The art market is trying to find its feet after sales collapse and the hack at Christie's


Estimates are still surpassing the $20 million mark and the canvases still bear the signatures of such bona fide ringers as Warhol, Basquiat and Picasso. But doubt looms over the spring auction season, which begins Monday.

A cyberattack on Christie's caused the company's website to be down on Thursday, and as of Sunday morning, Christie's had still not regained control of it. On Sunday evening, in his first public statement since the cyberattack, Christie's chief executive, Guillaume Cerruti, confirmed that the eight auctions would go ahead as scheduled, with bidding taking place in person and over the phone (the sale of rare watches will be held on 14 Has been postponed till May). A place-holder website was set up allowing access to the digital catalogue, but did not allow online bidding. With the site shutdown and questions still unanswered about the fate of confidential data, analysts are uncertain about the impact it will have on buyers and sellers.

Over the next week, the three major houses – Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips – are expected to offer more than 1,700 works of modern and contemporary art with an estimate of $1.2 billion to $1.8 billion.

This represents a steep decline from the market's most recent peak in 2022, when it raked in a surprise $2.8 billion in the spring. But the bidding wars that characterized the pandemic spending frenzy have largely ended in favor of Pre-arranged “guarantee” deals that assure that paintings will sell for the minimum price. Young artists have also seen their secondary markets collapse as speculators exit the market. And a recent study from Bank of America Private Bank found that the average price of artworks sold at auction declined by 32 percent in 2023, the largest single-year decline in seven years.

“There are all kinds of fingers pointing in this area, even at auction houses,” said Drew Watson, who leads art services at Bank of America Private Bank. “The feeling is quite cautious. Either people are adopting more conservative projections or deciding to sit on the sidelines to wait and see how things play out over the next 12 months.

Watson and others said several factors contributed to the market decline. The wars have worried Russian and Middle Eastern collectors. The prolonged persistence of high inflation rates in the United States has created less liquidity on the financial side of the market. And a general slowdown in Asian buying amid economic instability and the property crisis in China has resulted in a slowdown in auctions of modern and contemporary art.

“There was an expectation of growth that has not delivered on its promise in recent years,” Brooke Lampley, Sotheby's global head of fine art, said of the Asian market.

But he dismissed the notion of a slowdown in the art trade, saying his team was proud of the evening's sales of collectibles. While last season Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen ($1.6 billion, including the day's sales, breaking a record at Christie's) and the estates of custodians like Emily Fischer Landau (last seen totaling $425 million), were buoyed by nine-figure collections. Sotheby's), this year's auction was collected in lots.

While many areas of the art market are softer than they were a few years ago, one artist remains as in demand as ever: Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The nearly eight-foot-wide canvas by Basquiat, who died in 1988 at the age of 27, boasts the highest estimate of the spring season. “Untitled (Elmer)” From 1982, which depicts a warrior shooting an arrow at a fallen angel, is expected to fetch between $40 million and $60 million at Phillips on May 14. (It has a financial guarantee backed by a third party, meaning it is sure to sell.) Anthropologist and art collector Francesco Pelizzi purchased the painting from Basquiat's first dealer, Annina Nosei, and kept it for the rest of his life. (Pellizzi died last year.) The work, along with two less valuable Basquiats, is being sold at Phillips by a trust affiliated with the collector's family. In total, seven Basquiats (including a work the artist created with Andy Warhol) will be offered in evening sales at three houses this week.

“Untitled (ELMAR,” is one of about 200 paintings the prolific artist created in 1982, which collectors consider his best year. Basquiat's auction revenues are set to drop 46 percent in 2023 from their peak two years ago, according to analysts at the Artnet Price database. But experts consider the reason for this decline not to be the change in demand, but the absence of strong actions coming into the market. Art dealer Nick McLean said, “The Basquiat market feels as strong as ever, although the range of works on the market this season will test it to its limits.”

For nearly 40 years, the health of the auction market could be judged by the rising and falling prices of Warhol paintings. Experts took notice last year when the evening's sale did not include any significant works by the Pop Art superstar. It was a shocking omission after the auction record for American artists was broken in 2022 with the sale of a portrait of Marilyn Monroe for $195 million.

Christie's is now offering Warhol's 1964 “Flowers” painting through May 16 with an estimate of between $20 million and $30 million. The work includes hand-painted petals and a provenance that resides with a company called Search Investments Ltd., London. , who acquired the painting from Thomas Ammann Fine Art in Zurich sometime before the 1990s.

