2009 in Review: Auctions
2009 in Review: Auctions
To get a flavor for the 2009 art market at auction, consider Richard Princes 2002 painting Overseas Nurse, which sold at Sotheby’s London in July 2008 for a record £4,241,250 ($8,467,258).
That price was realized just a few months prior to the worldwide financial meltdown that also took a big chunk of the overheated art market with it.
This past November, by contrast, another 2002 Prince, Doctor’s Nurse, sold at Sotheby’s New York for $1,706,500, including the buyer’s premium, just over its $1.5 million high estimate.
Granted, Doctor’s Nurse, at 58 by 36 inches, is smaller than the 93-by-56-inch record-setting Overseas Nurse, but its price tag also pales when compared to that of the same-sized Millionaire Nurse, also from 2002, which earned $4,745,000 at Sotheby’s New York in May 2008, when the art market was still surging.
In other words, the Prince market has taken a ferocious beating, and is emblematic of the current climate, though there are some dramatic exceptions.
What is most amazing in this fast-recovering year is the paucity of contemporary works that earned above ten million dollars at auction.
Until Andy Warhols iconic and deadly sobering 200 1 Dollar Bills (1962) sold to a still-anonymous telephone buyer at Sotheby’s New York in November 2009 for a whopping $43,762,500 (est. $8–12 million), the highest-priced postwar work this year was Peter Doigs Reflection (What does your soul look like) (1996), which sold at Christie’s New York that same month for $10,162,500 (est. $4–6 million).
In fact, it was the only other $10 million-plus contemporary art work at auction in 2009.
That means no Abstract Expressionist work, major or otherwise, or additional Pop Art works appeared at auction this year to hurdle that now-elusive eight-figure mark. Worthy but unsuccessful contenders included Jasper Johnss art-historically paramount Gray Numbers, which sold for $8,706,500 at Sotheby’s New York that same month, and David Hockneys highly prized Beverly Hills Housewife (1966–67), which made a record $7,922,500 at Christie’s New York in May 2009. Also among the year’s top achievers were Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XV (1977), which sold last November at Sotheby’s New York for $6,130,5500, and the cover-lot Roy Lichtenstein, Frolic, also from 1977, which sold at Christie’s New York in May 2009 to dealer Larry Gagosian for $6,018,500.
These less-than-overwhelming numbers simply indicate “the kit” just isn’t what it used to be, and sellers, at least for the moment, are largely holding back from releasing major works to auction, apart, of course, from the magisterial, black-on-white Warhol that London übercollector Pauline Karpidas decided to offload at Sotheby’s in November. She had bought the work from the Robert Scull single-owner estate sale, also at Sotheby’s New York, back in November 1986, for $385,000, breaking Warhol's record at the time.
Sources say she was the only bidder after Warhol hunter Irving Blum decided to sit on his hands.
All in all, 2009 made paltry numbers compared to 2008, even despite the crash, thanks to sales like Sotheby’s May 2008 contemporary evening sale, which brought in $362,037,000. Eight lots make eight figures at that sale, including the now notorious (read: overpaid) Francis Bacon Triptych (1976), which sold to UK football club owner/Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich for a shocking $86,281,000.
In 2008, Sotheby’s sold $1.1 billion of contemporary art worldwide, while this year it earned $442.6 million in the same category. (Comparable statistics from Christie’s weren’t available at press time but would be equally stark in contrast.)
Still, there were purchases to be made. One of the year’s best values was grabbed at Phillips de Pury & Companys February 2009 London sale, whcn New York dealer and collector Arne Zimmermann picked up the a tough and quirky Martin Kippenberger self-portrait Big Until Great Hunger (1984) for £433,250 (est. £400–600,000).
Acquisitions like these prove that even though the market may be down, and good-quality offerings may be slim, vigilant buyers in this recalibrating market can cherry-pick choice works at attractive prices.
In the Impressionist and modern arena, 2009 was a decidedly less chaotic than for its younger sibling, largely because of its more conservative nature and the killer single-owner sale of the brand-name tastemaker Yves Saint Laurent in Paris at Christie’s (in association with Pierre Berg & Associés).
This one-off extravaganza, complete with the piped-in, ear-deafening sounds of Maria Callas, a fervent Saint Laurent superstar client, showed the world that people were still willing to pay crazy prices for art, circumstances allowing.
Records dropped like Damien Hirst flies under the soaring glass-and-iron architecture of the Grand Palais, with numbers like €35,905,000 ($46,457,480 (est. €12–18 million) for the beautifully decorative Henri Matisse still life Les coucous, tapis blue et rose (1911), €29,185,000 ($37,762,472; est. €15–20 million) for Constantin Brancusis tribal-art-like Madame L.R. (Portrait de Mme L.R.) from 1914–17, and €21,569,000 ($27,908,129; est. €7–10 million for Piet Mondrians Composition avec bleu, rouge, jaune et noir (1922).
Rare objets also shot heavenwards, such as Marcel Duchamps one-off talisman Belle haleine-Eau de violette from 1921, which sold for €8,913,000 ($11,532,531; est. €1–1.5 million).
And it wasn’t just Yves Saint Laurent that buoyed and comfortably anchored the Impressionist & Modern ship; other sales here and there also burnished that category’s blue-chip veneer. Earlier in February, Edgar Degass 1922 but posthumously cast bronze Petite Danseuse de Quartorze Ans sold at Sotheby’s London for £13,257,250 ($18,823,969; est. £9–12 million). The dancer, which had last sold at the same house in February 2004 for £5,045,600 ($9,173,818), doubled its value in dollars and once again proved its artistic/market mettle.
Sculpture also shined at Sotheby’s New York in November, when Alberto Giacomettis superb hand-painted bronze L’homme qui Cavire, cast in 1951 and consigned by publishing magnate S.I. Newhouse, Jr., sold for a whopping $19,346,500 to yet another anonymous telephone bidder (est.$8–12 million).
This gauntlet of numbers shows that the market roulette wheel is bypassing the numbers of Richard Prince and Damien Hirst to stop at more conservative bets, but also indicates that the international art market is surprisingly fit in both the Impressionist/modern and the contemporary arenas, even after the involuntary crash diet that scared the daylights out of most observers.
Judd Tully is Editor-at-Large for Art+Auction.