Portrait of Sotheby’s Senior International Specialist and Auctioneer Michael Macaulay during “The Now” evening auction, 2022. Courtesy of Sotheby’s New York.
On the same day that the Dow dropped 1,100 points, Phillips’s 20th-century and contemporary art evening sale netted a company best of $225 million in sales. Much was uncertain entering the spring New York auctions after two pandemic-fueled sales in 2020 and 2021 that triggered warnings about a declining market. However, across the three major auction houses, Phillips, Sotheby’s, and Christie’s, sales this season have restored faith. The successful auction season was best summarized by Robert Manley, deputy chairman and worldwide co-head of 20th-century and contemporary art at Phillips, who said that the “two markets [finance and art] are not in lock step,” and that the arts remain a vital and stable asset in times of financial uncertainty.
The spring New York 20th-century and contemporary art auctions reflect an equitable shift in collector’s interests across the board with women artists, artists of color, and emerging artists receiving both critical interest and incredible financial interest. Sotheby’s contemporary art sales totaled $283.4 million, with “The Now” evening auction netting $72.9 million, and 73% of its lots selling above their high estimate. Christie’s contemporary sales totaled $1 billion across multiple auctions that included an evening sale of the collection of Thomas and Doris Ammann, featuring the stunning Shot Sage Blue Marilyn (1964) by Andy Warhol, which sold for $195 million with fees to Larry Gagosian.
Andy Warhol, Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, 1964. © Andy Warhol. Courtesy of Christie’s New York.
Gerard Richter, Abstraktes Bild, 1994. © Gerard Richter. Courtesy of Christie’s New York.
Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn surpassed Pablo Picasso’s 1955 painting Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O), which sold for $179.4 million with fees in 2015, making the former the most expensive 20th-century artwork to be sold at auction. This dethroning demonstrates that we are now in an era where the great masters of 20th-century art are no longer defined by modernists, but by contemporary icons like Warhol and his protégé Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat beat his own record this spring with Untitled (1982) selling for $85 million at Phillips’s 20th-century and contemporary evening auction, marking a 48% return on its previous sale in 2016.
Compare that 48% return on a Basquiat to the sale of Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (1994), which a decade ago made headlines for its colossal price tag of $34 million. While Richter remains a key contemporary artist, this spring, the sale of Abstraktes Bild at Christie’s was estimated at only $35 million and hammered at $33 million, with the sole bidder being the third-party guarantor. Narratives like this, however, appear to follow a specific trend this year, with buyers showing the most interest in popular art, abstract art from artists of color who make up the global majority, and art by women. The biggest gambles and payoffs for collectors were delivered toward emerging artists, specifically those working in painting.
Anna Weyant, Falling Woman , 2020. © Anna Weyant. Courtesy of Sotheby’s New York.
Ewa Juszkiewicz, Portrait of a Lady (After Louis Leopold Boilly), 2019. Courtesy of Christie’s New York.
In this field, we saw the star debut of Anna Weyant, who had a presence at all three major auction houses. Her darkly figurative paintings of women and still lifes are captivating the art world and evoke the work and precision of early 20th-century masters like René Magritte. At Sotheby’s “The Now,” evening auction Weyant landed an auction high with Falling Woman (2020) selling for $1.6 million, which was well above the $200,000 high estimate. This beat her previous record set at Christie’s the week before, with Summertime (2020) selling for $1.5 million, several times above the $300,000 high estimate. A smaller work by Weyant did well at Phillips’s 20th-century and contemporary sale: Buffet II (2021) sold for $735,000, 495% above the estimated high of $150,000.
Elsewhere, María Berrío continued to make a strong impact across the three houses after her auction debut last year. The Lovers 4 (2016) sold for $1.008 million, several times above the high estimate of $500,000 at Sotheby’s “The Now” evening auction; Burrow of the Yellow (2013) sold for $998,000 at Phillips; and The Celebration (2012) sold for $1.3 million at Christie’s. Berrío’s surrealistic painting collages reflect the institutional interest in and rise of women working in collage and inspired by Surrealism and mythology, as is also reflected in recent exhibitions like “The Milk of Dreams” at the 59th Venice Biennale.
María Berrío, Burrow of the Yellow, 2013. © María Berrío. Courtesy of Phillips.
Here are some more notable results by women artists from the recent sales:
Christina Quarles’s Night Fell Upon Us Up On Us (2019) sold for $4.5 million at Sotheby’s “The Now,” evening auction a 550% increase above its $800,000 high estimate.Jennifer Packer’s Fire Next Time (2012) was recently on view as part of the artist’s solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, “The Eye is Not Satisfied With Seeing,” and sold for $2.3 million—a nearly 300% increase above its $800,000 high estimate at Sotheby’s “The Now” evening auction. Ewa Juszkiewicz’s lush baroque-style 2019 painting Portrait of a Lady (After Louis Leopold Boilly) sold for $1.5 million, well above its $300,000 high estimate at Christie’s 21st-century evening sale. Flora Yukhnovich’s abstract oil-on-linen painting Stiff Peaks (2021) sold for a resounding $630,000 over a $100,000 high estimate during Phillips’s 20th-century and contemporary art day sale.The musician and painter Issy Wood set an auction record with Study for Goes Both Ways (2021), which sold for $504,000, several times higher than the $200,000 high estimate at Sotheby’s. At Phillips and Christie’s, respectively, her Actual Car 2 (2019) and Kinkstarter (2020) both sold for $478,000 apiece.
Belkis Ayón, Nuestro Deber, 1993. © Belkis Ayón. Courtesy of Phillips.
Denyse Thomasos, Spin, 1997. © Denyse Thomasos. Courtesy of Phillips.
Collectors appear interested in not only acquiring works by emerging artists, but also expanding the canon, with deceased artists like Belkis Ayón and Denyse Thomasos—who are both featured in major biennials this year—demonstrating high sales at Phillips’s 20th-century and contemporary day sale. Ayón’s print Nuestro Deber (1993) sold for $107,100, three times its estimated high of $30,000. (Another edition of that print can be seen in “The Milk of Dreams” exhibition at the Venice Biennale.) Thomasos’s colorful abstract painting Spin (1997) sold for $302,400, nearly 10 times its estimated high of $35,000. Thomasos’s work can currently be seen at the Whitney Biennial, “Quiet As it’s Kept,” on view through September 5th.
And this spring’s fairy-tale story goes to Ernie Barnes’s Sugar Shack (1976), which sold to Houston-based hedge fund manager and noted poker player Bill Perkins for $15.2 million with fees at Christie’s 20th-century evening sale, marking a triumph for works by Black American artists at auction.
Ernie Barnes, The Sugar Shack, 1976. © Ernie Barnes. Courtesy of Christie’s New York.
The lush Southern regionalist style of Barnes’s Sugar Shack, which evokes the likes of Thomas Hart Benton, has an illustrious pop-culture history, appearing on the groundbreaking show Good Times (1974–79), which was television’s first Black American two-parent family sitcom. A version of the painting was also used for the cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album I Want You. Sugar Shack demolished Barnes’s previous auction record set last year with $550,000 for the large-scale painting Ballroom Soul (1978).
Barnes’s pop-culture ties are not coincidental, as pop art’s 15 minutes of fame continues to prove its lasting effect on the contemporary art world. It is a movement that has birthed contemporary masters across figuration and abstraction who use daily life as a source of inspiration for their work. The spring auction sales not only solidify pop art’s impact but convey the strong interest from collectors and institutions to acquire work by women and artists of color who are leading the conversation in contemporary art today.