There is a discernible whiff of optimism in the air as the November auction season in New York approaches. After a year and a half of lean, wary sales, last May a choice consignment from the estate of Mrs. Sidney Brody drove the total take for the Impressionist and modern evening session at Christie’s New York to a whopping $335.5 million. Whether or not this triumph marked the end of the art-market swoon triggered two years ago by the global recession, there are signs that the houses are abandoning their austerity measures this fall. The fine array of property on offer from estates and living consignors signals sellers’ confidence in the strength and liquidity of the market, and Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips de Pury & Company are responding with ambitious estimates that will test the depth of the putative recovery.
Sotheby’s kicks off the season on November 2 with an Impressionist and modern sale that spotlights Amedeo Modiglianis luscious oil "Nu assis sur un divan" (La belle Romaine)," 1917 (estimate on request; in excess of $40 million). Rich in provenance and exhibition history, the canvas last sold in November 1999 at Sotheby’s New York for a then record $16,777,500. Modigliani began his nude series in 1916 after abandoning sculpture, and this painting could challenge his auction record of €43.1 million ($52.8 million), set this past June by the rare 1910-12 stone sculpture "Tête" at Christie’s in Paris. "That suite of nudes from around 1917 is his greatest achievement in painting," says Simon Shaw, head of the New York Impressionist and modern department, "and they’re extremely rare on the market."
The Modigliani is not the only significant canvas on the block at Sotheby’s: Claude Monets large 1917-19 oil "Bassin aux nymphéas," from the artist’s storied "water lily" series, exudes an almost Abstract Expressionist vibrancy of surface. The Reader’s Digest Collection acquired the picture from the Knoedler gallery in 1956 and sold it at Sotheby’s New York in November 1998 for $9.9 million. How it fares this November will serve as a test of the market’s strength. Wary of the ignominious fate suffered in June by an earlier and more art historically important "Nymphéas," which sank under its estimate of £30 million to £40 million ($45-60 million) and was bought in at Christie’s London, Sotheby’s has tagged its water lilies at a comparatively conservative $20 million to $30 million. Other lots to watch include two works by Henri Matisse: the elegant, pattern-packed 1942 Nice interior "Danseuse dans le fauteuil, sol en damier" — which is estimated at just $12 million to $18 million despite fetching £10,996,000 ($21,785,900) in June 2007 at Sotheby’s London — and the important bronze "Deux négresses," conceived in 1907 and cast in 1930 (est. $8-10 million).
The Christie’s evening sale on November 3 has its own headlining Matisse, "Nu de dos, 4 état," the final and most stylized of the artist’s four totemic sculptures of a woman’s back. Originally executed in plaster in 1930, the piece was cast in bronze only in 1978, in an edition of 12, 10 of which reside in museum collections. This cast is the first to appear at auction and is estimated at $25 million to $35 million. It is joined by the sculpture "Femme de Venise V," 1956, by Alberto Giacometti (est. $8-12 million).
Sharing the limelight is Juan Griss stunning 1913 "Violon et guitare" (est. $18-25 million). "This is the archetypal Cubist still life, with Gris’s trademark colors that throb with intensity," says Conor Jordan, head of the Christie’s Impressionist and modern department. New to the auction block, this canvas has a notable provenance, having passed from the artist to Daniel Kahnweiler, his legendary dealer. Judging by the estimate, Jordan has high hopes it will top Gris’s current high, $20.8 million, fetched by "Livre, pipe, et verres," 1915, in November 2008. The evening will also see the first group of works to go under the hammer from the late California computer pioneer Max Palevskys collection, which the house is parceling out among several sessions. This selection includes five Fernand Légers, led by his geometric color-charged oil La tasse de thé, 1921 (est. $8-12 million), another version of which sold for €11.5 million ($14.8 million) at the Yves Saint Laurent/Pierre Bergé sale in Paris last year.
Even with the emphasis on modern fare, there are some first-rate Impressionist works. Camille Pissarros "Enfants attabls dans le jardin à Eragny," 1892, a dappled idyll from the estate of the San Francisco collectors Walter and Phyllis Shorenstein, carries an estimate of $3 million to $4 million. A Paris collector has consigned Georges Seurats small 1884-85 pointillist study of his signature "Un dimanche après-midi à l’île de la Grande Jatte," painted on a cigar-box lid (est. $1.5-2.5 million). The appetite for Impressionism "has never gone away," says Jordan. "It’s only been harder to satisfy it because of the increasing challenge of sourcing prime-quality pictures as more and more enter public collections."
Contemporary art takes the stage on November 8, when Phillips de Pury — opening rather than closing the week, for a change — inaugurates its sleek new Park Avenue space with another debut: the first auction in what will be an annual series, appropriately titled Carte Blanche, each installment of which is to be directed by an art-world luminary. First up is Philippe Ségalot, the onetime head of the Christie’s contemporary-art department in New York and currently principal of the private dealership GPS Partners. Ségalot has trawled his extensive network of clients to land 33 of his favorite works by his favorite artists, ranging from Yves Klein to Matthew Day Jackson. The result is a sale he unabashedly describes as a "self-portrait of my own taste," explaining, "I had the luxury to go after every piece as if I were putting together a small collection."
