Sotheby’s staged two back-to-back sales of contemporary art on Thursday evening, bringing in a combined total of $283.4 million with fees.
The 50 lots offered spanned works from young newcomers like Anna Weyant and pieces by well-established figures like Francis Bacon. Forty-nine works sold, with two withdrawn in advance. Eighteen lots in the auctions were guaranteed; 14 of them were secured with irrevocable bids.
The total hammer price for the entire grouping before fees came to $241.4 million, falling toward the lower end of its pre-sale estimate of $222 million–$328.1 million.
The first sale, which took place under the title “The Now,” was dedicated to art made during the 2000s onward. These kinds of works more often appear in contemporary art sales, though Sotheby’s first tested separating them out last November to further capitalize on the bullish demand for emerging artists. The gambit paid off, minting records for nine artists, including Simone Leigh, Anna Weyant, Jennifer Packer, and Virgil Abloh.
By contrast, the mood in the second sale of the evening, which was dedicated to postwar and contemporary art made before the 21st century, was nowhere near as energetic. Some of the evening’s most expensive works sold toward the lower end of their estimates, and there were fewer surprises.
If the “Now” sale stood out for its big sales for women, this contemporary art sale was more of the usual, with all of the top lots made by men. The sale generated new records for Georg Baselitz and Sean Scully.
Women Steal the Show at ‘The Now’
Almost always, auction houses’ biggest sales are composed mostly of male artists. But from the start, auctioneer Michael McCauley made a point of highlighting how many women-made works were on auction. Not counting the Banksy painting that was withdrawn, 65 percent of the lots were made by women, marking a rare moment of gender parity on the auction block.
The coveted Lot 1 placement was given to Anna Weyant, a 27-year-old painter who recently joined Gagosian gallery, becoming the youngest artist on its roster. Rumors have flown as a result: she is reportedly dating dealer Larry Gagosian, and Artnet News reported that her former gallery, Blum & Poe, had sent her painting to auction as a “revenge consignment.” While the identity of the consigner remains unknown, the painting that sold on Thursday, an image of a female figure with her mouth agape titled Falling Woman (2020), had figured in Weyant’s 2021 Blum & Poe show in Los Angeles.
Despite these rumors, the Weyant painting far surpassed the house’s $200,000 high estimate. Spirited bidding moved its sum beyond Weyant’s record in a matter of seconds and minted a new benchmark for her, selling for $1.62 million with premium.
A series of records piled up in the ensuing lots. The painting Night Fell Upon Us Up On Us (2019) by Christina Quarles, whose work can currently be seen in the Venice Biennale, initiated a bidding war that stretched for several minutes. By its end, the painting had crept well beyond the $3 million mark, selling for $3.7 million to a bidder on the phone with David Rothschild, Sotheby’s senior vice president. With premium, that number rose to $4.53 million.
Another bidding war was spawned by Simone Leigh’s sculpture birmingham (2012), a bust of a Black woman’s head adorned with yellow porcelain flowers. Hot off a Golden Lion win for her US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Leigh saw a new auction record when the sculpture hammered at $1.75 million, or $2.17 million with premium, going to a bidder on the phone with Sotheby’s chairman of contemporary art Grégoire Billault .
Shortly afterwards, a Jennifer Packer painting that had appeared in her recent Whitney Museum survey sold for $2.35 million with premium, and an Avery Singer painting went for $5.25 million with premium. Records were set for both of those artists.
Meanwhile, special guest (2019), a luscious abstraction by the rising painter Lucy Bull, sold for $907,200 with premium, a whopping 11 times its high estimate of $80,000. And although it was not a record, María Berrío’s portrait The Lovers 4 (2016) also struck a chord, selling for a triple-estimate $1 million with premium.
Established Stars Hold Steady
“The Now” also brought successful performances for painters whose work has previously bested expectations at auction.
The sale’s top lot was Kerry James Marshall’s Beauty Examined (1993), a painting featuring an all-black figure whose arm has its skin peeled back to reveal its veins, a reference to a similar-looking Rembrandt painting. Marshall’s painting had figured in his widely seen 2016–17 retrospective, and it was being sold by California’s Loma Linda University to fund genomics research. The painting hammered at $11.5 million, or $13.5 million with premium, going to a phone bidder with Billault.
Matthew Wong, the Canadian painter who died by suicide at age 35 in 2019, has seen a posthumous rise at auction driven by strong bidding from Asia, a trend which continued here. Ahead of a Dallas Museum of Art retrospective, and a week following an extensive New Yorker profile of the artist was published, Wong’s The Night Watcher (2018) sold for $5.9 million with premium, going to a bidder on the phone with Sotheby’s deputy chairman in Asia Jen Hua. A record for Wong was set in the process.
Adrian Ghenie’s semi-abstractions have also been a hit with buyers, and two came up for auction tonight. One titled Degenerate Art (2016) ended up being the one to set a record for him, selling for a within-estimate $9.29 million with premium.
A Sleepy Contemporary Sale Delivers Few Surprises
Sotheby’s auctioneer Oliver Barker wrapped the house’s big series of May auctions with a contemporary art sale met with a more subdued response. There weren’t many records here, or all that many surprises.
The most expensive work sold was Francis Bacon’s Study of Red Pope 1962, 2nd Version 1971 (1971), a work related to his famous series of paintings depicting popes in tormented states. It headed to auction after being held in the same private European collection since 1973. There were only a handful of bids on the painting, which hammered for $40 million, selling at the low end of its estimate to a phone bidder with Billault. With premium, that sum scaled up to $46.3 million.
Similarly, an untitled 1969 Cy Twombly abstraction featuring his signature swirling forms garnered little excitement. Sotheby’s senior director Patti Wong won it for her phone bidder, with the piece hammering at $35.5 million, or $38 million with premium. Even with those fees counted in, the painting could not squeak past its $40 million low estimate.
Two Philip Guston paintings came to auction as the artist’s retrospective finally kicked off at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston this month following a two-year postponement. Both works performed respectably. One of the pieces is from Guston’s famous series of works depicting Klansmen; this body of work gave the museums organizing his retrospective apprehension and moved them to delay the show in 2020, fearing audiences would not understand the paintings. Bidding trickled in slowly, as though buyers too were nervous, but ultimately, the piece in question, a painting titled Remorse (1969), sold for an above-estimate $7.8 million.
A quartet of Georg Baselitz works, all from the collection of the late Hardie Beloff, delivered this sale’s sole shock. Baselitz may be best known for his paintings, and so the house priced his 1990 sculpture Dresdner Frauen – Besuch aus Prag [Women of Dresden – Visit from Prague]a mustard-colored head with gashes in it, somewhat modestly, giving it a $4 million estimate.
A surprise bidding war ensued in which Lisa Dennison, Sotheby’s executive vice president and chairman of the Americas, fought hard for a buyer on the phone. Dennison’s client ended up winning out, buying the work for $11.2 million with fees. So too, in a way, did Baselitz, who now has a new record.