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Updated: May 8

Written by: Haomin Li

Curtains have fallen upon the great sales of modern and contemporary art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. The composed and charismatic auctioneers, as per usual, carried out the auctions with flying colours. Two of the three auctions that I selected in our last auction preview were white glove sales, which means that all lots in these two auctions were sold. Two of the three star lots that I analysed in some depth also performed very well. The final realised price (with fees) of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Versus Medici reached over the higher estimate, arriving at a stunning 50,820,000 USD; Pablo Picasso’s Femme Assise Près d'une Fenêtre, or Woman Sitting by a Window, reached 103,410,000 dollars (with fees), which is more than twice the higher estimate, making it one of the most expensive artworks ever sold in history. Surprise! However, the surprisingly high estimates (350,000,000 - 450,000,000 HKD / 45,000,000 - 58,000,000 USD) of Xu Beihong’s 《奴隸與獅》, or Slave and Lion, overreached themselves. Although Xu Beihong’s masterpiece enjoys its status as the single lot of an evening auction, it failed to sell. Surprise…

Sotheby’s New York - Contemporary Art Evening Auction

Totalling 218,313,850 dollars, Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction was an exceptionally successful sale with a large number of surprises. Amongst the 34 lots, 20 reached higher than the higher estimates; in turn, amongst the 20 lots, many exceeded their higher estimates exponentially, enthralling all the bidders and onlookers. What is especially wonderful is that many of these miracles were achieved by artists of colour and women artists. Salman Toor’s The Arrival, with the almost ‘humiliating’ estimates of 60,000 - 80,000 dollars, reached the applauded final price of 867,000 dollars (with fees). For another instance, Isamu Noguchi’s Woman with Holes II sold for 1,048,500 dollars (with fee) against the estimates of an unimpressive 300,000 - 500,000 dollars. Apart from these two examples, Elizabeth Peyton’s David Bowie (finally a woman artist with a male subject!) also surprised the art world with its striking 2,077,000-dollar sale against the pedestrian estimates of 500,000 - 700,000 dollars. Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction results are very revealing of the progressive tendency in today’s art world. Keep it up!

Elizabeth Payton, David Bowie, 2012

As for the star of the show, Basquiat’s Versus Medici, the realised price is only 820,000 dollars higher than its higher estimate of 50,000,000 dollars. Compared with his untitled work that was sold for 110,487,500 dollars in 2017, the result this time is much less satisfactory for a giant like Basquiat. The probable cause, as has been anticipated in our auction preview, is the liminal status of Versus Medici. Compared with that untitled skull, Versus Medici is a work that signifies the artistic transition from Basquiat’s early phase to his middle phase. In other words, Versus Medici is not treated as a ‘quintessential’ Basquiat by bidders and collectors. Sotheby’s problematic and somewhat preposterous attempt to link Basquiat intimately with Leonardo da Vinci also failed to further boost the price. Sure, linking modern and contemporary artists with the Old Masters is an effective way of entrenching them in Art History (academically) and boosting their prestige and price (commercially), but, I mean, everyone loves Leonardo da Vinci, and everyone has, at some point in their lives, seen a painting or read a manuscript by Leonardo — be they reproductions or the real deals. Everyone is, in a way, inspired by Leonardo, one of the most influential historical figures in the entire world, but one can’t just run around labelling everyone and everything as ‘inspired (read “certified”) by Leonardo’. Art lovers, please just treat Basquiat as Basquiat, a great artist in his own right.

Christie’s New York - 20th Century Evening Sale

With 49 lots on offer, Christie’s evening auction totalled 481,114,000 dollars. Much like Sotheby’s successful evening auction, Christie’s evening auction was also a smooth white glove sale. The sale contains virtually all the big names that you might immediately think of when the phrase, ’20th Century Art’, is whispered: Monet, van Gogh, Picasso, Hepworth, Warhol…

The star lot that we focussed on in my last article was Picasso’s Woman Sitting by a Window, a picture in which he used his young lover as model. This picture reached 9-digit in U.S. dollars, which is an absolutely mind-blowing feat, because the price is far more than enough for the painting to be written into the history of art auction. According to my count, this picture is the 41st most expensive painting ever sold in history.

