Christie’s pulls off a safe 21st-century evening sale in New York, powered largely by a $58m Basquiat

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Christie’s New York brought in $83.6m ($98.8m with fees) at the auction house’s 21st-century evening sale on Tuesday (15 May), led by Jean Michel-Basquiat’s El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile) (1983), one of the most valuable works heading to auction this month, though buyer’s appetites seem tempered.

The price of the large Basquiat, estimated “in excess of $45m”, was driven up by a steady stream of multiple bidders, including the mega-dealer Larry Gagosian, who attended the auction in person. After five minutes of bidding, Gagosian eventually backed down and the painting hammered at well above estimate, for $58m ($67.1m with fees) to a telephone bidder.

El Gran Espectaculo’s eight-figure result represents the fourth-highest price ever fetched by a Basquiat work at auction. Making up more than half of the auction’s total, it was also one of just two works to be back by a third-party guarantee. The painting was consigned by the Italian designer Valentino Garavani, who bought the painting at auction in 2016 for $5.2m. The sale of the painting served for some observers as evidence that Basquiat’s market, which surged in 2021, has not yet cooled entirely.

“People had tremendous amounts of excess capital and had to put it somewhere—they were putting a lot of it into art, and Basquiat was one of the featured artists attracting a lot of that,” Manhattan art dealer Todd Levin said before the sale. “Now, the tap is turned off and we’re going to have to see if those prices continue or go upward or not.”

Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned) (2013) by Cecily Brown Courtesy Christie’s

Besides El Gran Espectaculo, bids for the rest of the lots were relatively tepid, although the sale’s total fell well within Christie’s presale estimate for the night. Seven artist auction records were set yesterday, five of whom are women.

The massive, fleshy canvas Untitled (The Beautiful and Damned) (2013) by Cecily Brown hammered in at $5.5m (6.7m with fees), comfortably within the auction house’s $5m to $7m estimate. Pumpkin (1993) by Yayoi Kusama was the only other work in the sale that had been guaranteed by a third party, and sold for $4m ($4.9m with fees). The late Etel Adnan’s California (2002) picked up bidders at a slow but steady pace, eventually selling for $280,000 ($352,800 with fees), around five times the Christie’s estimate. Later, the sale made the new record for Diane Arbus at auction when a set of ten of her photographs sold for $800,000, or just more than $1m with fees. Glen (2021) by Emma Webster also fetched more than three times its estimate, and a sculpture by Simone Leigh, a recent recipient for the Golden Lion at the 2022 Venice Biennale, sold for $2.2m ($2.7m with fees), making her new auction record.

Danielle McKinney’s We Need to Talk (2020) Courtesy Christie’s

The most exciting lot of the night may have been Danielle McKinney’s We Need to Talk (2020), which fetched $160,000 ($201,600 with fees). The room began to buzz as soon as the painting was up for sale, and multiple bidders quickly pushed the result into the six-digits. The intimate portrait of a young woman reclining across a bed ended up selling for eight times its $20,000 low estimate. The sale marked the auction debut for McKinney, whose work has been acquired by many museum collections and is starting to gain a significant amount of interest from serious collectors, Levin said.

Two works by Louis Fratino, a young artist born in 1993, also drummed up excitement last night. The first of Fratino’s lots, a portrait of a man reclining nude called Euchre (2017), stirred up several bidders and hammered at $220,000 ($277,200 with fees) against a $80,000 to $120,000 estimate. The second painting, Night Train (2016) picked up fewer bidders, but still hammered at $200,000 ($252,000 with fees). Only one lot in the sale went unsold, when Julien Nguyen’s Kill Bill: Volume 3 (2017) was passed over after struggling to reach six-figure bids.

Yesterday marked Christie’s second evening sale of the season, after bringing in $426.6m ($506.5m with fees) across a two-part evening sale lat week (11 May) that included works from the collections of late billionaires S.I. Newhouse and Paul G. Allen. Christie’s has now sold $725m (with fees) this season, including a day sale, an auction house spokesperson staff said.

A spokesperson noted that the 11 May sale featured a balanced number of bidders from across the Americas, Asia and Europe, the Middle East and Africa. This auction may have seen more bidding action because of the relatively lower price points, and more people could participate competitively, Levin said.

Christie’s, Phillips and Sotheby’s estimate their spring sales in New York will fetch more than $2.2bn collectively, despite the hesitancy of wealthy collectors to spend large sums on art amid uncertain economic factors like war, failing banks, inflation and rising rates.

“There have been a lot of people who have been used to a constant flow of money, and they’ve counted on that, thinking that the music wouldn’t stop,” Levin said. “If it’s not stopping yet, it’s certainly slowing significantly.”

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