Among the works on offer is one of the most expensive of the season, Andy Warhols 1962 "Men in Her Life," an 84½-by-83¼-inch silkscreen and pencil on canvas showing black-and-white images of the 26-year-old screen siren Elizabeth Taylor; her third husband, the movie mogul Michael Todd; and her cheating husband-to-be, pop singer Eddie Fisher, accompanied by his then wife, actress Debbie Reynolds (estimate on request, in the region of $40 million). Although not as familiar as other Liz images in the Warhol pantheon, the cinematic spread, appropriated from a Life magazine feature on the "storybook princess," is one of a series of four and passed from the hands of the Swiss dealer and collector Thomas Ammann to the seller, Jose Mugrabi. The estimate is a far cry from the come-hither $8 million to $12 million that Sotheby’s affixed to the artist’s "200 One Dollar Bills," 1962, which nevertheless made $43.7 million last year. Phillips is confident enough to guarantee the work, indicating the ambition and deep pockets of the firm’s Russian owners — or a third party willing take on the financial risk.
Ségalot’s long involvement with the works of Maurizio Cattelan and Felix Gonzalez-Torres is in evidence here. The former is represented by the remote-controlled figure "Charlie," 2003 (est. $2-3 million), based on the tricycle-riding boy in Stanley Kubricks "The Shining," and "Stephanie" (est. $1.5-2 million), a bust of model Stephanie Seymour executed the same year in colored pigment, wax, synthetic hair, glass, and metal. From Gonzalez-Torres, Ségalot chose a classic cellophane-wrapped candy installation, "Untitled (Portrait of Marcel Brient)," 1992 (est. $4-6 million). Works by Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Hammons round out the mix.
Sotheby’s kept its contemporary session on November 9 purposely small. "I believe in the market," says the house’s head of contemporary art, Alex Rotter, "but I don’t want to oversaturate it." Among the carefully edited lots are two Pop treats: Andy Warhol’s giant black-and-white acrylic-on-linen "Coca-Cola  Large Coca-Cola, May-June 1962" (est. $20-25 million), and Roy Lichtensteins frothy oil-on-canvas "Ice Cream Soda," from the same year (est. $12-18 million). "You have to make a case, both to new buyers and to seasoned ones why a work is relevant and art historically important," says Rotter, describing the Warhol as "the first icon painting of his career."
Also on offer are the important Robert Rauschenberg painting "Exile," 1962 (est. $5-7 million), whose storm of brushstrokes seems to quote the Abstract Expressionists the artist helped make obsolescent, and Gerhard Richters fuzzy and formidable six-foot photo-painting "Matrosen" ("Sailors"), 1966 (est. $6-8 million), which the Weserburg Museum für moderne Kunst, in Bremen, is deaccessioning. The highlight, however, is the large, luminous Mark Rothko painting "Untitled," 1955, in fiery shades of yellow and orange. The current owner acquired the work from Marlborough Gallery in 1969, when Rothkos of this period and scale (91 by 69 inches) were priced $50,000 to $75,000; today, it carries an estimate of $20 million to $30 million.
Christie’s closes out the week of evening sales on November 10, and it does so with fireworks. The cover lot, Gerhard Richters haunting Zwei Kerzen ("Two Candles"), 1982 (est. $12-16 million), is easily one of the artist’s most recognizable paintings. But Roy Lichtensteins Ohhh...Alright..., 1964 (estimate on request, in excess of $40 million), threatens to steal the show. The bubble-captioned comic-book image of a perplexed red-haired beauty clutching a black telephone to her ear is said to have been sold by the actor and author Steve Martin to the casino magnate Steve Wynn in a $50 million transaction brokered by dealer William Acquavella and was last exhibited in a traveling retrospective organized in 2003 by London’s Hayward Gallery. The house also has the season’s most important drawing, Jasper Johnss lushly colored "0 Through 9," 1961 (est. $9-12 million). Mounted on Masonite and layered with newspaper, encaustic, acrylic, and discarded paint-chip samples from Robert Rauschenbergs "Rebus," this work hasn’t been exhibited since Johns’s second solo show in Paris more than 50 years ago, after which its current European sellers acquired it.
Among the noteworthy estate pieces from the Palevsky consignment are two Alexander Calder outdoor sculptures, including "The Blackboard," 1970 (est. $2.5-3.5 million). From the late Dennis Hoppers collection come a richly collaged 1987 drawing by Jean-Michel Basquiat (est. $5-7 million) and Warhol’s 1971 portrait of the actor in a cowboy hat (est. $800,000-1.2 million), while the Robert Shapazian estate, in Los Angeles, has put up a number of Warhols, including a Campbell’s tomato-soup can, a small Marilyn, and a large dollar-sign. The active Seattle-based collector Barney Ebsworth, meanwhile, has contributed another Warhol to the pot: the 72-by-52½-inch "Big Campbell’s Soup Can with Can Opener (Vegetable)," 1962 (estimate on request; in excess of $30 million).
The house is bullish about the sale’s prospects. "The mood among sellers is terrific," says Robert Manley, head of Christie’s postwar and contemporary department. "Any hesitation that people had with consigning was washed away in May. People think it’s a good time to sell." It remains to be seen how people feel about buying.
"New York Sales Preview" originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's November 2010 Table of Contents.