On Wednesday night, Sotheby’s brought in a combined $310 million (inclusive of fees) from two back-to-back evening sales of contemporary art, including the latest iteration of its “Now” evening sale, which also saw several new auction records. The total hammer price for the entire grouping of 61 lots sold came to $218.4 million, falling toward the lower end of its presale estimate of $202 million–$289 million, and far below last year’s equivalent sales, which brought in a collective $319.4 million.
The sale set records for Marina Perez Simão, Mohammed Sami, Julie Mehretu, Barkley Hendricks, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Ad Reinhardt, and Amy Sillman.
As is typical of evening sales staged in New York, a significant portion of the lots came to the sale with financial arrangements that the house secured in advance to ensure risks were offset for consignors of major lots: 42 lots—nearly 70 percent of those on offer—were backed by presale financial guarantees.
Julie Mehretu Tops ‘Now’ Sale
Kicking off the evening, the Now sale lasted for exactly an hour, and turned out to be a white-glove event, meaning each of the 18 lots offered found buyers. Sotheby’s launched the “Now” series after the height of the pandemic, and it quickly began racking up speculative demand for rising painters. Three years later, the bullish demand for artists still early in their careers has notably cooled, but tonight’s edition saw success for artists who have previously exceeded expectations at auction. And nearly 40 percent of the offerings also hammered at prices in excess of their high estimates.
Lisa Dennison, Sotheby’s Americas chairman, won the bid for Julie Mehretu’s Walkers with the Dawn and Morning . The grey-toned abstract painting appeared in the 2008 showcase “ Prospect.1 New Orleans ,” at the New Orleans Museum of Art. A catalogue for that show reveals MoMA trustee Michael Ovitz as the Sotheby’s consignor. The painting hammered at $9.5 million, at the high end of its $7 million to $10 million estimate; the final price of $10.7 million (with fees) set a new record for the artist, surpassing Mehretu’s previous record of $9.3 million that was set last month. Wednesday night’s result was also the highest public price recorded for an artist born in Africa.
Jadé Fadojutimi’s Teeter towards me , from 2019, nearly reset the record for the young London-based artist, who last year appeared in the Venice Biennale and joined the roster at Gagosian gallery. After several minutes of bidding, the lot closed with a hammer price of $1.4 million, or $1.8 million with fees, soaring past the low estimate of $600,000 but just narrowly missing the record price of $1.94 million set for the British artist at Phillips on Tuesday night. Another artist making a record price at Sotheby’s was Iraqi artist Mohammed Sami. Six bidders total chased Sami’s 2021 canvas The Prayer Room , over the course of nearly 4 minutes. The work hammered on a bid of $750,000, more than six times its high estimate, going for a final price of $952,000.
Some of the sale’s more anticipated lots, works by Marlene Dumas, Kerry James Marshall and Jenny Saville that were sold from the private holdings of Chinese collectors Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei, founders of Shanghai’s Long Museum, saw less action among bidders. The collectors made headlines earlier this fall when they announced their plans to part with nearly 60 contemporary art works from their collection. The Marshall painting titled Plunge (1982) hammered at its low estimate of $9 million. Meanwhile Jenny Saville’s Shift (1996), a painting featuring an arial view of five nude figures lying next to one another, hammered at $9.2 million, just above its $9 million estimate. Dumas’s 1994 canvas Love You Neighbor, also a multi-figurative work, hammered at $5 million, below its low $5.5 million expectation. Together, the three works brought in a collective $27 million with fees.
Sotheby’s New York Evening Sale, November 15, 2023.
Contemporary Sale Sets Records Set for Barkley Hendricks, Barbara Chase-Riboud, And Others
Bidding was more restrained in the second half of the evening, when Sotheby’s London-based auctioneer Oliver Barker took over to lead the contemporary art sale. This seemed to follow a trend established during last week’s sales, where tried-and-true blue-chip material by male artists is performing less well than women artists from the post-war period, as well as certain artists in the ultra-contemporary category
One of the auction’s most expensive lots—as well as one of its largest, at over 9 feet high—was Gerhard Richter’s 1997 canvas Abstraktes Bild . The work was estimated to make $25 million; offered with an irrevocable bid, it attracted only two bids with Sotheby’s New York specialists, hammering at $27.5 million and bringing the final price to $31.9 million with fees, placing among the top ten most expensive Richters to sell at auction.
Blue-chip stars on the auction circuit that typically serve as cover lots in evening sales also failed to surpass expectations. A Basquiat from the valuable year of 1982 and a Diebenkorn hammered at $39 million and $10 million, respectively. The prices each fell below their low estimates.
At another point, A 1962 painting by Frank Stella hammered at $16 million, outpacing its $10 million low estimate and bringing applause in the room. Several lots later it was followed by another high point: a record was set for Ad Reinhardt when a 1960 monochrome canvas from his “Black Paintings” series sold for $3.7 million.
Competing for attention with the Richter were two Black artists, Barkley Hendricks and Barbara Chase-Riboud, whose prices are finally catching up with their historical value. Each saw new records during the sale. Hendricks’s 1984 work Yocks , a portrait of two men, one leaning on the other’s shoulder, sold for $8.4 million. Sotheby’s New York head of private sales David Schrader competed for the work for his phone bidder, losing out to another New York specialist, who won the bid for her client on a hammer price of $7 million. It hammered above its $6 million estimate and the result outpaced the previous record price of $6.1 million set for Hendricks at Christie’s New York earlier this year.
Meanwhile, the sculpture and writer Barbara Chase-Riboud’s La Musica / Amnesia , a bronze figurine from 1990, hammered at a price five times its $80,000 low estimate. The work sold for $647,700 with fees. The record comes nearly a year after Chase-Riboud, whose practice centers on Black activists and political figures, was the subject of a retrospective at The Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, and less than a year after she joined mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth.
More than anything, the solid sale served as reassurance for the art trade, which went into this auction season with a fair amount of jitters. “The market remains selective,” Sotheby’s New York contemporary art specialist David Galperin said after the sale, “but overall tonight proved that, at its core, the market is deep and remains hungry for works that are smartly brought to market and estimated competitively.”