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Christie’s Contemporary Art Sales Show Strength in Face of Security Breach

Christie’s realized US$114.6 million in consecutive contemporary art auctions on Tuesday less than a week after it suffered a major security breach that prompted the auction house to take down its website. 

Overall, sales at Phillips (which realized nearly US$86.3 million) and Christie’s on Tuesday evening showed both glimmers of strength and weakness within the art market. There were solid results for two multimillion works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, yet Brice Marden’s Event, a headline work from Christie’s 21st-century sale, was withdrawn before the auction after failing to attract sufficient interest for the estimated US$30 million work, according to the auction house. 

The collection of the late Miami arts patron Rosa de la Cruz at Christie’s sparked energetic bidding for artists whose works don’t typically arrive at an evening sale, leading to records for Ana Mendieta and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The sale of 25 works realized US$27.2 million, before fees, above a US$23.8 million low estimate. With fees, the total was US$34.4 million. 

The 21st-century sale that followed was 94% sold by lot and led to artist records for Reggie Burrows Hodges, Martin Wong, and Diane Arbus, totaling US$66.52 million, less than presale estimates. With fees, the entire sale of 31 lots realized nearly US$80.3 million. 

Early Tuesday evening, Phillips’ held a more muted modern and contemporary art evening auction led by competitive bidding for the US$40.2 million sale, before fees, of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (ELMAR)—long in the collection of Italian anthropologist and editor Francesco Pellizzi. The sale, which totaled US$46.5 million with fees, was just within a presale estimate range. The entire sale of 28 lots realized nearly US$72.1 million, before fees, less than presale estimates. With fees, the auction total was nearly US$86.3 million. 

The sales at Christie’s were able to go ahead after some website functions were created temporarily so collectors could see catalog information. Christie’s was also able to set up its live online access for bidding in time for its marquee spring New York sales, which are among its most important for the year. 

“I can’t remember a more challenging week than this week,” Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti said at a news conference after the sale. “We had to find a solution—that’s what we did.” 

Christie’s has been advised by internal and external experts not to provide details yet about the breach, but Cerutti promised he would once given clearance to do so. “It’s not opacity, it’s just strategy,” he said. 

The sale of the Rosa de la Cruz collection, which was 100% sold, generated active bidding. All works offered were guaranteed by Christie’s to sell, and in several cases were also backed by a third-party guarantee. 

Auction records for Mendieta, the late Cuban artist, were broken twice during the sale, first for her Silueta Works in Mexico, 1973-77, a grouping of 12 color photographs, which achieved US$220,000, or US$277,200 with fees. Mendieta’s Untitled (Serie mujer de arena / Sandwoman Series), 1983, then achieved US$450,000, or US$567,025 with fees, breaking her record again. 

A 42-foot artwork made of 42 light bulbs, Untitled (America #3), 1992, by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, an artist de la Cruz championed, also achieved an artist record, selling for US$11.5 million, or US$13.6 million with fees, to the Pola Museum of Art in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan. The next lot after was a record for Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose iconic light string sculpture Untitled (America #3), achieved US$13.6 million. The Pola Museum of Art in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan confirmed it was the buyer of the Gonzalez-Torres.

The Marden lot, which Christie’s had guaranteed, was withdrawn because “we need to protect the value that we believe in,” Alex Rotter, chairman of the auction houses “20/21” art departments said at the news conference. 

Nicholas Party’s Grott also was withdrawn before the sale, while a painting by Robert Mangold, Four Figures II (A & B & C & D), was withdrawn during the auction. Mangold’s Three works: (i) 1/2 W Series (Orange); (ii) 1/2 V Series (Green); (iii) 1/2 X Series (Blue) had failed to find a buyer at Phillips’ sale earlier in the evening. 

Still, the auction drew deep bidding on several lots, including from Christie’s Live, its online platform. Another major work by Basquiat led the evening. The Italian Version of Popeye has no Pork his Diet, sold for US$27.5 million, before fees, just below a presale estimate range (without fees) of US$30 million to US$40 million. With fees, the painting achieved US$32 million, above a US$30 million estimate. 

Records were set for Martin Wong, whose Portrait of Mikey Piñero at Ridge Street and Stanton sold for US$1.6 million; for Diane Arbus, whose famous image, Identical Twins (Cathleen and Colleen), Roselle, New Jersey, 1966, sold for nearly US$1.2 million; and for Reggie Burrows Hodges, whose In the Service of Others, made $882,000.

There was also deep bidding for Elizabeth Peyton’s Matthew, 1997, which sold for US$2 million, or nearly US$2.5 million, with fees, and Lynette Yaiadom-Boakye’s Black Allegiance to the Cunning, 2018, which sold for US$2.4 million, or nearly US$3 million, with fees. 

At Phillips, which was 89% sold by lot, Picasso’s Buste de femme au chapeau—estimated to achieve at least US$12 million—was withdrawn, as was Milton Avery’s Sunset Sea, with a US$1 million estimate. Among works that failed to sell was Frank Stella’s Lettre sur les sourds et muets II, 1974. Stella died earlier this month at age 87. 

There was strong bidding on several lots, however, including for Helen Frankenthaler’s Acres, which sold above its estimated range for US$3 million, or nearly US$3.7 million with fees. Jadé Fadojutimi’s The Pour sold for US$850,000, above a US$600,000 high estimate, or nearly US$1.1 million, with fees. 

Tuesday’s evening auctions followed Sotheby’s contemporary sales on Monday. Sotheby’s sale of modern art is Wednesday, which will be followed by Christie’s auction of 20th-century art on Thursday.