or Bitcoin, though the buyer will have to pay the buyer’s premium in fiat currency.

Friedlander says it’s too soon to say if NFT bidders are also interested in the sale’s more traditional art. “It’s still early days,” she says. “I don’t know about interest on anything.”

The Only Constant: Old Art

The 19th and 20th century art sales at both auction houses are the only places where normalcy reigns. 

Crypto, Picassos Headline Strangest Auction Week in Memory

These sales’ top lots will not come as a surprise (they include work by Monet, Cézanne, Picasso, and van Gogh). Nor will the lowest-priced lots, which include work by such household names as Toulouse-Lautrec, Max Ernst, Henry Moore, and Pierre Bonnard.

“We haven’t had to cobble together a sale where we have to say, ‘It’s not the best, but at least it’s here,” says Julian Dawes, the co-head of the impressionist and modern art department at Sotheby’s in New York.

“That’s the root of the question: Are people willing to put up the best in this climate? And the answer is yes.”

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