At NY art week’s auctions: masters fly, youngsters resist, Bonami stumbles

12th May, the Sotheby’s auction opening the contemporary art week in New York started off with a bang: Mark Bradford sold for $4,394,000 (from estimate between $500,000 and $700,000) and an intense Grotjan for $6,522,000 (record for the artist). Then the easy Superman by Andy Warhol came along, sold for $14.362.000, and the following two lot set two artists’ record: $29,930,000 for Christopher Wool and $27,130,000 for Sigmar Polke. Then pieces by Rothko, Lichtenstein, Gerhard Richter and Pollock clearly confirmed the good trend; the Jeff Koons’s glazing ball that went unsold may appear just as an harmless bug in a perfect system. But a few minutes later also a Twombly’s estimated between $5-6 million went unsold. Probably the bug is not that harmelss.


The following day, Sotheby’s contemporary art day sale was a sort of auction marathon, 513-pieces-long. The famous 35th kilometer came at lot 449, the first of the six pieces by Tauba Auerbach that were for sale last week went unsold, followed by two others. This one’s estimate was something between $1-2 million. Probably too high. From that moment to the end 54 pieces by artists such as Maurizio Cattelan, Anish Kapoor, Paul McCarthy, Piotr Uklanski and Allora and Calzadilla just to name a few, haven’t found a buyer. It means one dead every three, but buyers were not scared yet. Infact, a few hours later that day, Christie’s Post War and Contemporary evening sale achieved $ 658,532,000 – almost doubled Sotheby’s evening sale – with sell-through rates of 88% by lot and 94% by value. Here the top lot was Rothko’s No. 10 (1958), sold for $81,925,000, the second highest price for the artist ever achieved at auction. But the very good news here is that the first part of the Collection of Ileana Sonnabend and Nina Sundell included in this auction sold all the pieces, realizing $60.1 million and duplicating the pre-sale estimates. Once again it is proved that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


A second action was run that same afternoon, but with art critic Francesco Bonami, who curated the selection of “The great wonderful: 100 years of Italian art”, something went wrong. Only 39 of the 63 lot on sale found a buyer and among the unsold ones we spotted two monumental pieces such as Fausto Melotti’s “La pioggia” (1966) and “Mobili nella Valle”, by Mario Ceroli (1964). Considering the quality of the pieces selected by Bonami, there can be pinpointed only three possible reasons for this not as brilliant as expected selling. The first one is that some pieces had too high estimates, such as the Melotti’s ($700.000 – 900.000) and the Ceroli’s ($400.000 – 600.000). The second reason is that certain artists are not ready for the international market yet. The third one is that when the auction took place, buyers were somewhere else, probably at Fieze vip preview? But we have to give credit to Bonami and Phillips for the risk that they have taken in presenting names like Franco Vimercati and Bruno Munari.


The contemporary art evening sale at Phillip’s wasn’t very successful either; out of 72 lots, 16 went unsold. The auction’s top lot Francis Bacon “Seated Woman” (1961), sold just 3 millions above the low estimate. Similarly, no other highlight of the evening reached the maximum pre-sale estimates but one, that is Mark Tansey “Hedge” (2011), which went for $5,653,000.


Last but not least, Phillip’s contemporary art day sale on 15th May was the one most focused on emerging artists. Apparently their prices are not soaring, but what matters now is that most of them are confirming their position on the market. And that is a good news. Some names like Harold Ancart and Nick Darmstater, for example, are still selling confidently and this proves that collectors interested in their pieces are becoming more and more aware of their artistic value. Art institutions and museums which are still not offering their fundamental support will have to take it into consideration. This is the first generation of emerging artists witnessing a large number of their works being auctioned in the social network era. Their presence on the market can no longer be regarded as a damage to their career. On the contrary, auctions have become a crucial step in it.

May 18, 2015