Change is in the air.
The auction market, long dominated by work made by White men, is demonstrating some semblance of market diversity—not only in what’s offered, but also by how much people are willing to pay.
“In a way, the headline this week is about diversity in so many ways,” says Bonnie Brennan, president for the Americas at Christie’s. “Not only in the artists themselves, but the [artworks’] medium, style, and price points.” Yes, she continues, there were solid results for established names, “but the more electric moments this week have been around newer and more emerging artists.”
Over the course of New York’s May auction week, several of the $15 million-plus artworks sold after just a few bids, while occasionally dozens of people vied for lower-priced works by artists who aren’t household names. “There were several lots from Tuesday and also from [Thursday] night, where you see the number of phone bidders in the teens,” Brennan says.
Enthusiasm at Christie’s on Tuesday night was particularly intense for work by Jordan Casteel (born in 1989), Nina Chanel Abney (1982), and Rashid Johnson (1977), whose Anxious Red Painting December 18th, which he completed last year, elicited “a volley of phone bidders in our sales room,” Brennan says. It sold, with premium, for $1.95 million, topping a high estimate of $300,000.
The next night at Sotheby’s evinced a similar energy. There was a seven-minute-long bidding war for Robert Colescott’s 1975 interpretation of Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, titled George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook. It ultimately sold to the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art for $15.3 million, surpassing a high estimate of $12 million. And a work by Salman Toor, whose solo show at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art earlier this year was a must-see, sold for $867,000, over a high estimate of just $80,000.
Only on Thursday night at Christie’s was there protracted, truly dramatic competition for a work by one of the usual names: Bids for Picasso’s Femme Assise Près d'une Fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse), from 1932, began at about $54 million, then climbed steadily, buoyed by four separate phone bidders. Eventually it came down to two very determined collectors, who over the course of 19 minutes and 27 seconds pushed the final hammer price to $90 million. Auction house fees brought the total to $103.4 million, making it the fifth-most-expensive Picasso to sell at auction, according to the Artnet price database.
And indeed, for all the talk of diversity, the very top of the market remains unchanged: Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh, and Warhol still dominate the very pinnacle of prices. The only exception is Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died at the age of 27 in 1988.
Basquiat is neither new to the market nor cheap. And yet, in less than 24 hours, no fewer than 11 bidders competed for two of his artworks.
At Christie’s on Tuesday night, at least six separate bidders were willing to pay north of $50 million for his 1983 painting In This Case, pushing its total to $93.1 million. At Sotheby’s on Wednesday, five bidders fought for Versus Medici (1982), pushing the painting to a hammer price of $44 million; auction fees, paid by the buyer, brought the total to $50.8 million, just past its high estimate.
“I think for the Basquiat market, [this week] changes the game,” says the dealer Christophe Van de Weghe. “He’s been selling to some very important collectors. These are rich individuals who don’t need the money. People are looking at Basquiat as one of the most important painters of the 20th century, and the prices certainly show it.”
Demand for Basquiat is global, Van de Weghe continues. “People from all over the world are interested in buying Basquiat. It’s a little bit like Picasso.”