The Best-Seller List: See the Top Ten Lots Sold in Every Major Category

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Ultra-Contemporary

Nicolas Party’s <i>Trees</i> (2019) is the tenth best-selling work in the ultra-contemporary category. ), © Nicolas Party, Courtesy the artist & Hauser & Wirth.

Nicolas Party’s Trees (2019) is the tenth best-selling work in the ultra-contemporary category. ), © Nicolas Party, Courtesy the artist & Hauser & Wirth.

An unsettling landscape by the artist Matthew Wong led the ultra-contemporary art category, which we define as work made by artists born after 1974. Over the past three years, speculators have boosted the markets for a handful of artists like Wong, Jonas Wood, and Adrian Ghenie, each of whom has a distinct approach to figuration.1

The $6.7 million price for Wong’s (2018) was nearly 38 percent more than it realized on its last appearance on the auction block, at Phillips Hong Kong just three years ago.2 But beyond these bright spots, the category is struggling to retain the remarkable highs of the past few years now that the NFT bubble has burst and buyers have become more cautious. Only the top four works in this list would have made the cut in our last mid-year report.3

 

Contemporary

Cecily Brown’s <i>Free Games for May</i> (2017). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Limited 2023.

Cecily Brown’s Free Games for May (2017) , the ninth best-selling work in the postwar category, is partly inspired by Pink Floyd’s 1967 concert Games for May. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Limited 2023.

“Music fills the columns and rows of this top-10 spreadsheet,” observed art advisor Liz Parks. Indeed, songs or album covers from Charlie Parker, Pink Floyd, and John Hiatt inspired category-leading paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat,4 Cecily Brown,5 and Yoshitomo Nara,6 respectively. The Basquiat and Brown works were sold by the estate of the late music executive Mo Ostin, one of the spring season’s biggest consignors, at Sotheby’s.7 And the results show a market whose tempo is changing in real time. Although the artists topping the charts remain familiar international brand names, price expectations are shifting.

Of the top-selling works in the contemporary category, which comprises artists born between 1945 and 1974, three sold under estimate (even with the buyer’s premium), three outperformed their estimates, and four sold within range.8 Referring to the Basquiat painting and the Charlie Parker song of the same name, Parks quipped, “The future is uncertain, so now’s the time—to sell art at auction. Doing so might not return as frothy results as before, but it’s hard to predict the pervading riff of next season, so let’s improvise.”

 

 

Postwar

Roy Lichtenstein’s <i>Rouen Cathedral, Set IV</i> (1969) sold well under its low estimate and still came in eighth place in the postwar category. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Limited 2023 © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

Roy Lichtenstein’s Rouen Cathedral, Set IV (1969) sold well under its low estimate and still came in eighth place in the postwar category. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Limited 2023 © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

Where is Warhol? Last year’s buying bonanza for the Pop artist’s silkscreen portraits culminated with the $195 million sale of (1964).9 That record appeared to affirm Warhol’s grip on the postwar market, which we define as work made by artists born between 1911 and 1944. However, Warhol was virtually absent from this season’s evening sales.10 Privately, auction executives complained about lackluster inventory, and collectors seemed to agree.

The highest-selling lot from the past six months—Louise Bourgeois’s $32.8 million bronze spider—would have only placed seventh in last year’s rankings.11 Other top lots barely scraped past their low estimates, including paintings by Gerhard Richter and Cy Twombly. A 1969 painting by Roy Lichtenstein, which sold for nearly $3 million below its low estimate, still managed to come in at number eight.12 “Is it a supply issue or a demand issue?” asked Caroline Sayan, CEO of the advisory firm Cadell North America. Pointing to the generational shift in taste and record prices that are hard to sustain, she concluded, “It’s both.”

 

Photography

Lee Friedlander's <i>The Little Screens</i> (1961–70) was among the works offered by the Pilara Family Foundation at Sotheby’s and tied for ninth place in the photography category. © Lee Friedlander, courtesy of Sotheby’s, Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Lee Friedlander’s The Little Screens (1961–70) was among the works offered by the Pilara Family Foundation at Sotheby’s and tied for ninth place in the photography category. © Lee Friedlander, courtesy of Sotheby’s, Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, and Luhring Augustine, New York.

There is a sense that the secondary market for photography has gone soft in recent years.13 Although prices have come down for stars like Andreas Gursky and Richard Prince, the perception also reflects a myopic focus on traditional photography auctions, when in fact much of the best inventory has shifted to higher-profile contemporary-art and single-owner sales.14 In fact, none of the works on this list sold in a regularly scheduled photography auction.

A particular high point was the two-day sale of photographs from the Pilara Family Foundation, one of the category’s best and largest private collections, which hit the block after its founders lost the lease on Pier 24, their private museum in San Francisco.15 (The total might have been even higher had the private museum Glenstone not scooped up 112 of the collection’s best works prior to the sale.16) “I welcome seeing the best material, regardless of the medium and year, be part of the frothier, more closely followed sales,” said art advisor Courtney Pettit.

 

Impressionist and Modern

Henri Rousseau’s <i>Les Flamants</i> (1910), the third best-selling work in the Impressionist and Modern category, set a record for the artist. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Limited 2023.

Henri Rousseau’s Les Flamants (1910), the third best-selling work in the Impressionist and Modern category, set a record for the artist. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Limited 2023.

Rarity and freshness are the names of the game in this segment of the market, which encompasses work by artists born between 1821 and 1910. The five best-performing paintings had never appeared at auction before.17 Wassily Kandinsky’s cityscape was restituted to the heirs of its Jewish owner last year from a Russian museum,18 while Henri Rousseau’s painting of a lush river came from the estate of the late Payne Whitney Middleton.19

The self-taught French artist’s landscape—the last of its kind in private hands—shattered his auction record of $4.4 million, set 30 years ago.20 In the Imp-Mod category, as in many others, “we are clearly moving into a period of correction following the turbulence in the financial markets,” said art advisor Megan Fox Kelly. “Not a sharp swing, but some price sensitivity and more discretion in buying.”

 

European Old Masters

Peter Paul Rubens’s <i>Salome Presented With the Head of Saint John the Baptist</i> [detail] (1609) led the European Old Masters category. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Peter Paul Rubens’s Salome Presented With the Head of Saint John the Baptist [detail] (1609) led the European Old Masters category. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

In an auction season with its fair share of slumps, the Old Masters category, which embraces European artists born between 1250 and 1820, experienced relatively smooth sailing. A pair of Rubens paintings from the Fisch-Davidson Collection, which reached the auction block amid the couple’s high-profile divorce, was a highlight.21

“These are absolute, dead-on masterpieces, in great condition with great history,” said Old Master dealer Robert Simon. Both came to the market with guarantees and traded in the region of $26 million after some competition on the auction floor.22

Enthusiasm for Old Masters paintings by women is still strong, but the lack of inventory combined with export license requirements in many European countries constrains prices and sales volume, experts say. No works by women were among the top 10 lots this spring. But the Old Masters segment has something else going for it: Given the nosebleed prices in other sectors, it feels like a relative bargain. “I’m happy for it to be undervalued,” Simon said. “It’s a very vital field but a smaller one.”

 

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