The new “hybrid” auction: is it worth it?

A rather odd experiment has come out of the COVID pandemic—although it’s unclear if it really has anything to do with the pandemic—and that’s the merging of departments to create a sale of mixed 19th, 20th and 21st century works. With a few rare exceptions—da Vinci’s Salvatore Mundi and a T-Rex fossil were both recently sold in contemporary art sales—the decades-long modus operandi of the auction world has been to host sales in the category of Impressionist and Modern art separately from Postwar and Contemporary art. This year amidst COVID, Christie’s started a trend of doing a global “relay” sale, which starts in Asia in the evening, and seamlessly continues in New York the same morning. Now, this December, Sotheby’s offered its first Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art sale, based in New York.

Sanyu, Goldfish, 1930s-1940s, sold for almost $22 million in its own auction at Christie’s in Hong Kong. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

But, to make it more confusing, Sotheby’s also still offered its normal day and evening sales in New York in the separate categories of Impressionist and Modern, and Postwar and Contemporary (October 28th). Christie’s also still offered daytime sales in both categories in New York (December 3rd and 4th), and a few hours before the global relay sale on December 2nd, Christie’s also held a Modern and Contemporary Art Evening sale in Hong Kong, with offerings from an international but largely Asian-leaning roster of artists. Then there was a “separate” auction at 8 pm for a single work of art: Sanyu’s fantastic Goldfish (1930s-40s) which sold for about $21,950,000 (170,170,000 HKD). Then the relay auction—”20th Century: Hong Kong to New York”—finally officially began at 8:30 PM.

What was the point of these mixed sale experiments? There is undoubtedly a utility to separating art by category, so that a collector of, say, Cubism, knows to follow the Impressionist & Modern sales. But, given that the “connoisseur” collector seems to be a dying breed, perhaps the auction houses think it makes more sense to separate buyers by price point, and organize their sales not by date/style, but by quality. This is, in fact, how other auction departments can function—a jewelry or furniture department will separate out its “exquisite” from its “fine” property, for example (and technically, the house’s daytime and evening sales already do this separation of “fine” and “exquisite”). But will this condensing of 150 years of art really make a difference for the art market? Or does this model only further commodify art, and further stratify collectors: the ultra-wealthy collectors and everyone else? All I know is, it’s been highly confusing trying to track these sales, and I’ll go crazy trying to recap all of this, so we’re going to focus on these hybrid sales to see how they did.

Dana Schutz, Elevator, 2017, set a record for the artist at $6.5 million. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

At Christie’s in Hong Kong, where daily reported cases remain low, the auction house hosted a hybrid format of live auction—with dealers and collectors in the audience—and remote bidding via phones and online. With New York’s infection rate tipping towards 5%, bidding remained remote. The sale started off fairly strong in Hong Kong, with a handful of world records set for artists: Dana Schutz’s 2017 Elevator—which was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial with her controversial painting of Emmett Till—sold for more than 2.5 times its high estimate to bring about $6.5 million (50,050,000 HKD), shattering her previous record of $2.4 million set last year.

Amoako Boafo, Baba Diop, 2019, set a new record for the artist at $1.14 million. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

Baba Diop (2019), a portrait by the new art world darling Amoako Boafo, sold for $1.14 million (8,890,000 HKD), shattering the record his painting The Lemon Bathing Suit (2019) set in February earlier this year at Phillips in London $880,900 (675,000 GPB). Like many emerging artists, Boafo has expressed displeasure that collectors are flipping his works for such steep profits. And the very much under-appreciated French postwar artist Georges Mathieu set a new record for his explosive Souvenir de la maison d’Autriche (Remembering the House of Austria) from 1978, which brought $2.23 million (17,290,000 HKD).

Georges Mathieu, Souvenir de la maison d’Autriche (Remembering the House of Austria), 1978, set a record for the artist at $2.23 million. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

The New York leg of the auction was a more muted affair, with several works hammering at or below their pre-sale estimates, including Andy Warhol’s Small Campbell’s Soup Can (1962; $6 million with fees), Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Baigneuse au bracelet, Andrée (c. 1917; $2.19 million with fees), and Robert Rauschenberg’s Drawing for Dante’s 700th Birthday (1965), which, even with the buyer’s premium, didn’t break its low estimate of $1.2 million (it sold for $1.014 million). Is it possible that the lack of live audience made for less energetic bidding than the Hong Kong side of the sale? Possibly.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Baigneuse au bracelet, Andrée, c. 1917, did not perform very well, selling for $2.19 million. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

The real winner and standout piece of New York’s offerings in the relay sale was Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s stunning painting of his favorite model, Carmen Gaudin, called Pierruse from 1889. The painting came from the collection of automotive mogul Henry Ford II, and had never been offered at auction before. The provenance no doubt helped the painting burst past its estimate of $3–5 million, selling for just over $9 million with fees.

