November 28, 2022

Just as the art market withstood the trauma of the 9/11 attacks and the economic slump of 2008, the purchase of high-priced paintings at Sotheby’s prevailed on Wednesday during the first live auction since the pandemic began in March 2020.

Regardless of what crises are shaking the world, the rich keep buying art.

In a deliberately sparse salesroom in Manhattan, where auction specialists from London and Hong Kong could be seen on screens, business at Sotheby’s was strong, bringing in a total of $ 218.3 million from 32 lots. Christie’s raised $ 210.5 million from 37 lots in a fully virtual sale on Tuesday evening.

Oliver Barker, a Sotheby’s auctioneer, seemed noticeably delighted with the return to live sales and the new format and once pronounced the market “back in good shape”.

The only indication that the world had changed in the past year was that the focus seemed to have shifted from the usual darlings of the blue-chip art market to artists of color, some of whom – Jordan Casteel, Mickalene Thomas and Rashid Johnson – Set high prices for her works at auction.

Among the lots that caused a stir included Robert Colescott’s take on Washington when he crossed the Delaware and George Washington Carver took command. It was purchased for $ 15.32 million for a fee from the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles, whose opening has been delayed until 2023.

“This is such an important piece of work for our collection – it hasn’t been available to the public yet,” said Sandra Jackson-Dumont, the museum’s director and general manager, in a telephone interview after the sale. “This work is an important part of the story of artists doing narrative work. It’s contemporary and historic at the same time. “

Also noteworthy was the tender for Salman Toors painting “The Arrival” from 2019, which was recently shown in the artist’s solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It sold for $ 867,000, more than ten times its estimate.

Other lots proved lackluster, such as Jeff Koons’ 2001 phantasmagoric painting “Pancakes” which sold for a fee under the low estimate of $ 1 million for $ 867,000. However, his 2008 kaleidoscopic “Quad Elvis” sold for $ 9.5 million in the same sale, beating the high estimate of $ 6 million.

The anticipation was highest for the black blockbuster artist in the market, Jean-Michel Basquiat, who had delivered a skull painting to Christie’s that raised $ 93.1 million – the second highest price ever paid for the artist’s auction . But expectations of Basquiat fell short of expectations at Sotheby’s when the artist’s “Versus Medici” sold for $ 50.8 million.

To some extent, Wednesday’s sale was a test of the hybrid auction experience. A new salesroom was set up by Broadway set designer David Korins and about 50 New Yorkers as a live studio audience with champagne sips, although most of the attendees tuned in via live stream.

“It’s like being in the NBC studio,” said Betsy Orchard, an art collector who was in attendance. “It feels safe here and there’s a lot of momentum in the air to bid.”

But few collectors raised their paddles from their blue velvet lounge chairs to bid. The majority of the actions took place via telephones and internet portals, which signaled that the digitization of the art market could continue beyond this moment of the global crisis.

And in many cases, work by newcomers brought the most commandments. Asian collectors, for example, were particularly interested in artists who are rarely represented in the auction block and bought works by color artists such as Nina Chanel Abney and Lynette Yiadom-Boayke at Christie’s.

“There seems to be incredible energy for a new generation of artists exploring issues of our time such as race, gender and sexuality,” said Abigail Asher, an art consultant who saw the offering in response to current events like the Black Lives Matter movement. “There’s a dynamic in both the art they create and the prices they fetch.”

In addition, Banksy’s “Love Is in the Air” sold for $ 12.9 million, at a high estimate of $ 5 million. This was the first auction work for which Sotheby’s accepted cryptocurrency.

In contrast, when it came to the more conventional contemporary market stars, the energy seemed to flow out of the rooms. At Christie’s, for example, paintings by Gerhard Richter, Christopher Wool and Richard Prince were sold to their supporters without competition.

Strong offers from collectors around the world have also helped re-affirm the idea that auction house adoption of online sales, which began during the pandemic, is finally gaining ground after a year in which global auction sales fell 26 percent could pay off.

Still, some industry experts warned that auction houses would hedge their bets this week with relatively few offers compared to previous years, estimates below primary market prices, and a high proportion of guarantees that ensure lots are sold. More than 40 percent of the lots on Tuesday sale at Christie’s had such assurances.

“The guarantees are not good for auction house margins,” said Natasha Degen, chair of art market studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “And the relatively small number of lots will also limit the profitability of sales.”

It is still unclear whether the current interest in color artists will continue. But for two nights that week it felt like a new world was in sight, where works by a Ghanaian painter like Amoako Boafo could sell twice as much – and a longtime auctioneer would have to ask the crowd to “hold this.” Eyes awake ”when they bid on Marc Chagall.