Wayne Thiebaud, Toweling Off, 1968.

The auction itself was doubtless a great commercial success, but a worrisome gender-related issue revealed itself through the evening sale. In this sale, as in many other sales in the art world, all of the paintings and drawings featuring female subject matters depicted by male artists reached exceedingly and indeed alarmingly high prices. Picasso’s aforementioned work is a good example, but Henri Matisse’s Nu II and Wayne Thiebaud’s Toweling Off are simply much more revealing and worrying. Matisse’s Nu II depicts a naked woman in a highly sexualised and suggestive posture; the artist simultaneously erased the woman’s individual identity by omitting the depiction of her head — all these done quite conveniently. What adds to my concern is the high price of this lot. Being the first lot of the sale, it reached 1,710,000 USD, which is about 42.5% more than its higher estimate (1,200,000 USD). The price of Wayne Thiebaud’s Toweling Off is even more dramatic. Sure, the picture does not depict a nude woman, but it still depicts a maiden in distress (also without identity, as her face is covered in towel). The realised price for the lot is 8,489,500 USD. Guess what: it is about 372.6% higher than its higher estimate: 1,800,000 USD. There was a fierce bidding battle going on during the auction, which is telling enough of these bidders’ taste. Through the two lots (and SO many more examples), it is not too difficult to see that the objectification and sexualisation of women continue in the world of commerce, which is a sufficient indication that such patriarchal actions towards women in society are not going to cease any time soon. We have a long, long way to go.

Henri Matisse, Nu II, 1947

Christie’s Hong Kong - Xu Beihong: Slave and Lion

If the previous lots that we looked at seem to represent the commercially healthy side of art auctions, Xu Beihong’s Slave and Lion and the commercial manœuvre behind it potentially reveal the greed of some private collectors and the facilitation on the part of the auction house.

When Christie’s Hong Kong released the estimates for Xu Beihong’s oil painting, the art world in East Asia ‘exploded’. As far as I can remember, basically every art subscription in mainland China that I know of was covering the extremely high estimates of this Chinese masterpiece. Christie’s itself regarded highly of the painting as well; after all, they gave it the most prestigious status a painting for sale can get — the one single lot in an evening auction at one of the best auction houses in the world. Christie’s also put an accordingly huge amount of attention on the advertisement and promotion of this piece. Indeed, if the Xu Beihong had sold, it would become the most expensive Chinese oil painting ever sold in history. However, it didn’t. Even Christie’s itself was embarrassed by this failure after that evening, as they took down the special one-lot auction from its own website.

What happened then? Let’s start from the most recent provenance of this piece. The same Slave and Lion by Xu Beihong was actually sold not too long ago at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2006. A private collector based in Singapore bought the piece at 53,880,000 HKD against much less ambitious estimates. However, in 2021, Christie’s Hong Kong truly overstepped itself by setting the estimates nearly 10 times the realised price back in 2006… In 2021, the bidding for the Xu Beihong proceeded slowly yet steadily initially. The bidding started at 260,000,000 HKD, and the price went up gradually and reached 320,000,000 HKD through the bids from 3 phone bidders. Just when people were expecting the price to progress beyond the reserve, the bidding war into a standstill. There was then only one active bidder left on the phone, still deciding whether they should continue bidding. Five minutes passed — they quit the bidding war like the two other bidders, leaving the Xu Beihong unsold.

Why did I say that this result possibly reflected the greed of some private collectors? Well, it has everything to do with the reserve, which is usually set by the consignor with the auction house’s assistance. The reserve for Xu Beihong’s masterpiece is now quite clear after we have walked through the bidding process. The reserve is somewhere between 320,000,000 HKD and 350,000,000 HKD, as it must be higher than the highest bid during the auction and lower than the lower estimate (by definition). The private collector must have been very confident of the piece to have set the reserve so close to the lower estimate even when the estimates were so dramatically ‘bloated’. This is, as far as I am concerned, an extremely irrational and irresponsible move that a mature collector should avoid at all costs. None of this dramatic farce would have happened, of course, without the auction house’s appeasement or even facilitation…

Don’t let Icarus fly too close to the sun, or he might just fall right back unto the ground.



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