The Back Room: The Gavel Grind


This week in the Back Room: assessing the auction cycle’s end, counting other people’s money, Betye Saar’s latest milestone, and much more—all in a 6-minute read (1,728 words).


Top of the Market

Rounding Off

Cy Twombly, <I>Untitled</I> (2005). Courtesy of Phillips.

Cy Twombly, Untitled (2005). Courtesy of Phillips.

The state of the auction trade only lends itself to consensus opinions when everything seems to be selling at high prices, and when nothing seems to be selling at all. The rest of the time, it’s an eye-of-the-beholder market, and this past week planted us firmly in an in-between place.

Were the overall results a sign of resilience, or of trouble ahead? Have tastes changed definitively, or has the youth frenzy just cooled a bit? Did top lots fail to ignite bidding wars more because of waning desire among buyers, or because of canny risk management by the houses?

You could credibly argue either side of any of these binaries. The one point on which all positions converge, however, is that the market has come off the highest speculative highs of the past year.

Below, three key takeaways to add dimension to this blunt truth…


1. No-Nonsense Accounting Finds That Nearly All Evening Sales Underperformed.

Our favorite way to judge any auction’s overall health is to compare its total hammer price to its total presale estimate. It’s the most “apples to apples” method, since presale estimates exclude premiums. (And no, we don’t revise the estimate downward based on last-minute withdrawals, because those are essentially passed lots.)

So, how did Sotheby’sChristie’s, and Phillips do this week? Of the seven evening sales, the hammer totals in five missed their aggregate low estimates.

The two success stories both belonged to Sotheby’s:

  • The David Solinger Collection$116.4 million hammer total vs. $87 million low estimate.
  • The Now$37.5 million hammer total vs. $32.4 million low estimate.


The two wobbliest results both came at Christie’s on Wednesday:

  • 20th c. Evening Sale$255.2 million hammer total vs. $297 million low estimate.
  • 21st c. Evening Sale$95.3 million hammer total vs. $151.6 million low estimate.

If you’re wondering, Phillips’s 20th century and contemporary evening sale missed its low estimate by just $2.8 million; Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale missed by $13.8 million; and Sotheby’s Modern evening sale missed by $17.2 million.

So, how did this happen?


2. Numerous Trophy Lots Underwhelmed… or Outright Imploded.

The good news is that the vast majority of works estimated to sell for $10 million or more found buyers. The mediocre news is that only a few of them soared above expectations. The bad news is that some others were withdrawn or bought in.

Case in point, here’s a roundup of the five lots with the highest presale expectations…

  • Andy Warhol’s : $74 million hammer price vs. $80+ million estimate.
  • Piet Mondrian’s : $48 million hammer price vs. $50+ million estimate.
  • Cy Twombly’s Untitled: $36 million hammer price vs. $35 million to $45 million estimate.
  • Basquiat’s  : $28.2 million hammer price vs. estimate “in the region of” $35 million.
  • De Kooning’s : bought in (final bid was $27 million); estimate “in the region of” $35 million.

There’s more where those came from, but you get the idea.


3. Demand for Several Young Artists Descended Toward Earth.

It would be going too far to say that every hot ultra-contemporary artist saw a major decline in their auction prices this season, as a few examples prove.

Both Salman Toor works on offer hammered at more than 3X their high estimates; both María Berrío lots crossed $1.2 million after fees; and both paintings by Lucy Bull hammered for more than double their high expectations, landing near or above $500,000.

But several other rising stars leveled off or lost altitude to an extent worth noting.

Two of the week’s three Anna Weyant lots landed within her rumored primary price range of $350,000 to $600,000. One of two lots by Christina Quarles hammered at $480,000, on the lower side of its estimates. Paintings by Amoako BoafoNicolas Party, and Avery Singer were won on bids beneath their low expectations. One of two Amy Sherald canvases at Phillips failed to sell.

Maybe that doesn’t sound like much. But remember, eight artists aged 40 or younger cracked $1 million in the May auction cycle, including Quarles ($4.5 million) and Singer ($5.3 million). Toor was the only new artist from that group to join the seven-figure club this time out.

Say hello to gravity.


The Bottom Line

It’s surprisingly easy to forget that this week’s auctions had the unenviable task of trying to woo buyers only a few days after Christie’s sold $1.5 billion worth of Paul Allen’s art. Pretending that historic bonanza would have no ripple effects on the rest of the auction cycle would be naive at best.

Even so, is there evidence that the art market is tailing off amid wider economic turmoil? Yes, but it’s important not to overreact, too.

Many veterans of generation-defining economic crises are instinctively (and understandably) bracing themselves for calamity. Yet contractions in the trade vary in severity. So far, it looks a lot more like we’re entering a correction, not tipping into a death spiral.

Things could feel different by the close of Art Basel Miami Beach in 12 days. Until or unless they do, though, keep in mind that no high lasts forever—and not all downturns mean across-the-board doom.


