A solid but still uncrowned Art Market in 2023. Artprice reviews Christie’s first spring results in New York

PARIS, May 16, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — With no ‘absolute masterpieces’ on offer, there were no ‘mega’ results in Christie’s first major prestige New York sale of 2023. Lots of works fetched over $10 million on May 11, but none crossed the threshold of $50 million. Indeed last year’s peak at the same sale when Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn (1964) reached $195 million now seems quite remote.

Henri Le Douanier Rousseau –The Flemish (1910), sold for $43.5 million at Christie’s on May 11, 2023

“The Art Market is a pyramid, observes thierry Ehrmann, CEO of and founder of Artprice. “Its base remains very solid, thanks to countless exchanges recorded in all four corners of the globe, in all price ranges. But each year this pyramid is usually crowned with at least one big result for a major masterpiece; a kind of apex that is missing so far this year”.

The market holds its breath

It could be argued that this breaks somewhat with a tradition established by Christie’s. In recent years François Pinault’s auction house has accustomed the art market to a very major result in its New York May sales:

In May 2019, Jeff Koons became the world’s most expensive living artist with his sculpture Rabbit (1986) selling for $91.1 million. In May 2020, the sales were postponed due to the health crisis. In May 2021, Pablo Picasso’s Woman seated near a window (Marie-Thérèse) (1932) crossed the symbolic threshold of $100 million for the first time in two years when it fetched $103 million. In May 2022, Andy Warhol’s, Shot sage blue Marilyn (1964), from the Thomas Ammann Collection, fetched the second highest-ever auction result for a work of art when it was acquired by Larry Gagosian for $195 million.

At its major 20th Century Art sale on May 11, 2023, Christie’s best result was just $43.5 million, hammered for a canvas by Henri Rousseau (aka Le Douanier) painted the year of his death. It’s a resounding new auction record for this artist who was particularly fond of Picasso, but as a peak for this prestigious sale, it seems almost too modest.

Does this indicate a loss of momentum after the flurry of astonishing records hammered last fall during the sale of the Paul G. Allen Collection when Christie’s sold five lots above the $100 million threshold in a single evening?…

The most spectacular results of the evening were hammered for two works from the Paul G. Allen Collection that were not included in last fall’s sale. The first was Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Iris VI (1936), estimated at $5 – 7 million and which fetched $21.1 million (including fees). When it last went to auction in 1998, it sold for $1.1 million, almost twenty times less. The other was David Hockney’s early work Blossom, Woldgate (2009), also estimated at $5 – 7 million, which climbed to $19.4 million.

Guarantees…  but not of performance

Of the 70 lots offered by Christie’s New York on May 11, 2023, only 33 were not guaranteed. Increasingly common in major art sales these days, all the works in the S. I. Newhouse Collection and the Paul G. Allen Collection, (as well as many others from prestigious collections including the Alan and Dorothy Press Collection) benefited from sale guarantees.

For these lots Christie’s issues the following notice: “On occasion, Christie’s has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.”

In the spring of 2022, 30% of the lots in Christie’s 20th Century Art session were subject to guarantees (17 out of the 56 offered, including two in the sale of the Anne H. Bass Collection). This year, the same auction house guaranteed 52% of the lots. However, the multiplication of such sale guarantees does not necessarily ensure a better performance. In total, in its May 11, 2023 sale, Christie’s took a total of $506.6 million compared with $832.2 million in the same session last year.

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Top 15 artists by auction turnover at Christie’s New York on May 11, 2023