Christie’s and Sotheby’s prepare their prestige May sales in New York



The market is holding its breath ahead of the critical May sales in New York that will inevitably gauge the health of the Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary segments. As expected, the price tags are substantially lower than a year earlier in all three segmentsSotheby’s is opening the prestige sales with 36 Impressionist & Modern works on 5 May from which it expects to fetch $81.5m compared with $208.62m booked on 7 May 2008 from 41 lots. The following day (6 May), Christie’s hopes to generate $95m from 50 lots compared with $147.76m booked a year earlier.The Contemporary sales are scheduled for 12 and 13 May. Remember that in May 2008, the Contemporary evening sales generated combined total revenue of close to $530m. A year later, the combined revenue estimate for the two evening sales is only $123.5m: $52.02m from 49 lots at Sotheby’s (vs. $235.54m booked on 14 May 2008) and $71.51m from 54 lots at Christie’s (vs. $294.01m booked on 13 May 2008).

In 2008, the Impressionist & Modern sale at Sotheby’s generated two new world records ($35m for Fernand LÉGER’s la Femme en bleu and $27.5m for Edvard MUNCH’s, Girls on a bridge) and an average bought-in rate of 21.2%. At this year’s sale, Sotheby’s is offering 10 paintings by Tamara DE LEMPICKA from the collection of the German fashion designer Wolfgang Joop, including Portrait of Marjorie Ferry and a Portrait of the Duchesse de la Salle, both carrying estimates of $4-6m. The artist’s current record is $4.1m for Portrait of Mrs Bush (4 May 2004, Christie’s NY). In addition, two major works, a painting by Picasso and a sculpture by Giacometti, are both carrying high estimates of $24m. The Pablo PICASSO work entitled, La fille de l’artiste a deux ans et demi avec un bateau (the artist’s daughter aged two and a half with a boat) represents Maya Picasso in 1932. Alberto GIACOMETTI’s bronze Chat, created in 1951 and cast eight times, last appeared at auction on 21 May 1975 at Sotheby’s NY where it fetched $130,000.
The following day, Christie’s is offering another work by Alberto Giacometti, Buste de Diego (Stele III), with a price estimate of $4.5-6.5m; but the auctioneer is above all hoping to generate 8 to 12 million dollars from Picasso’s Femme au chapeau originating from Julian SCHNABEL’s collection. Painted in 1971, Schnabel apparently acquired the work because he liked its dominant green colour.

A week after the Impressionist & Modern sales (i.e. on 12 May), Sotheby’s will be offering 49 Contemporary works compared with 83 lots last year. The next day, Christie’s will submit 54 lots to the auction test compared with 56 in 2008. The Sotheby’s selection – more contemporary than its rival’s – contains works by Christopher WOOL, Kara WALKER, Piotr UKLANSKI, Charles RAY and GILBERT & GEORGE. It also relies heavily on the big names of the Contemporary market with five Andy WARHOL, including one Mona Lisa parody ($1.5-2m) and a 3-metre canvas from his Camouflage series ($1.8-2.5m). The star lot is a sculpture by the ever-present Jeff KOONS entitled Baroque Egg with Bow (Turquoise/Magenta) and estimated at $6-8m. The work is part of his famous Celebration series which has already produced two records for the artist above the $20m line: Balloon Flower (Magenta) at Christie’s on 30 June 2008 and Hanging Heart (Magenta/gold) at Sotheby’s on 14 November 2007. The auctioneer is also offering an untitled work by Martin KIPPENBERGER tagged at $3.5-4.5m (featured on the cover of its sales catalogue), a Robert RAUSCHENBERG painting entitled Transom ($4-6m), a sculpture by Robert GOBER ($2.5-3.5m), a Jean-Michel BASQUIAT painting from 1982 entitled Red Man One ($3-5m) and a later work by Mark ROTHKO, Black, Red-Brown on violet tagged at $1.5-2m.

On 13 May, Christie’s will present a catalogue containing 23 works estimated above the $1m line. Its star lots are a David HOCKNEY diptych from the 1960s, Beverly Hills Housewife (est. $6-10m), a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat entitled Mater and in private hands since 1984 (est. $5-7m) and an austere 1959 color-field by Marc Rothko (est. $3-4m). The big names of American Pop art are also present: four works by Andy WARHOL, including The Last Supper (est. $4-6m), three by Roy LICHTENSTEIN, including Frolic ($4-6m), two sculptures by Claes Thure OLDENBURG, including Typewriter Eraser (measuring over 2 metres, 3 copies, est. $1.4-1.8m) and two works by Pop’s contemporary heir, Jeff Koons: the gleaming locomotive Jim Beam – J.B. Turner Engine ($0.7-1m) and his erotic Beach House painting ($1.5-2m).

Only two Chinese artists will be present at these evening sales: Sotheby’s is offering a red self-portrait by YAN Pei-Ming that an American collector has decided to sell (estimated at $0.7-0.9m) and Christie’s will close its evening sale with an oil painting by ZHANG Xiaogang (2005-2006) estimated at $0.5-0.7m. The latter was bought directly from the artist’s studio just two years before being resold. While such rapid re-sales were until recently largely motivated by strong speculation on the Chinese art market, today this kind of sale looks more like a symptom of market jitters.
In fact both auctioneers have opted for prudence by presenting fewer contemporary Asian works. In May 2009, Christie’s and Sotheby’s are hoping to generate a total of $1.6m from two stars of the Chinese market whereas in May 2008 they fetched $17.7m from 5 Asian lots at their equivalent evening sales. This figure included the record $13.5m that Sotheby’s scored for the Japanese artist Takashi MURAKAMI with his My Lonesome Cowboy on 14 May 2008.