Takeaways from a Record-Breaking Early Auction Season

Maya Garabedian for MutualArt

Collection sales dominated headlines of another record-breaking fall auction season, while the emerging market feels the pressure of economic worries.

With art market prices soaring as of late, recent blue-chip auctions were projected to reach significant high-flying, record-breaking heights. Not only did these lots deliver, but in some instances their price tags surpassed their monumental estimates. The highly anticipated Paul Allen collection, the personal assortment of paintings and sculptures owned by the late Microsoft co-founder, blew past the $1 billion estimated value, which already would’ve made his collection the most expensive ever sold. On November 9, Christie’s New York began the sale of Part I of what came to be titled, Visionary: The Paul G. Allen Collection. That night, at the 32nd lot, sales officially passed the $1 billion estimate, en route to not just break the record, but shatter it. The 32nd lot piece that reached the milestone was Alberto Giacometti’s standing nude Femme de Venise III, which, after estimates valuing the piece between $15 million and $20 million, sold for $25 million. This occurred on the first night, in the Part I auction, which totaled at over $1.5 billion and was comprised of just 60 world-renowned, wide-ranging pieces – 65% of which, like Giacometti’s sculpture, sold above their already high estimates. The following day saw a sale of 95 additional and similarly diverse works, bringing the total of the two-part sale to $1.622 billion.

Alberto Giacometti, Femme de Venise III, conceived in 1956 and cast in 1958, bronze with brown and green patina. Courtesy of Christie’s

Visionary: The Paul G. Allen Collection’s pieces sold in their entirety and, in align with Allen’s wishes, will see all profits be donated to philanthropic causes. One of the most sensational pieces, and the top lot of the collection, Georges Seurat’s Les Poseuses Ensemble (Petite version), now marks the highest price paid for any impressionist or post-impressionist era artworks, clocking in at more than $149 million. Until Part I of the Allen collection auction, a single sale had never had more than two paintings sell for over $100 million. In addition to Seurat’s piece, the evening sale saw four other Modernist masterpieces break the $100 million mark: Paul Cézanne’s La Montagne Sainte-Victoire ($138 million), Vincent van Gogh’s Verger avec cyprès ($117 million), and Gustav Klimt’s Birch Forest ($105 million).  Klimt’s soothing autumn scene broke the previous record for the artist at $88 million in 2006, the same year Allen purchased Birch Forest for $40 million.

While Allen’s collection was expected to do especially well, other recent auctions indicate a similar rising trend in the art market. Sotheby’s also put on a notable two-part auction earlier this month, a double-header sale made up of the collection of David M. Solinger, late entertainment lawyer and Whitney Museum director, and its Modern Art auction. The Solinger collection was given a pre-sale estimate of $86.7 million – $117.9 million, but ultimately totaled at $137.9 million. Not unlike the Allen collection, 60 percent of lots from Solinger’s estate sold above their high estimates. In addition to the large sums fetched by Solinger’s collection, other highlights of the auction included the unveiling of Willem de Kooning’s Collage, which Solinger had purchased just two years after it was completed, meaning it has not been seen publicly since 1952. Like many of Solinger’s other pieces, Collage sold well above its original estimated range of $18 million – $25 million, finalizing at $33.6 million.

Willem de Kooning, Collage, 1950, oil on lacquer on paper with thumbtacks. Courtesy of Sotheby’s and Ocula

Another impressive sale of the Solinger collection was a piece from the artist that, just days later, would push the Allen collection over the edge to break the record of most expensive auction: Alberto Giacometti. A lengthy bidding war ensued over the artist’s only hand-painted sculpture of the cast entitled Trois hommes qui marchent. The famed piece ultimately sold for $30.2 million, surpassing its high estimate and more than doubling its low estimate. Immediately after the Solinger sales closed, the Modernist auction began, which clocked in below the previous year’s Modern evening auction but fell nicely within the estimate range of $237.2 million – $295.3 million. Ultimately, the Modern portion of the double-header auction brought in $253.3 million. Be that as it may, the long-awaited sale of Piet Mondrian’s Composition No. II made history, as expected. In a record-breaking sale for the late artist, the classic grid-style painting sold for a whopping $51 million, outselling what was believed to be the show’s headlining piece, Pablo Picasso’s Guitare sur un table.

The latest blue-chip auction, the Phillips 20th Century and Contemporary Art sale, fell within its pre-sale estimates of $118.5 million – $165.3 million, with a total sale amount of $139 million. However, the optimism in the air from the previous weeks of auction season dissipated slightly. Leading up to the sale, Phillips auction house was looking at what could be their most profitable sale in history – made up largely of the potential sale prices of Cy Twombly’s eight-painting series, Baccus Psilax Mainomenos. Despite falling on the higher end of its pre-sale estimates, selling for $42 million on its $35 million low-end and $45 million high-end valuations, the market’s recent swell of strength established hope that these lots would perform similarly. Pieces that did outperform included works by rising female painters that opened the sale: Ilana Savdie’s Marimonda Desplegada ($176,000 on its high estimate of $70,000), Danica Lundy’s Miss First Kiss ($189,000 on its high estimate of $120,000), and Lauren Quin’s Arrow ($164,000 on its high estimate of $100,000). María Berrío’s He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not did make history as it sold for $1.6 million, setting a new auction record for the artist.

While some say the results of the Phillips auction suggests a cooling of the market, works of personal collections, especially those hidden from public view for prolonged periods of time are doing exceedingly well. Just weeks into the stacked lineup of auctions that will close out the year, the results are overwhelming positive and prolonging the excitement of a healthy buying market.

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