Hammer Time: records set but reserves remain low at Christie's post-war and contemporary art sale

Ed Ruscha's visual pun Hurting the Word Radio #2 rose to $46m, a new world record for the artist, but most lots barely reached their estimate in a slow sales season


The Art Newspaper's editors break down the art market's biggest stories and spectacles, with the help of special guests. In our pilot video report series Hammer Time, our deputy art market editor Margaret Carrigan recaps the highlights of New York's billion-dollar auction week, interviews specialists and brings you live views from the salesroom.

Christie’s post-war and contemporary evening sale on Wednesday night started out hot with the first three lots soaring past their estimates. Yet even with four artist records realised by the end, the night’s results overall were lukewarm, coming in at $279.9m ($325.3m with fees). Like the safely played Impressionist and Modern art evening sales earlier this week, there were fewer big-name estate consignments and only a couple of lots topping $20m.

Ed Rucha’s visual pun word painting Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964), leading the sale with an estimate of $30m-$40m, set a new world record for the artist when it hammered for $46m ($52.4m with fees) after some rapid bidding that lead the night’s master of ceremonies Jussi Pylkkänen to question “who even needs an auctioneer”. At $8.4m ($9.8m with fees) and backed by a third-party guarantee, Ellsworth Kelly’s Red Curve VII proved a record-breaking amount for the hard-edge painter.

For the first time ever, works by Charles White and Alma Thomas were included in an evening sale—and both set records for the artists. White’s Banner for Willie J sold for $1m ($1.2m with fees) and Thomas’s A Fantastic Sunset went for at $2.2m ($2.6m with fees). Despite rising interest in and prices for works by African American artists, and the fact that both of these works have been or will be included in major traveling retrospectives, it is curious that both only hammered right on their low estimate.

Indeed, similar to the Impressionist and Modern evening sales earlier this week, around 40% of the 54 lots on offer sold for below their estimates regardless of an average 89% sell-through rate, continuing a trend of low expectations for a slower sales season. Even David Hockney’s Sur La Terrasse, the painting with the second highest estimate in the sale ($25m-$45m), barely creeped over its low estimate by $750,000, selling for $29.5m with fees.