The art market has gone on a diet. Two years ago, Christie’s sold a single painting by Leonardo da Vinci for $450 million during a series of major fall auctions in New York. This week, the auction house will need to sell nearly an entire week’s worth of offerings to cross that mark.
Starting Monday, the world’s chief auction houses—Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips—will test the appetites of top collectors by seeking to sell an estimated $1.2 billion worth of impressionist, modern and contemporary art, down 24% from similar sales last fall. The whittled expectations are a sign sellers are wary to part with their trophies at a time when broader global markets are weighed down by trade wars, Brexit and political scandals, dealers said. Buyers also appear to be filling in specific gaps in their holdings rather than splurging for everything as they were a few seasons ago.
“This season, there just weren’t that many objects above $20 million that people want to sell,” said Max Carter, head of Christie’s impressionist and modern art department. On top of that, there wasn’t a plum estate up for grabs this fall, so each object had to be chased down individually, he said, adding, “It’s a lumpy business.”
As a result, auctioneers are no longer seeking to outdo each other by announcing ever-climbing, $100 million-plus asking prices for works. The priciest piece this time around is Ed Ruscha’s turquoise-and-yellow wordplay painting from 1964, “Hurting the Word Radio #2,” which Christie’s aims to sell for at least $30 million on Wednesday. The seller is California collector Joan Quinn, whose Beverly Hills lawyer husband, Jack, died two years ago. The house played up its trophy potential by designing a room for the painting within its Rockefeller Center headquarters that aims to evoke a 1960s sound booth complete with cork floors, creamy felt-covered walls and a time-capsule playlist. “It’s a lot of Mamas and the Papas,” said Alex Rotter, chairman of postwar and contemporary art.
Another potential heavyweight for the week is Claude Monet’s foggy, 1903 view of a London train snaking across “Charing Cross Bridge,” which Sotheby’s expects to sell from the estate of Holocaust survivor and collector Andrea Klepetar-Fallek on Tuesday for at least $20 million. There is also Mark Rothko’s 1953 “Blue Over Red” abstract estimated by Sotheby’s to sell Thursday for at least $25 million. Phillips has a 1981 Jean-Michel Basquiat red painting of a boxer, “The Ring,” that’s estimated to sell the same day for $10 million.
In these top cases, the sellers have elected to play it safe by securing guarantees from the auction houses. Guarantees are financial mechanisms that allow collectors to avoid the risks that their works won’t find buyers by agreeing to sell them to the houses directly or to prearranged bidders at undisclosed prices in the event that bidders don’t bite in the moment. But if a rival bidder offers more during the auction, it will sell for the stated price.
August Uribe, head of Sotheby’s impressionist and modern art department, said the houses know “if we can park a picture” with a third-party guarantee, essentially pre-selling it, “we can focus on the rest.”
For him, that effort has involved shipping 69 works from his department alone to cities around the world like Taipei and Jakarta to preview them to potential bidders in recent weeks. (Mr. Uribe’s Tuesday evening sale only has 53 pieces, so he also presented works from his day-long series of lower-priced items.)
With trophies largely off the menu this time, expect newer bidders to chase harder after quirky examples by well-known artists like surrealist René Magritte—he has nine works in the evening sales alone—as well as major pieces by artists currently enjoying market revivals like abstract painters Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell. Christie’s plans to ask at least $12 million for Ms. Mitchell’s 1971 “Plowed Field,” giving the market a fresh test of the appeal and price levels for her non-bouquet works.
After Sotheby’s sold $102 million worth of pieces from the estate of sculptors Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne in Paris last month, Christie’s is also doubling down by offering its own “Menagerie” sale on Tuesday. It will be replete with brassy animal objects like Mr. Lalanne’s 1969 bathtub shaped like a hippopotamus, which is estimated to sell for at least $1 million.
Sotheby’s will try to expand the canon of its evening-sale catalogs by introducing a 1962 work by Norman Lewis, “Ritual,” a composition that at first glance appears to be a swath of cheery colors dotted across a blue abyss but actually hints at troubling realities in U.S. history. Mr. Lewis, a once-overlooked African-American peer of Willem de Kooning and the rest of the Abstract Expressionists, aims to evoke a nighttime meeting of the Ku Klux Klan with flickering brushstrokes, said David Galperin, head of Sotheby’s contemporary art sale. “Ritual” is estimated to sell for at least $700,000. His inclusion in Sotheby’s evening sale for the first time comes as auction houses seek to capitalize on growing interest among curators and collectors in artists who have been historically overlooked.
One of the least-known names in this series may be Finnish Symbolist painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela, whose 1892-94 landscape, “Palokärki (Great Black Woodpecker Or Wilderness),” also appears pastoral but hints at social ills. The work, for sale at Sotheby’s for at least $1.8 million, was created at a time when local artists were forbidden from criticizing occupying Russian forces. Mr. Gallen-Kallela found a way around the rules by painting idyllic scenes featuring his homeland’s much-loved woodpecker—the Finnish equivalent of the American bald eagle.
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Phillips, for its part, has included a Norman Rockwell doctor’s office scene, 1958’s “Before the Shot,” with a low estimate of at least $2.5 million, in its 20th century sale on Thursday.
A shortage of supply partly explains why auction houses are hustling to shoehorn pieces from other collecting categories into a week traditionally reserved for sales of impressionist masterworks and edgy newcomers—but novelty-driven collectors are also “looking for new stories all the time,” Mr. Galperin added.
“The canon of art history is getting rewritten in MoMA’s new galleries and in universities and here in the marketplace,” he said. “These areas all inform each other.”
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