[Sotheby’s The Now & Contemporary Evening Sales]


[Christie’s 20th Century & 21st Century Evening Sales]



Paint Drippings

The latest Wet Paint was still being mixed at newsletter time, but here’s what else made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…


Art Fairs

  • A single coronavirus case sparked early closures of Art021 and West Bund in Shanghai. Although some dealers managed to finalize deals in the first 48 hours, many fear China’s aggressive zero-Covid policy could have a broader chilling effect on the country’s market. (Artnet News)
  • The first edition of Art Basel Hong Kong since the government lifted its mandatory hotel quarantine will be held in March with 171 galleries—up almost one-third from 2022. Angelle Siyang-Le has been named director of the fair. ()
  • Fine Arts Paris & La Biennale, a new fair merging two former competitors—Fine Arts Paris and the antiques and arts fair La Biennale—opened with so-so sales but high hopes for the beginning of a “renaissance” for the once-warring events. (Artnet News)


Auction Houses

  • Leaked documents offered a window into Sotheby’s owner Patrick Drahi’s tax affairs and estimated $750 million art collection—which includes at least 25 works he purchased between 2015 and 2022 from the very auction house he acquired in 2019. (Artnet News)
  • Is Phillips for sale? Rumors are afoot that the Mercury Group, Phillips’s Russian owners, are in talks to unload the auction house for around $500 million. (The Canvas)
  • Sotheby’s hired new teams on the ground in South Korea and Thailand as part of an ambitious expansion across Asia that also includes opening a new mainland China headquarters in Shanghai in early 2023. (Artnet News)



  • Larry Gagosian established a star-studded advisory board to consult on succession plans for his gallery. The 20-person group includes Evan SpiegelJ. Tomilson HillSofia Coppola, and in-house execs Andrew Fabricant and Millicent Wilner. (Artnet News)
  • Johann Königwon a preliminary injunction against Die Zeit to retroactively redact portions of its investigation into allegations of abusive behavior and sexual harrassment against him. The rest of the article’s fate awaits another ruling. (Artnet News)
  • Blue-chip galleries including Esther Schipper and Sprüth Magers received some of the €30 million ($31 million) worth of public money pumped into Germany’s commercial art market during the pandemic, raising questions about whether funding should have been based on need. (Artnet News)



  • Russian troops occupying the Ukrainian city of Kherson looted some 15,000 objects from the Oleksiy Shovkunenko Kherson Art Museum and other cultural institutions in the days after Vladimir Putin imposed martial law there. (Artnet News)
  • Alberto Giacometti will be the subject of a new museum and school inside the former Gare des Invalides train station in Paris starting in 2026. (Artnet News)
  • The Berlin and federal governments joined forces to buy back the city’s Hamburger Bahnhof museum and nearby Rieckhallen exhibition hall for €170 million ($176 million) after protracted negotiations with real-estate developers. (Artnet News)


NFTs and More

  • Starting in 2023Germany will offer 18-year-olds a €200 credit toward museum admission, concert tickets, and other arts spending as part of a new Culture Pass initiative. (Artnet News)
  • The recent round of 11,000 layoffs at Meta appears to have gutted its art and design division, Open Arts. The company declined to comment, but former chief curator Matthew Israel and at least five other high-ranking ex-staffers confirmed their departures on LinkedIn. (Artnet News)
  • Anonymous Was a Woman, the beloved organization that disburses grants to female artists over the age of 40, awarded $25,000 each to Jaune Quick-to-See SmithAbigail DeVilleLeslie Hewitt, and 12 others. ()


“I think the artists who are successful consistently at auction end up making so much money—Jonas WoodMark GrotjahnMark Bradford. It’s movie-star money from the 1980s. I mean, they make more money than George Clooney and Will Smith.”


Stefan Simchowitz, positing that fast and furious trading in the secondary market massively helps, not hurts, star artists’ careers. He projects that Wood and Grotjahn gross $30 million to $50 million annually. (Artnet News Pro)


Work of the Week

Betye Saar’s

Betye Saar, <i>Rainbow Mojo</i> (1972). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Betye Saar, Rainbow Mojo (1972). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.


Date:                    1972
Seller:                  Private Collection

Estimate:             $200,000 to $300,000
Sale Price:           $378,000
Sold at:                Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Sale


In late 2019, pioneering Black American artist Betye Saar was the subject of concurrent solo exhibitions at MoMA and LACMA, late but heartening recognition for a career now 60 years strong. Her early work  spent much of the preceding few years in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” one of the most acclaimed institutional touring exhibitions of the past decade.

 hammered at $300,000, or an artist-record $378,000 after fees, in Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale Wednesday night. It also underperformed 21 of the 22 lots that crossed the block in the house’s youth-focused auction, “The Now,” earlier the same evening. (One work was withdrawn presale.)

For comparison’s sake, sold for about 6X less than a 2016 Nicolas Party painting, 5.5X less than a 2018 Avery Singer canvas, 4X less than a 2019 Salman Toor work, and 2X less than a Louis Fratino lot made last year.

Maybe it’s not fair to use one night to question buyers’ interest in correcting historical imbalances of gender, race, and artistic merit. Or maybe some lessons never really get learned.


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


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