This season saw one of the super-seller sales of the century: Christie’s evening auction of 19th- and 20th-century artworks from the prestigious Peggy and David Rockefeller collection. The auction, which went under the hammer on 8 May, was the first and most important of a planned series and totalled an impressive $646.1m. It is the highest total ever achieved in a single-owner auction, surpassing the previous high of $484m garnered in Paris in 2009 for the collection of fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé. The first 44 of around 1,550 items from the estate of Peggy and David Rockefeller steadily sold in just under two hours.
The epic evening saw most of the world’s top dealers in attendance and lots of heated competition for the blue-chip works by 19th- and 20th-century masters on offer. Seven new auction records were set, including for Henri Matisse, Armand Séguin, Giorgio Morandi, Odilon Redon, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Eugène Delacroix and Claude Monet. There was also Picasso’s Rose Period Fillette à la corbeille fleurie (1905) that sold for $102m. All in all, the evening belonged to Monet’s luscious Nymphéas en fleur (circa 1914-17), which saw the most fierce battle. Estimated in the region of $50m, auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen opened bidding at $36m and the work was immediately chased by various Christie’s specialists on the phone banks bidding for individual clients. It sold for $75m, a record for the artist, through Christie’s representative in Asia.
Kerry James Marshall. Past Times. 1997. Acrylic and collage on canvas. Sold for $21.1m at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale in New York
Close to 80,000 visitors flocked to Christie’s worldwide to catch a glimpse of the extraordinary works Peggy and David Rockefeller collected during their lifetime. The grandson of Standard Oil co-founder John Davison Rockefeller (1839-1937), David Rockefeller (1915-2017) was said to have been the world’s first billionaire. In addition to the glistening top-priced paintings, the Rockefeller sale also included 650 miscellaneous items, including cufflinks, candlesticks and several porcelain animals, offered for sale online at more accessible prices. “Middle Eastern collectors engaged with the sale offering, and the Syrian incense burner, which had a special place on David Rockefeller’s desk at Chase Manhattan Bank, sold for $432,500, tripling its pre-sale estimate,” said Michael Jeha, managing director of Christie’s Middle East.
The Rockefeller mania continued the consecutive evening, with 41 pieces of the couple’s American art exceeding its high estimate of $66.8m with a total of $90.5m ($106.9m with fees). Works ranged from a classic Edward Hopper and John Singer Sargent landscapes to a vibrant Willem de Kooning and Alexander Calder sculpture. While the fireworks didn’t match those from the previous evening, several records were achieved, including for Charles Sheeler, Gilbert Stuart and Diego Rivera. The latter’s The Rivals (1931) sold for $9.76m, setting a new record for Latin American art at auction.
Mahmoud Saïd. Fille à l’imprimé (Girl in a painted dress). 1938. Oil on canvas. Sold for $681,993 at Bonhams’ Egypt’s Awakening and Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art Sale. Courtesy of Bonhams.
On the other end of the spectrum are the artists new to auction featured in Phillips’s New Now sale, which had its most successful sale to date in London on 11 April, totaling $3,967,809. The sale has become its own kind of genre—one that showcases a diverse range of works by both emerging and established artists, appealing to collectors of all backgrounds, tastes and pocket sizes. Among the top-priced lots were Ballet God (Poseidon) (2015), a sculpture by Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, reaching $141,980, and an untitled KAWS work for $216,168. “Rather than chasing names for a financial investment, anyone buying art should be driven first and foremost by your love of the art,” said Simon Tovey, head of Phillips’ New Now sales. “Historically, the greatest returns have been made by collectors who bought with passion, determination and a good eye. We’re seeing a few artists who have been commanding strong prices in recent seasons, and have recently championed George Condo, KAWS, Shara Hughes, Petra Cortwright and Samara Scott, to name a few.”
The key first-timer in the April sale was young London-based artist Scott, whose untitled work made of carpet, yoghurt, plaster and paint sold for $12,469 above its high estimate of $6,650. “When there is strong demand on the primary market and we present an artist’s work at auction for the first time it is always exciting to see our client’s response,” added Tovey. “Phillips were first to bring the work of Mark Bradford and Jonas Wood to auction, both of whom are currently seeing very strong results on the secondary market.”
