A 'gigaweek' at auction houses

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 painting Untitled (above) will be the trophy at Christie’s post-war and contemporary auction in New York.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 painting Untitled (above) will be the trophy at Christie’s post-war and contemporary auction in New York.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Art insiders are calling it a "gigaweek" - and indeed, the line-up of auctions this week in New York is impressive on paper.

Sotheby's and Christie's will go head-to-head on four successive evenings in marquee sales of impressionist, modern and contemporary art. In addition, Christie's was to offer a themed selection of contemporary works yesterday, followed immediately by Phillips' evening auction of 20th-century and contemporary art.

This crush of events is expected to raise at least US$890 million (S$1.2 billion). Yet the hype that attends these auctions comes as demand at the top end is contracting because of turbulence in the financial markets and the uncertainty of this year's United States presidential race.

Last May, the equivalent themed and evening contemporary sales at Christie's alone brought in US$1.4 billion, with Sotheby's taking in US$379.7 million.

"A sea change has occurred at auction," said Ms Wendy Cromwell, an art adviser in New York. "The night sales are smaller, the estimates more conservative, the guarantees less exuberant, the great works fewer and far between."

At the moment, she added, collectors will not part with masterworks "unless they are offered ridiculous sums of money".


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    The standout in Sotheby's 62-lot selection is Andre Derain's 1906 Fauve gem, The Red Sails, valued at US$15 million to US$20 million.


    Christie's post-war and contemporary auction has 61 lots, estimated to raise at least US$285.6 million. Jean-Michel Basquiat's 1982 painting Untitled is the trophy of the week, estimated to sell for at least US$40 million.


    Sotheby's contemporary evening sale offers 44 lots. Its most valuable is a 1968 Cy Twombly "blackboard" abstract, offered with a low estimate of US$40 million.


    Claude Monet's 1919 water lily canvas, Le Bassin Aux Nympheas, rates star billing at Christie's evening auction of impressionist and modern art and is estimated at US$25 million to US$35 million.


It would seem that Christie's, which is privately owned by French luxury-goods magnate Francois Pinault, is no longer willing to make that kind of offer.

Last May, Christie's and third parties pledged minimum prices to the sellers of more than half of the 117 works - including a US$179.4-million Picasso - in Christie's evening themed and contemporary sales. (Sellers of guaranteed works typically receive all of the hammer price and part of the buyer's fees, with the auction house sometimes making a minimal profit.)

This year, Christie's and third parties have guaranteed just 18 of 100 lots at its two headline contemporary auctions. And no work is valued at more than US$40 million at any of the houses.

"The guarantees aren't there any more at the highest level," said Mr Todd Levin, another art adviser. "Christie's has stepped back and the market is no longer on steroids and is returning to its normal state."

On Wednesday night, Sotheby's smaller-than-usual 44-lot sale will include 10 works that the company has guaranteed for a total of more than US$70 million.

Last May it guaranteed eight, with a total low estimate of US$80.2 million.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2016, with the headline 'A 'gigaweek' at auction houses'. Print Edition | Subscribe