Christie’s and Sotheby’s, New York’s premier auction houses, continue to battle for supremacy in the art market. Each company conducts two major campaigns every year to present to the public the most precious artworks available for sale. The spring campaign takes place in May, and the fall art auctions happen in November. In the spring of 2013, the combined revenue raised by both houses reached $40 million.
By the middle of the auction week (last May), buyers and sellers were not particularly optimistic; it was even speculated that Latin American art could be experiencing a decline in value. However, by the end of the week, the results were not much lower that anticipated.
There was great expectation about a work by Chilean artist Roberto Matta. Christie’s hoped to get between 2.5 and 3.5 million dollars, but the piece failed to sell. Bidding started at $950,000 and stopped at $1.5 million. Unfortunately, the minimum sale price was set at $2.5 million.
The work in question is an 1941 oil painting (28 x 50 inches) titled The Prisoner of Light. It had never been shown in artistic circles, and this was its first appearance at auction. Described as a rare piece, the abundant use of the color black reflects the author’s intentions of presenting the influence of nature’s wrath on artistic creation, using the subconscious as a metaphor.
Sotheby’s also failed to sell a work by Matta: Morphologie Psychologique. The house hoped to sell it for 800,000 to 1.2 million dollars.
Latin American Art Auctions
Christie’s started the week with 302 lots, which were expected to raise at least $24 million. They finally sold 218 lots for $21,326 million. The work of Brazilian artist Candido Portinari (1903-1962) set a record price for the artist with the sale of Boys Flying Kites, for 1.44 million dollars. Dancers, a monumental bronze sculpture by the Colombian Fernando Botero, sold for $1.14 million.
1. CANDIDO PORTINARI (Brazil 1903-1962), Boys Flying Kites, 1941. / Courtesy of Christie’s Images LTD. 2013
2. FERNANDO BOTERO (Colombian b. 1932), Dancers, 2000. / Courtesy of Christie’s Images LTD. 2013.
Sotheby’s star lineup consisted of 232 lots, focusing primarily on 19th century landscapes and 20th century surrealism. The house expected to get between $20 and $23 million with its sales of Latin American art, which usually reach the $50 million mark: 1% of the company’s total annual sales. They were able to sell 150 lots and grossed $19.48 million. Constructive Composition (1931), a piece by Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres García, sold for $1.44 million.
The most remarkable result of the season’s auctions, besides the high sales, was the sense that both houses were “discovering” highly valued pieces, even if they didn’t sell. The main pieces from both houses belonged to families who had bought them five and eight decades ago, respectively. This gives them an added value, since they have been admired in a very exclusive way.
SERGIO CAMARGO, Untitled. / Courtesy Sotheby’s.
Modern and Contemporary Art Auctions
The modern and contemporary art auctions took place the week prior to the Latin American Art Week. These had better results, with sales reaching the billion-dollar mark, and breaking all previous records. According to the final figures, Christie’s raised $638, 61 million; Sotheby’s total was $377, 4 million. These are some of the most outstanding lots sold during the week:
Number 19 (1948), a work from Jackson Pollock’s most productive period, sold for $58.4 million. Likewise, a work by Roy Lichtenstein, Woman with Flowered Hat, raised $56.1 million, and Dustheads by Jean Michel Basquiat went for $48.8 million.
JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT, Dustheads, 1982. / Courtesy of Christie’s Images LTD. 2013.
Domplatz, Mailand, by German artist Gerhard Richter, sold for $37.1 million, ten million above the price paid in London for the same piece 15 years ago. Another record for the auction house was a painting by American painter Barnet Newman, Onement VI, which raised $43, 84 million.
BARNETT NEWMAN, Onement VI, 1953. / Courtesy Sotheby’s.