Following the launch of the fall auction season in New York on Tuesday, Christie’s back-to-back sales of modern art and works from the collection of the late Texas oil magnate Edwin L. Cox, brought in a collective $751.9 million on Thursday.
The two sales achieved a collective 95 percent sell-through rate, with 77 out of the 81 lots offered finding buyers. Nearly half of the sales lots were secured with financial backing; 34 works from the sale had guarantees. The Cox collection far outpaced its expectation of $178.6 million, generating a total of $332 million. Likewise, the 20th century art evening sale exceeded its low estimate of $324.3 million, bringing in $419.9 million.
Christie’s auctioneer Adrien Meyer took to the rostrum on Thursday to lead the first portion of the night’s two-part sale, the results of which left the auction’s audience buzzing. He passed the gavel onto veteran auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen to lead the second part. In comparison to Tuesday’s fairly subdued contemporary art evening auction, Thursday’s two-pronged 3.5 hour-long event saw more spirited participation among the crowd and specialists due to excitement over the Cox collection’s long-held Impressionist works. Many of the prized paintings had not been seen in public for 50 years.
Van Gogh Stars in Cox Collection
The work that achieved the highest price from the Cox collection was van Gogh’s Cabanes de bois parmi les oliviers et cyprès (Wooden Huts Among Olive Trees and Cypress Trees), a landscape painting from 1889 featuring a set of olive trees. Estimated to fetch $40 million, the work soared past its estimate with nine bidders between New York, London, and Hong Kong bringing the hammer price up to a staggering $62 million. It went for a final price of $71 million to a bidder in the room.
The same buyer, bidding with paddle number 619, won another of the sale’s offerings of work by van Gogh. Four bidders competed for Meules de blé (1888), a work on paper depicting an outdoor scene of yellow haystacks in Arles, France, where the painter spent his last days before his death. The landscape scene, which sold for $35 million, was offered under a three-party restitution settlement. It was sold under duress by its original German-Jewish owner and looted from another in the years leading up to World War II. The sale’s proceeds are going to the heirs of Max Meirowsky, Alexandrine de Rothschild, and representatives for Cox’s estate.
Another work by van Gogh offered from the Texas mogul’s collection caused a stir. Jeune homme au bleuet (1889), depicting a red-haired young man holding a blue flower by the stem in his mouth was completed just weeks before the artist’s death and had been in the Cox collection since 1981. Two bidders on the phone with 20th century art specialist Conor Jordan and Hong Kong chairman Elaine Holt faced off for the work. After a lengthy pause between the two specialists, the work hammered with Jordan’s bidder and sold for $46.7 million. The result, which elicited cheers from the audience, was nine times the $5 million estimate. Another blockbuster work from the sale was Gustave Caillebotte’s Jeune homme a sa fenetre (1876), which sold for $53 million to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The result set a new record for the French artist.
Warhol Tops 20th Century Art Evening Sale
The work that fetched the highest price during the second portion of the night was Andy Warhol’s orange oxidized portrait of Jean Michel Basquiat from 1982. Coming to the sale with a guarantee, it was sold from the collection of Peter Brant. A bidder on the phone with New York chairman Alex Rotter triumphed over Christie’s European international senior director Isabelle de La Bruyere’s bidder to win the work—which sold well above its estimate of $20 million for a final price of $40 million.
Another big-ticket item was a Cy Twombly abstraction from 1961 sold by banker-turned-art dealer Robert Mnuchin, who had the work for nearly 20 years. Making its auction debut, it went for $32 million, hammering below its estimate of $30 million.
A large-scale Ed Ruscha painting, titled Ripe (1967), hammered at its low estimate of $18 million, to a lone bidder on the phone with Christie’s contemporary art specialist Sara Friedlander, selling for a final price of $20 million. The seller of the work was Houston art adviser Lea Weingarten, who shed her past as a convicted co-conspirator in the 2001 Enron fraud case to work in the art world.
There was one long undervalued artist with a rapidly rising market who triumphed in Christie’s sale. Lee Bontecou’s untitled abstract work made of welded steel, velvet, and wire on canvas sold for more than four times its low estimate of $2 million, finding a buyer on the phone with Christie’s head of client advisory Maria Los for $9.2 million. That sum more than quadrupled Bontecou’s auction record of $1.9 million, which had been set back in 2010 at Christie’s New York.
At a later point in the evening, another Warhol portrait outpaced expectations. The Pop artist’s silkscreened painting of a fight-ready Muhammad Ali signed by the boxing legend sold for $18 million, four times the low estimate of $4 million.
Six of the lots offered in Christie’s 20th century evening sale were consigned from the estate of Impressionist art collector Elene Canrobert Isles de Saint Phalle. The group comprised works by Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and James McNeill Whistler. From the collection, a rare Whistler self-portrait produced between 1856-1960 sold for $1.2 million, more than double the $800,000 high estimate.
Museum deaccessions were present in the sale as institutions continue to review their permanent collections amid the pandemic’s eased restrictions. UCLA sold a cubist-style portrait by Picasso titled Profil (1930) for $7.3 million to raise money for its acquisition fund. The Denver Art Museum did not find such success: Henri Matisse’s Jeune Femme au canape (1944), consigned by the museum, failed to sell at an estimate of $3 million.
Behind-the-scenes financial deals may have secured the fate of a number of works in this sale, but that didn’t hamper the auction’s energy. Bidding was well dispersed throughout New York, London, and Hong Kong, as well as among bidders in the room.
Following its season opener earlier this week, Christie’s managed to infuse life back into the auction circuit after a long pandemic hiatus erased action-packed live sales from the market’s calendar. Hosting the sale in a revamped venue minted with digital updates, the house further facilitated international bidding from Hong Kong and online, which elevated competition among buyers. The moves paid off, and the optimistic atmosphere figured in Meyer’s remark to the winning bidder of the Cox collection’s final van Gogh. “No regrets,” he said, “you won’t find another one of these soon.”