The Back Room: Testing, Testing


This week in the Back Room: a London auctions recap, David Kordansky loses a star, Duncan McCormick’s curious auction rise, and much more—all in a 9-minute read (2,371 words).


Top of the Market

Learning From London

Christie's 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale, February 28, 2023. Courtesy Christie's Images Limited 2023..

Christie’s 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale, February 28, 2023. Courtesy Christie’s Images Limited 2023.

All eyes were on London’s modern and contemporary sales last week as the first public market test of the year. It feels longer than ever since the New York auctions last fall, when the $1.5 billion Paul Allen sale left the market in a mood of tentative optimism. Since then, financial markets have continued to be impacted by the war in Ukraine, crypto-volatility, and China’s unpredictible Covid policies. While London has so far managed to stave off a recession, the consensus is that it, along with the rest of the global economy, is still careening towards one.

So what can we take away from Christie’sSotheby’s, and Phillips’s marquee evening sales last week? We break it down below.

1. Sale Totals Are Down

Sale totals are down across the board compared with the equivalent sales last year. Here’s the breakdown (after withdrawn lots).

Christie’s 20th / 21st Century Evening Sale

  • Totalled £128.9 million ($155.4 million) with fees, which is a 38.3 percent drop compared with the £209 million achieved for this portion of last year’s analogous sale, a relay between Shanghai and London.
  • 74 lots, which is a 15.9 percent drop on the 88 lots offered last year
  • Sell-through rate: 87 percent

Sotheby’s Now and Modern and Contemporary Evening Sales

  • Totalled £172.6 million ($208.2 million) with fees, also a 22 percent dip on the £221.4 million that Sotheby’s realized a year ago for the equivalent sales.
  • 56 lots, 23.3 percent fewer than last year’s 73
  • Sell-through rate for Now: 100 percent  
  • Sell-through rate for Modern and Contemporary: 83 percent

Phillips’s 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale

  • Totalled £20.3 million ($24.3 million) with fees, 32 percent down from the evening sale held a year ago.
  • 23 lots, a whopping 43.9 percent down on the 41 lots offered in 2022
  • Sell-through rate: 100 percent

2. The Air Is Thinning at the Top of the Market

Despite some rosy post-sale press releases, a read between the lines shows the top end of the market failed to ignite the lucrative bidding wars specialists might have been counting on this season.

  • The top lot at Christie’s was an enormous late Picasso portrait  (1956, estimate: £15 million – £20 million / $18 million – $24 million). The work, which was guaranteed by a third party, hammered below estimate at £14.5 million ($17.4 million) on just one bid.
  • One of the top lots at Phillips, Gerhard Richter’s 1983 abstract  offered by French collector Marcel Brient, was withdrawn at the last minute, wiping an estimated £10 million to £15 million off the slate. The night’s next top performer was a late De Kooning painting, also offered by Brient, which hammered at £5 million ($6 million), less than its £7 million ($8.4 million) low estimate.
  • Taken at face value, the results at Sotheby’s tell a different story, with trophy lots on the line-up including a restituted Wassily Kandinsky “Murnau” painting, which set a new high-water mark for the artist of £37.2 million ($44.9 million). Four more works achieved more than £15 million ($18 million). However, it should be noted that every single eight-figure lot in the sale carried was guaranteed, hammered within estimate, and did so without fireworks.

3. There Is Continued Appetite for the New New

After rocketing 500 percent in sales in five years, by the end of 2022 total sales in the ultra-contemporary category declined 10 percent year-over-year, per data from the Artnet Price Database. While the feeding frenzy may have calmed down for many of last year’s market stars, speculative bidding was alive and well for the still-new-enough hot names.