One of the season’s biggest hits was the sale of African American artist Kerry James Marshall’s beautifully narrative painting Past Times from 1997, which sold for a record-breaking $21.1m over its high estimate of $12m at Sotheby’s high-flying $284.5m Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 16 May in New York. The work depicts a black family leisurely relaxing in a lush Chicago Park in high-class fashion—playing cricket, golf, water skiing and even driving a motorboat across a lake. Such a pastoral scene is often filled with European references. It’s certainly a play on Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884). Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, created in 1862-63, also comes to mind. Instead of aristocratic white figures though, Marshall’s work is filled with black figures. A record for a living black artist at auction, it sold to rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs. His friend, rapper Swiss Beatz, was sitting in the front row of the salesroom and recording the bidding war on his phone and Facetiming with Combs, reported Bloomberg. The new record surpasses Marshall’s previous mark of $5.04m set at Christie’s New York in November 2017 for Still Life with Wedding Portrait from 2015.
Claude Monet. Nymphéas en fleur. Circa 1914-17. Oil on canvas. Sold for $102m at Christie’s evening auction of 19th- and 20th-century artworks from the Peggy and David Rockefeller collection. Courtesy of Christie’s
“There has been a significant shift in the art market and from museums and art institutions towards greater diversity, as well as a surge of interest in contemporary art from Africa and the African Diaspora,” said Hannah O’Leary, Head of Modern and Contemporary African Art at Sotheby’s London. “Sotheby’s has recently set new world auction records for artists including Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Kerry James Marshall, which reflects this change and highlights the ever-growing market for Modern and Contemporary African art. Sotheby’s is proud to be at the forefront of nurturing this market.” For many, this sale was one of the most significant in the last several years of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art in New York, because finally African artists are being regarded on par in terms of historical value and price points as their American peers.
Over to the Middle East, the last week of April saw Sotheby’s stage its regular week of auctions of Middle Eastern art from the past 1,000 years. Three auctions (20th Century Art/Middle East, The Orientalist Sale and The Arts of the Islamic World) on 25 and 26 April dedicated to the region raised a total of $15.7m, and broke several records. One of the week’s top selling lots was Bahman Mohasses’s Requiem Omnibus (Death of Martin Luther King) (1958), a personal and haunting response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, which sold for triple its estimate at $748,772.
An Egyptian beauty by the renowned painter Mahmoud Saïd realised $681,993 after a four-day bidding battle at Bonhams’ Egypt’s Awakening and Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art Sale in London earlier in April. The painting, titled Fille á l’imprimé, which was executed in 1938, had never been offered at auction prior. It is considered to be Saïd’s most iconic portrait. “Our last sale is a continuation of a theme we have been pursuing over the last few years, which is focusing on individual countries and regions, which in this case is Egypt,” said Nima Sagharchi, Bonhams Head of the Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art Department. “In the past we’ve done it with Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. It really gives us an opportunity to explore the entire narrative of a country’s modern art movement and give our clients a full and broad picture of the major artists and movements that were key in shaping that particular country’s art scene.”
Lot 63. Njideka Akunyili-Crosby (Nigerian). A la Warhol. Oil on canvas. £50,000–70,000
Other records made include Fouad Kamel’s Surrealist Woman, which achieved $290,936, after an estimate of $27,000-$40,000. Kamel was a leading figure in the Egyptian surrealist movement and a founder member of Art et Liberté in the late 1930s, a group that campaigned against Fascist rules to supress freedom of artistic expression. “One of the great features of these auctions is that they bring to light artists that are extremely historically significant but may have been overlooked by the market because they aren’t just the usual big names,” continues Sagharchi. “We had artists like Ahmed Morsi and Maher Raief—artists that hadn’t been carefully studied in previous auctions.”
Morsi’s Self-Portrait with Cello (1952) sold for $49,885 after an estimate of $10,642-15,963. Other top sellers were The Tamboura Player by Hussein Bicar, which achieved $79,811 after an estimate of $46,556-66,509, and Al Hussein Fawzi’s The Fellaha Through Her Hardships (1943) that sold for $66,509. “Sales like this usually bring a new audience to the market and we had a lot of bidding coming from within Egypt when most of the bidding at Middle Eastern auctions is usually from the Gulf or the diaspora communities,” he adds. With this sale, as with Bonhams’ Lebanese sale in 2016, the auction house saw the participation of a local crowd. “The key to growth in the market is to educate your audience and present artworks within a proper historical context,” states Sagharchi. As the Middle Eastern market at home gets ready for another downturn, prices at recent sales indicate signs of hope in a situation, so it seems, of impending gloom.
Education and context certainly seem to be paying off for the genres of Middle Eastern and African Art at auction. The collector market for both categories is growing, slowly but surely, even amidst unstable times. As Sagharchi indicated, the local scene is key to sustaining these markets.
*All prices are without fees