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierruse, 1889, sold very well at $9 million. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

Sotheby’s hybrid sale, spanning 150 years of art, had a healthy total hammer value of $52.9 million against a cumulative pre-sale estimate of $40.1–58.6 million. The sale started off with a bang with Barkley L. Hendrick’s excellent Mr. Johnson (Sammy from Miami), 1972, which broke through its pre-sale estimate of $2–3 million to sell for just over $4 million with fees—a new record for the late artist.

Barkley L. Hendricks, Mr. Johnson (Sammy from Miami), 1972, set the artist’s new record at $4 million. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The next headline grabber was Alexander Calder’s fabulous mobile, Mariposa (1951). This piece came from the corporate collection of Neiman Marcus, which is selling off its holdings since filing for bankruptcy. The mobile sold for more than double its high estimate, or $18 million with fees.

Alexander Calder, Mariposa, 1951, sold for over $18 million. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The other big surprise of the evening came with Matthew Wong’s Pink Wave, a 48 x 60-inch oil on canvas dated to 2017. Tragically, the artist committed suicide in 2019 just as his career was taking off. But, as one might expect, the death of the artist makes for a finite inventory, which has accelerated his market: Pink Wave exploded past its pre-sale estimate of $300,000 – 400,000 to sell for $2.35 million with fees. Believe it or not, that makes it only the third highest auction result for the late artist.

Matthew Wong, Pink Wave, 2017, sold for $2.35 million. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Despite these marquee prices, the success of Sotheby’s hybrid sale is misleading: one might be confused by the mention of Milton Avery and Edvard Munch works in the press release, neither of which was included in the sale. Artnet reports that nearly twenty-percent of the entire sale was withdrawn prior to the auction, ostensibly because tepid pre-sale interest augured poor results. No bueno.

Are these hybrid sales worth it? I’m not yet convinced, but obviously it’s a new experiment that needs further testing.

2020 was a challenging year for the art world—galleries and art fairs certainly reported lower sales, and many arts professionals find themselves under- or unemployed. But, as we have seen with the ever-widening wealth gap in this country, the ultra-wealthy have been doing just fine. Sure, some have tightened their purchases and prioritized other investments in this economic downturn, and the market reflects some of that conservatism. But with artist records still being broken, and many millions still spent on blue chip artists, the .01% are still keen to buy art. Unfortunately, only .01% of galleries and artists are benefitting from this patronage. I may be one of the few art advisors you’ll hear say this, but here it is: we need the market to continue to contract before the art world implodes.

A Few Favorites from Art Basel Miami Beach’s OVRs

As it did for its other two iterations in Basel, Switzerland and Hong Kong, Art Basel of course had to take its Miami Beach art fair online due to COVID. But apparently the pandemic didn’t stop sales; according to a few media reports, Art Basel Miami Beach’s online version generally sold better than other virtual art fairs this year. Could it be the promise of the vaccine that spurred consumer confidence? The fact that the election is behind us? Or were the offerings just more enticing to buyers at Art Basel Miami Beach? Hard to say.

It turns out that scouring online viewing rooms (OVRs)–which are no different than websites, but they’ve kindly included pricing in a nice and very rare touch of transparency–is just as exhausting as going through these massive art fairs in person. Alas, my eyeballs were sore before I could see every OVR, but I’ve included below a few highlights from what I saw, and, when available, pricing info.

Enjoy!!

Andrew Edlin Gallery of New York offered some lovely postwar works, including this cosmically explosive 1957 painting by Eugene von Bruenchenhein, Untitled (No. 583, April 30, 1957), for between $50,000 – 75,000 (24 x 24 inches). The American artist (1910-1983) was a private, outsider artists whose art was not discovered until after he died.

Eugene von Bruenchenhein, Untitled (No. 583, April 30, 1957), 1957. Image courtesy of Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York.

This stunning photograph by Kwame Brathwaite (American, b. 1938) at once draws on classic Northern Renaissance portraiture, but also feels incredibly fresh and contemporary. Philip Martin Gallery (Los Angeles) sold the work in the range of $4,000 – 12,000, a great deal if you ask me, especially since the artist has an upcoming retrospective at the Blanton Museum of Art (June – September, 2021).

Kwame Brathwaite, Untitled (Clara Lewis Buggs with Yellow Flower), 1962 (printed 2020). Courtesy of Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles.

Pae White‘s intricate, luminous 42 x 42-inch mixed media work Luna (2020), caught my eye—and someone else’s, because it was sold by the time I saw it. White (American, b. 1963) calls these works “Paper Tapestry Paintings,” and her dealer, Kaufmann Repetto Gallery of Milan and New York, notes that the shimmer is achieved with car enamel over paper clay on wood panel. Preeeettty….

Pae White, Luna, 2020. Image courtesy of Kaufmann Repetto Gallery, Milan and New York.

