Christie’s sets record for Basquiat at solid contemporary art auction

Auction house served up a ‘tight, curated and profitable’ sale after reducing reserves


Christie’s post-war and contemporary evening sale last night (10 May) produced solid results—a relief for the New York art market after Sotheby’s patchy Impressionist and Modern sale which failed to reach its lower estimate on 9 May. The Christie's auction made a hammer total of $277.4m ($318.4m with premium) against an estimate of $280m-$391m, with a sell-through rate of 87%. Of the 61 lots on offer, 15 achieved hammer prices equal to or above their upper estimates, 22 went within estimate, and 15 sold below.

A far cry from the guarantees glut this time last year when 49 out of 82 lots were guaranteed either by the house or by a third party, this sale only had eight guarantees out of 60 lots. So last night’s auction arguably provides a more accurate reflection of the market.

Auction records were set for Mike Kelley, Agnes Martin, Richard Prince, Kerry James Marshall, Barry X Ball and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The auction room erupted in applause when Basquiat’s large work Untitled (1982), which was estimated at more than $40m, passed the $50m mark and sold over the phone for $51m ($57.3m with premium).

Specialists had worked hard to keep reserves low in response to Sotheby’s auction on 9 May, in which many lots with high reserves failed to sell despite bids coming in. “We spent most of the previous day on the phone with our sellers and they allowed us to do our job and create that competition in the room,” said Sara Friedlander, the head of the evening sale. Examples of this include Ed Ruscha’s If (1996), which sold for $1.3m ($1.5m with premium), well below the $2m lower estimate. Similarly, Jasper Johns’ Untitled (1980) sold for $2m ($2.4m with premium) against a lower estimate of $2.5m. This did not go unnoticed: “They did a really good job on reserves,” said the dealer Mimmo Vedovi.

Bidding was somewhat thinner at the top end. Christopher Wool’s And If You (1992) sold for its low estimate of $12m ($13.6m with premium) and Mark Rothko’s No. 17 (1957) attracted few bidders, selling for $29m ($32,6m with premium) below its lower estimate of $30m.

But for seven-figure lots the bidding was deep due to the number of works coming fresh to the market: only ten lots in the whole sale had previously sold at auction, of which only four had sold in the past ten years. “This sale was what I like to call ‘T.C.P’,” said the evening’s auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen, “tight, curated and profitable”.


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