Launching the fall auction season against the backdrop of a slowly reviving New York City, a Christie’s evening sale of works made in the 21st century brought in $219 million on Tuesday.
All 40 lots on offer have been sold. Two works – one by Mark Grotjahn, the other by Felix Gonzalez-Torres – came up for sale with an internal guarantee, while a further 20 were secured with third-party support. The entire group was expected to fetch an estimated hammer price of $150 million – $230 million with bounty.
Christie’s auctioneer Gemma Sudlow, head of private and iconic collections, took the stage on Tuesday to lead the sale. She replaced her colleague Christie’s chairman Adrien Meyer, who was tapped to run night sales in New York last season during the pandemic. Among the masked spectators in the tightly packed room were dealers Jeffrey Deitch and Larry Gagosian. Although the setting resembled a pre-pandemic auction room, the energy among the public and specialists was largely subdued.
The work that won the highest prize was the large-scale painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat The Guilt of Gold Teeth (1982), which shows a grimacing skull-like figure wearing a top hat amid scribbled text. When it came to the sale with an irrevocable offer, the work hammered under the low estimate of $37 million and went to the sole bidder on the phone with Christie’s chairman Alex Rotter for a final price of $40 million.
A large painting by Peter Doig, titled flooded (1990), sold for $39 million to another bidder on the telephone with Rotter. That bidder triumphed over two others from Hong Kong and New York. Featuring a single white boat floating among pond weeds and stumps, the work comes from Doig’s groundbreaking “Canoe” series. It was expected to bring in more than $35 million, and it succeeded. In May 2015, the European collector who sold the work bought it at auction for $26 million. The result surpassed Doig’s previous record of $28.8 million, set when the artist rosedale (1991) sold at Phillips in New York in 2017.
Another important item was that of Basquiat Flash in Naples (1983), depicting the superhero from the comic book series from which the work takes its name. The painting was last exhibited at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in 2020. It cost $19.8 million, surpassing the estimated $14 million. Before that, it sold for $8.1 million in 2017 at Christie’s and in 2010 for $3.3 million at Sotheby’s in New York.
Emerging and mid-career artists with high-growth markets continued to dominate the Sotheby’s sale. Hilary Pecis’s domestic scene Upstairs interior (2019) sold for more than 10 times the high estimate of $80,000, and found a buyer on the phone with Christie’s Hong Kong specialist Evelyn Lin for $870,000. That amount more than doubled Pecis’s auction record of $307,600, which was set in Christie’s London less than a month ago.
The next lot, Nicholas Party’s Landscape (2021), sold for $3.3 million with bounty to a bidder on the phone with Hong Kong chairman Erik Chang. That result set a new record for the artist. A record was also set for Stanley Whitney, whose unnamed 1999 painting depicting rows of box-like shapes of various shades attracted five bidders from New York and the UK. It was sold for $1.2 million. As with Pecis, it marked the second time that Whitney’s auction record had been reset in 2021 – the first being in June, when a bidder paid nearly $725,000 for his painting. Light a new wilderness (2016) at Christie’s.
A third of the lots offered at Christie’s Evening Sale came from the same collector. A group of Pictures Generation works, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Christopher Wool, were sold under the title “Image World”; they were sold by New Jersey-based neurosurgeon Abe Steinberger and his wife Cynthia, according to Vanity Fair. From the group, Barbara’s Kruger’s Untitled (Your Manias Word Science), 1981, set a new record for the artist at $1.2 million. Together, the 13 works generated a combined total of $36.5 million.
One of the sale’s offbeat lots drew some of the toughest bids of the evening. For sale, NFT artist Beeple produced a physical work titled Human. The work is a seven meter high sculpture composed of LED screens showing an astronaut walking through a dystopian landscape; it also comes with an NFT. Four bidders competed for the work, which raised $25 million, more than an estimate of $15 million. It went to an online bidder in Switzerland for the final price of $29 million.
Behind the scenes financial machinations sealed the fate of a number of works in this sale, effectively dampening the energy in this white glove sale. But every now and then, the bidding got livelier thanks to competition from Hong Kong.
Christie’s goal with this sale was twofold: the house used its season opener to further facilitate bidding from different continents, and to catch up with its competitor, Sotheby’s, in transforming the evening sale into a tech-advanced venue, complete with screens displaying the provide and display many details. The change in atmosphere was palpable in Sudlow’s opening description of the stage being updated with digital fringes. “You may notice things look a little different in James Christie’s room,” said Sudlow, calling the sale an “immersive event.”