Some analysts have noted that Warhol's definitive early works are mostly held by museums, making iconic examples in short supply. There are dozens of flower paintings made by the artist, which would have resulted in its current estimation. But with few other important Warhols available this season, the selling point may indicate collectors' tolerance for digging a little deeper into their benches.

Not every auction lot begins with a collector's desire to sell. Sometimes, it begins with an enterprising expert who successfully convinces a collector that it is time to part with a prized possession. This is the story behind “Les Distractions de Dagobert” (1945) by the British-born Mexican painter and writer Leonora Carrington, estimated at $12 million-$18 million, at Sotheby's on May 15.

Carrington – whose colorful life included several expulsions from school, estrangement from her family and a stay in a psychiatric hospital – made this work when she was 28, shortly after moving to Mexico. The artist, who died in 2011, has been the subject of renewed interest as audiences reevaluate female surrealists. Carrington's children's book, “The Milk of Dreams”, inspired the title of the 2022 Venice Biennale.

The still-unnamed seller purchased the painting at auction in 1995 for $475,500 (or $974,500 today, adjusted for inflation). Because the work is guaranteed, it is sure to set a new benchmark for the artist. The current low estimate is higher than the top auction price of $3.3 million for the triple Carrington, set in 2022. This is a big leap. But Julian Dawes, Sotheby's head of Impressionist and modern art, said his work has sold privately for about $10 million.

Journalists and auctioneers are similar in one way: They both love news pegs.

Within the past year, Jeffrey Gibson has earned two of the highest honors in the contemporary art world. The Indigenous and queer artist has represented the United States at the Venice Biennale and was selected for one of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's mask commissions. Her first serious forays into evening sales came in 2015 with a beaded artwork titled “Make Me Feel It” for a high estimate of $60,000 at Phillips and a 2014 figurative sculpture titled “Always After Now” for a high estimate of $200,000 at Sotheby's .

What makes these artifacts remarkable is not their presence but their price, which appears to be well below the primary market, where Gibson's iconic punching bag fetches more than $400,000. Going below the retail price is a strategic move by auctioneers to encourage collectors to bid. But when this gamble fails at a public auction, artists can suffer losses, demoralizing their market and telling collectors who purchased the work at a higher price in the primary market that they got a bad deal. Is.

A spokesman for Sikkema Jenkins & Co., one of Gibson's dealers, said, “Although we are transparent about retail prices for works in our exhibitions, we do not otherwise comment on the market.”

Record-breaking auction sales for an Abstract Expressionist star like Jackson Pollock ($61.2 million, set in 2021) or Mark Rothko ($86.9 million in 2012) may happen once in a decade. But the top two prices paid for Joan Mitchell at auction were recorded in as many weeks last autumn – even though her results lagged behind her male peers. This season, Sotheby's and Christie's will try to keep pace by offering six Michels in their evening sales. Together, it is estimated that the two will earn more than $53 million. The four works, which are guaranteed by Sotheby's, are from the same American collector.

“This is one of the few markets where we have seen prices go up again and again at auction,” said art consultant Alan Schwartzman.

But is there enough demand for Mitchell to absorb all that demand? Experts say the artist's output is so diverse – from the frenetic, intricate compositions of the '50s to the vibrant, brushy diptychs of the '80s – that the offerings will appeal to a variety of buyers. After a traveling retrospective and a popular show pairing Michel with Monet at the Foundation Louis Vuitton in 2022, the question is how many collectors will be willing to pay top dollar in a single week.

“Joan Mitchell The market is defining itself in real time,” Schwartzman said.

The private museum that Miami collector Rosa de la Cruz had built through her purchases of contemporary art ended with her. Earlier this year, the collector's family shut down the foundation and consigned more than two dozen artworks to Christie's for sale, which was expected to net $30 million. This was a blow to some dealers, who believed that the artworks they held by the Cuban-born de la Cruz were going to a permanent home.

Dealer Marianne Boesky said, “When we discover an artist our job as gallerists is to put their work in the best possible hands.” “The de la Cruz collection was considered to be in the best possible hands, and now it is going to auction.”

For collectors on May 14 it means a rare chance to buy works by artists who rarely appear on the secondary market. One of the most astonishing is a 1983 sculpture by Cuban American performance artist Ana Mendieta, which has an estimated price of $500,000, more than double its high benchmark at auction. Would collectors want a statue from a performance artist? Has the popular podcast about his death introduced his work to new patrons?

Not everyone is confident that the gamble will be successful. Bank of America's Watson said, “Some of the works in the collection are not what the market is looking for.” “The market wants blue-chip artworks and paintings by major post-war women artists.”

But those gambles are what make the auctions so thrilling to watch.

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