Christie’s 20th Century Evening Sale Totals $413 M., Led by $33.2 M. Van Gogh, $28.6 M. Hockney - Living Strong Television Network
Christie’s 20th Century Evening Sale Totals $413 M., Led by $33.2 M. Van Gogh, $28.6 M. Hockney

The New York evening auctions came to a close on Thursday night with Christie’s 20th Century Evening Sale, which brought in a total of $413 million, squarely within its pre-sale estimate of $342 million to $497 million. The brisk, 64-lot sale was led by a David Hockney painting once owned by the famed television producer Norman Lear that sold for $28.6 million and a Vincent van Gogh that sold for $33.2 million.

Of the 64 lots, three were withdrawn before the auction began. Just over 37 percent of the lots came with a guarantee, a sign that there was at least some collectors were interested in the works on offer at Christie’s. Despite being filled with pieces by tried-and-true, blue-chip artists like Pablo Picasso, Gerhard Richter, Claude Monet, and Andy Warhol, a number of art advisers told ARTnews that the sale felt cobbled together. 

As auctioneer Adrien Meyer rattled off the protracted list of guaranteed lots before the sale commenced, the sales floor burst into a restrained laughter. “Don’t worry, it’s a good sign,” he said, with a raised eyebrow and wry smile. Interestingly, only one of those 24 lots, Frank Stella’s Untitled (Concentric Squares), was guaranteed by the house. Despite the artist’s death earlier this month, the work hammered after very little fanfare for $5 million ($6.1 million, with fees) against an estimate of $6 million to $8 million, going to a bidder in the sales room. (All prices are reported with buyer’s premium unless otherwise noted.)

The sale, which lasted about two hours, was filled with highs and lows. A record was set for André Kertész after a print of his photograph Satiric Dancer (1926) hammered for $450,000, or $567,000 with fees; that was just above its pre-sale estimate of $500,000–$700,000. The success of that picture, of an exquisite 1920s beauty contorting herself on a small sofa next to a similarly twisted sculpture, provides further evidence that early 20th-century photography has assumed its place in the marquee evening sales. That trend arguably began two years ago when Christie’s sold Man Ray’s picture of Kiki de Montparnasse for a record-breaking $12.4 million in 2022. 

Another record was set for a work by Alexander Archipenko after his sculpture Woman Comber Her Hair (conceived in 1915, cast in 1965) hammered for a stunning $4.2 million ($5.1 million with fees), more than double its $2 million high estimate.

As for the lows, only three lots were passed on: Isamu Noguchi’s jasper stone sculpture Untitled (1980), Richard Diebenkorn’s 1968 picture Ocean Park #12, and Joan Mitchell’s Crow Hill (1966). The evening’s 13th lot, Joseph Cornell’s Untitled (Medici Prince Variant), painted around 1952was also passed on despite a bid of $480,000 on an estimate of $700,000 to $1 million. By the end of the sale, however, the consignor must have had a change of heart. The lot was brought back to the screen and swiftly went to a bidder on the phone with Emily Kaplan, the house’s co-head of the 20th-century evening sale, for $320,000 ($403,200 with fees). Interesting what a little time and post-sale perspective can do.

Georgia O’Keefe, Red Poppy (1928)

One of the first lots to receive bidding in depth (and a round of applause after it sold) was Georgia O’Keeffe’s Red Poppy (1928), which carried an estimate of $10 million–$15 million. Meyer noted that the work was the largest of O’Keeffe’s poppy paintings still in private hands. He started the bidding at $8 million. The low estimate was reached in less than 15 seconds and, after a back and forth bids between specialists Paige Kestenman and Katharine Arnold, went to Kestenman’s phone bidder for $14 million ($16.5 million with fees).

Hockney’s A Lawn Being Sprinkled (1967) was the first of the evening’s high-value lots to be offered up. With an estimate of $25 million–$35 million it was among the most expensive works in the sale, matched only by van Gogh’s Coin de Jardin avec papillons (1887). Considering that it had never before come to auction and had been given the primo cover of the sale’s auction catalogue, one would have thought that the picture would have drawn more attention, especially given its provenance in the Lear collection. 

But bidding lasted just over a minute with only two or three parties interested. The work sold to a bidder on the phone with Arnold for a hammer price of $24.5 million ($28.6 million with fees), just scraping by its low estimate.

The van Gogh work had a similar fate: a decent showing but one drained of the excitement that has become expected at an evening sale. (Both the van Gogh and the Hockney were among the evening’s guaranteed lots.) Meyer opened the bidding at $20 million then jumped to $22 million, after which he stalled for a moment, repeating the figure three times to an unresponsive room. The first phone bid came in at $24 million and again, for a few seconds the room was silent enough to be empty. After two more bids, to $28 million, a bidder on the phone with Alex Rotter, chairman of the house’s 20th- and 21st-century art department, offered not another $2 million but rather only $500,000. Surprisingly that was enough to scare off the other interested parties, and Rotter’s buyer took the picture for a hammer price of $28.8 million ($33.2 million with fees), just sliding past the low estimate of $28 million.

The health of the market has been called into question for the majority of the past year, and rightly so. Economically speaking the art market, and the country, exists in a different world that it did in 2021 or 2022. “People are spending money, perhaps not in the amounts they used to a few years ago, but money is being spent,” adviser Elizabeth Fiore told ARTnews

Pablo Picasso, Femme au chapeau assise (1971)

“There’s just no sense of urgency,” adviser Maria Brito said in a phone interview before the sale. “There are cute things, and beautiful things, but not many works that really give a collector that sense of urgency that makes you throw your hand up at an auction. Bidders will be looking for a bargain because, let’s face it, there’s not Carrington–level work at this sale,” she added, referring to the recording-breaking Leonora Carrington picture that sold for $28.5 million at Sotheby’s the previous evening.

And deals there were on Thursday. Picasso’s 1971 Femme au chapeau assise by Pablo Picasso was scooped up for a hammer price of $17 million ($19.9 million with fees) against an estimate of $20 million to $30 million. The picture is not one of his greatest portraits, but it’s dynamic and punchy, especially considering Picasso was 90 years old when he painted it.

“This season, the posture of all the auction houses has been more defensive than offensive,” Alex Glauber, president of the Association of Professional Art Advisors, told ARTnews before Christie’s Thursday evening sale. “If they can’t show strength, they can at least show that the market is healthy and functional.”

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