Christie’s kicks off New York’s spring auctions with record-breaking Rousseau

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Christie’s brought in $426.6m ($506.5m with fees) across its two-part evening sale in New York on Thursday (11 May), a decent result “considering the world we’re in”, as the chairman of the auction house’s 20th and 21st centuries departments Alex Rotter put it after the sale. “We felt we were going into a situation that could be difficult,” he said, alluding to an economic picture clouded by persistent concerns of a possible recession and banking crisis, and interest rates that are significantly higher than even during the last major US auction season in November. Rotter added, “the art market needed a boost”.

And indeed, the auction house received a significant boost from a set of important collections that were consigned for the series of spring sales that kicked off Thursday. The evening began with a dedicated auction of 16 works that belonged to the late Condé Nast chairman S.I. Newhouse. Every lot sold, bringing in $150.5m ($177.7m with fees). The group was led by a small and intense Francis Bacon self-portrait from 1969, which set off a contest between Christie’s specialists fielding phone bids that pushed it past its $28m high estimate. The collector on the line with Olivier Camu, the auction house’s deputy chairman for Impressionist and modern art, prevailed with a winning bid of $29.7m ($34.6m with fees).

Francis Bacon, Self-Portrait, 1969 Christie’s Images Ltd

The Newhouse sale’s other top lots included a popping Picasso portrait of the photographer Lee Miller from 1937, which passed its $20m low estimate to hammer at $21m ($24.5m with fees), and a modestly sized but dynamic painting by Willem de Kooning, Orestes (1947). The De Kooning was expected to bring at least $25m, which it did, hammering at $26.5m (with fees, the price came to $30.8m).

The sale’s opening lot, a typically otherworldly wall relief by Lee Bontecou, the singular American sculptor who died last November, very nearly broke her auction record of $9.1m. Spirited bidding sent the untitled steel, wire and textile work (made in 1959-60) past its $5m high estimate, eventually hammering for $7.2m ($8.6m with fees).

Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1959-60 Christie’s Images Ltd

A suite of three large Jasper Johns canvases fared less well, with each hammering for a price below its low estimate. Even so, there was no risk of any serious flops as every lot in the Newhouse collection sale was guaranteed.

Things got more interesting in the 56-lot evening sale of 20th-century art that immediately followed, in which two works were withdrawn and ten lots failed to sell, delivering a sell-through rate of 81%. Just over half of the lots (28 of 54) were backed by guarantees.

Henri Rousseau, Les Flamants, 1910 Christie’s Images Ltd

The top lot of this sale—and the entire evening—was a large, stylised tropical landscape painting by Henri Rousseau, Les Flamants (1910), which Christie’s expected to sell for between $20m and $30m.

Like many lots in the evening’s second leg, it benefited from strong participation by bidders in the crowded Rockefeller Center salesroom, with multiple specialists and a young man on his phone seated in the fourth row “holding the whole room in suspense”, as auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen put it. In the end, a phone bidder on the line with Conor Jordan, a deputy chairman for Impressionist and modern art, logged the winning bid of $37.5m ($43.5m with fees). That result was more than 10 times the previous auction record for a Rousseau, set back in 1998. (Shortly after losing out on the painting, the underbidder headed for the exit with mega-dealer Larry Gagosian, who had been sitting nearby.)

The two other auction records broken on Thursday evening came at more modest price points. The small, luminous canvas The Fountains (1926) by Transcendental painter Agnes Pelton—whose travelling retrospective was on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2020—surpassed its high estimate of $2.5m to hammer for $2.8m ($3.4m with fees), or more than 13 times her previous auction record. And a glowing ceramic sculpture by Ken Price, M. Green (1961), more than doubled its high estimate to sell for a hammer price of $440,000, or $554,400 with fees, ahead of his previous record of $509,000.

Agnes Pelton, The Fountains, 1926 Christie’s Images Ltd

The Price sculpture was part of a suite of nine works on offer that had belonged to the late Chicagoan collectors Alan and Dorothy Press. Those works collectively brought in $37.2m ($44.4m with fees), despite one of the group’s major works—Philip Guston’s late, gloomy canvas Pull (1979)—failing to reach its $6m low estimate and ultimately going unsold. Another Guston from the Press collection, Chair (1976), sold below its low estimate ($12m) for a hammer price of $8m ($9.6m with fees) to a young woman seated at the back of the saleroom. Apparently a big fan of post-war figurative painters (or bidding on behalf of one), she later snapped up Alex Katz’s large, warm portrait of his wife, Red Band (1978), with a bid equal to its low estimate, $2m ($2.4m with fees).

While the Presses’ collection produced mixed results, a group of seven works by David Hockney, Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Hopper from the collection of late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen sparked the evening’s most sustained fervour. All seven works hammered for prices above their high estimates thanks to competitive bidding from clients in the room and on the phone lines. The two most expensive of Allen’s three Hockney landscape paintings on offer were scooped up by the same client bidding via senior specialist Cristian Albu, for $16.5m and $12.4m (with fees, $19.3m and $14.6m, respectively).

The evening’s top Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Iris VI (1936), sold for $18m ($21.1m with fees) Christie’s Images Ltd

The seven works from Allen’s estate brought in a hammer total of $75m ($88.8 with fees), pushing his collection’s total take up another decimal point from last November’s $1.6bn tally, to $1.7bn.

“People want history with their paintings,” Rotter said after Thursday’s sales, underlining the marketing power of bringing individuals’ and couples’ collections to market. “We are the house of collections.”

Rival auction house Sotheby’s will try to claim that title on 16 May with its stand-alone auction of works from the collection of late Warner Bros Records executive Mo Ostin. Sotheby’s expects the evening sale’s 15 lots to bring in as much as $120m. Christie’s, for its part, will sell 214 works from the collection of late Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston trustee Gerald Fineberg across two sales on 17 and 18 May that the auction house expects could bring in as much as $270m.

Christie’s, Phillips and Sotheby’s estimate their spring sales in New York could bring in more than $2.2bn, despite the current economic headwinds.

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