  • Christie’s sale opened on Michaela Yearwood-Dan’s , which hammered at £580,000 ($753,800)—buoyed with fees to £730,800 ($879,956), setting a squeaky new record for the artist.
  • Sotheby’s the Now sale was 100 percent sold and seven artist records were set, for Michael Armitage, Raghav Babbar, Miriam Cahn, Guglielmo Castelli, Jana Euler, Spencer Lewis, and Chloe Wise.
  • At Phillips, Caroline Walker’s  (2014) ignited an 11-minute bidding war before it hammered at £730,000 ($872,521), that is £927,100 ($1.1 million) with fees—more than 3.5X its high estimate, and smashing the record set at Christie’s evening sale just a few nights earlier.

4. …But Petering Interest in the Old New

In a sign of the fast-changing tastes of the market, Katya Kazakina pointed out in her column last week that the familiar names that performed explosively at auctions in the recent past were conspicuously missing from the lineup. Trendy works of Black portraiture, bro-primitivism, and Spanish New Wave were nowhere to be seen, nor were erstwhile auction faves like Jadé Fadojutimi, and Christina Quarles. Another two artists who used to be ubiquitous: Amoako Boafo and Nicolas Party, just had one lot apiece on the block this week, and the results tell a story of dynamite cooling.

  • Boafo’s hammered at £400,000, just £50,000 above its high estimate, at Christie’s.
  • At Sotheby’s, Party’s hammered at £1.1 million, within its £900,000 – £1.3 million estimate.

5. Mixed Results for German Modern and Impressionists

      • At Christie’s, two Ernst Ludwig Kirchner paintings failed to find buyers, as did an Erich Heckel painting, and Edgar Degas’s . An Otto Dix watercolor hammered at £200,000 ($240,460), less than half its low estimate. It was a sad day, too, for Chaim Soutine, whose was also a pass, eaten up by the house, which had guaranteed it.
      • Later at Sotheby’s, Frank Auerbach’s , a highlight lot expected to bring in between £1.2 million and £1.8 million, was withdrawn very quietly ahead of the sale. And a Robert Delauney—the evening’s priciest work  guarantee—hammered £1 million below its £7 million low estimate

The Bottom Line

All told, London’s sales kept the market ticking along, with active participation even if no one was flexing big. Given the economic headwinds, things could definitely have been worse.

This early litmus test showcases the art market’s resilience to economic downturn. That said, this season’s slimmed down catalogues, multiplying presale financial agreements, and greater tendency towards opacity (notably, Sotheby’s did not disclose withdrawn lots at the head of its sale) are smoke and mirrors projecting a healthier market than is strictly accurate. Still, there are some realities—such as the true value of overpriced artists whose markets have been inflated by speculation—that are becoming clearer by the minute.

Read More: 

Naomi Rea on Christie’s

Eileen Kinsella on Sotheby’s

Vivienne Chow on Phillips

Katya Kazakina on the Flip Class of 2023


Paint Drippings

The latest Wet Paint tracks Calvin Marcus’s sudden departure from David Kordansky and outlines the new watering holes, both secret and not technically open, in New York City that dealers are flocking to.

Here’s what else made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…

Art Fairs

  • Harry Van der Hoorn and Thomas Woodham-Smith, co-founders of the original Masterpiece fair, will hold The Treasure House Fair this June in London. It will take place in Chelsea in lieu of this year’s cancelled edition of Masterpiece. ()
  • And Now proprietor James Cope is launching the new Dallas Invitational Art Fair this coming April 20 through 23, coinciding with the Dallas Art Fair. The event will be held in guest rooms at the Fairmont Hotel which is across the street from the marquee fair. ()
  • The same week, Art Brussels will host its 39th edition at Brussels Expo, and they’ve just announced their 180 exhibiting galleries. ()

Auction Houses

  • Seven more works from the Paul Allen collection are hitting the block at Christie’s during its May sales in New York. Estimated to bring in more than $40 million on the high end, the works include three paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, three oils by David Hockney and a 1929 Edward Hopper watercolor. ()
  • Phillips New Now sale in New York on March 8 brought in $8.4 Million. Highlights included works by Emma Webster and Derrick Adams, and six records were set for artists including Daisy Dodd-Noble and Tammy Nguyen. (Press release)
  • Led by Pablo Picasso’s , Sotheby’s is presenting work from storied Californian collectors Jan and Maria Shrem across the New York auctions this May. ()


  • Kate Fowle, former director of MoMA PS1, has joined Hauser and Wirth as curatorial senior director, based in New York. ()
  • Sargent’s Daughters is planning an expansion to its New York City flagship location. ()
  • Otobong Nkanga has left Mendes Wood DM to join Lisson Gallery.  ()


  • The Whitney Museum of American Art’s director Adam D. Weinberg is stepping down this fall after 20 years. Deputy director Scott Rothkopf is next in line to take on the role beginning November 1. ()
  • Hansen Mulford, chief curator of the Orlando Museum of Art, has quietly retired after 42 years. The news comes just under a year after the FBI raided the museum for a group of questionable paintings on display attributed to Jean-Michel Basquiat. The investigation is still ongoing. ()
  • Tate Liverpool will close from October 16, 2023 through 2025 to undergo a major revamping process that is set to cost around $36 million. ()

Tech and Legal News

  • Copenhagen’s Von Bartha Gallery will present a new solo exhibition by Swiss artist Athene
  • The auction of the Yuga Lab’s first-ever Bitcoin-based NFT netted around $16.5 million in sales. Two hundred eighty-eight of the 300-edition artworks were claimed by bidders, and the remaining 12 inscriptions for “future contributors, future donations, and philanthropic efforts.”  ()
  • The World Intellectual Property Organization has sided with Ethan Arnheim, who was accused of cybersquatting for running satirical websites that mock the Sheldon Solow Foundation and its tax exemption status. ()

“The art dealer Larry Gagosian agreed to an interview about Ms. Zhukova, a longtime client, but cut it off at the first question, after the mention of the word ‘Moscow,’ and said he was uncomfortable.”


—An interaction with the mega-dealer, who has been conducting business with Russians since at least 2003, recalled in a  profile of Russian-American socialite Dasha Zhukova, ex-wife to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who is in the midst of rehabilitating her image in the wake of the war in Ukraine. ()

Work of the Week

Duncan McCormick’s  (2020)

Duncan McCormick, Red Tree House (2020). Courtesy of Phillips.

Duncan McCormick, Red Tree House (2020). Courtesy of Phillips.

Date: 2020


Estimate: £10,000 – £15,000 ($11,994 – $17,992)


Selling at: Phillips, 20th Century and Contemporary Art Day Sale


Sold for: £152,400 ($182,799)


Sale Date: March 3


It isn’t an exaggeration to call Duncan McCormick an international man of mystery at this point. Aside from his birthdate and residence in Shropshire, U.K., the only other line item in the bio on the painter’s personal website is that he held a single exhibition at Waterhouse and Dodd gallery in London in 2022. Curiously, Waterhouse and Dodd’s website makes no mention of the exhibition, though the gallery did offer McCormick’s whimsical, candy-colored landscapes, suburb-scapes, and interiors at the 2023 editions of Art Palm Beach and the Palm Beach Show. (As part of the former event, Waterhouse and Dodd even dedicated an online viewing room to McCormick.)

The gallery (which operates a location on East 76th Street in New York, too) did not reply to an email inquiry about its history with McCormick, his representation status with the gallery, or what might have accounted for  bringing more than 10X its high estimate after fees in its record-setting performance at Phillips last week. What we do know is that the result wasn’t an anomaly. None of the four McCormick paintings offered at auction to date has been estimated to sell for more than £15,000—and yet, none has gone for less than £119,700 (just shy of $146,500 at the time), according to the Artnet Price Database. All four works mounted the auction block between December 8, 2022 and March 3, 2023, and all were acquired directly from the artist by whomever consigned them to the auction houses, deepening the market intrigue around McCormick’s sudden rise.

Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.


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