Can’t afford Joan Mitchell (whose untitled 1956 painting sold at David Zwirner for $1.2 million), or the other mid-century abstractionists? Try Elizabeth Neel (American, b. 1975), the granddaughter of famed figure painter Alice Neel (whose Estate Zwirner also represents, and sold Neel’s portrait of Aaron Kramer for $750,000). Salon 94 was selling some lovely pieces by the younger Neel at ABMB, including this fantastic acrylic on canvas, Scanning the Meridian Sun (2020, 46 x 76 inches). Sold by the time I saw it, so price unknown, but other abstract works by the artist were in the range of $45,000 – 65,000.

Elizabeth Neel, Scanning the Meridian Sun, 2020. Image courtesy of Salon 94, New York.

Where’s the party? Nicholas Party is blowing up right now: his 2014 Still Life of pears set his auction record at Christie’s this month, bringing about $1.35 million (10,450,000 HKD), and at Art Basel, artnet reports at least three works of his selling, including this arresting pastel on linen Portrait with Red Flowers (2020) from Hauser & Wirth for $300,000.

Nicholas Party, Portrait with Red Flowers, 2020. Image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth, New York.

I do love me some American regionalist art. Hirschl & Adler‘s “Of the People” online exhibition featured figurative artists who “have grappled with the human condition in all its multi-faceted depth and complexity.” Among the lovely collection of 20th century works was this impressive 1953 canvas by Jules Kirschenbaum (American, 1930-2000), titled Without the Hope of Dreams (86 x 39 inches), available for $135,000. (Image courtesy of Hirschl & Adler, New York.)

I wish I could cover more, but alas, there’s just too much good art. I’ll leave you with this numinous and mesmerizing video work from Shahzia Sikander (Pakistani, b. 1969), Reckoning (2020; ed. of 7 + 2 APs). Available from Sean Kelly Gallery for $75,000. I have admired Sikander’s mosaic works, but this is the first video work I’ve seen. I dig it. The artist has a traveling show opening at The Morgan Library in New York in June 2021.

Watch with sound on!!

Shahzia Sikander, Reckoning, 2020. Video courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York.

On Spirituality & Art: Avant-Garde Art Advisory’s New Mission

If you’ve been to my website before, you might notice a few changes to the look and language of the site…well, Avant-Garde’s art advisory has refined our mission, and I wanted to take this opportunity to explain in greater detail what inspired this new direction, and what it means. (Note the appraisal arm of my business remains the same!)

In 2019, I was suffering some stress in regards to my business. Some people recommended therapy or medication, and while those solutions can have their merits, I wanted something more sustainable: I sought a spiritual-wellness practice that would help bring some balance and harmony to my life. I listened to the wisdom of several spiritual leaders and thought leaders from various backgrounds and affiliations: from Buddhist monks to Christian pastors, spiritual gurus to enlightened doctors and academics. Some consistent (and perhaps self-evident) themes were that 1) we are all one. The racial, cultural, or political differences between us are an illusion; and 2) nearly everyone lauded the benefits of meditation, because it focuses our awareness in the present. We only exist in the present moment, the here and now.

It was not long after that I had an epiphany: wait a minute…art is my spiritual practice!

Cezanne-Still Life w Apples Getty
Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Apples, c. 1893-94 (Getty Center, Los Angeles)

Experiencing art is an intuitive practice in mindfulness—it is about presence, compassion, and awakening to that greater “oneness.” When I spend a few hours at a museum or gallery-hopping in Chelsea, I enter a contemplative state akin to meditation: I am present with the art, and I am in a heightened state of awareness. I feel abundant peace and calm at the end of my art outing, and that’s because art is a physical manifestation of a higher consciousness, or awareness. Artists are like shamans: they tap into that higher awareness and put it into form, to share it with us. That is why the best art has something a little unknowable about it…a veil of otherworldliness to it.

Mark Rothko - Untitled
Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1952

Several spiritual leaders and scholars have lauded art as an expression of our higher spiritual selves, such as proponents of the Baha’i faith, Joseph Campbell, Josef Pieper, and Eckhart Tolle, to name just a few. And of course, countless artists have conceptualized their own creations as serving the spiritual, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Wassily Kandinsky, Mark Rothko, Anish Kapoor and Marina Abramovic, to name a few. It is important to clarify, however, that I am not advocating for a category of “spiritual art”—that is, spiritual or divine forces do not need to be the subject of a work of art for it to be spiritually resonant (and honestly, much of what you see online that is described as “spiritual art” tends to be way too literal and just…blech). You can have a transcendental experience with an Expressionist painting, Greek sculpture, street photograph, Chinese scroll, video installation—truly, any and all good* art is ripe for a spiritual experience (*the question of what is constitutes “good art” is an age-old question and unfortunately, too complicated to get into at present…).

With so many other great thinkers before me commenting on the spirituality of art, you may be wondering, So Emily, what makes your great epiphany so special? You’re obviously not the first person to think of art in spiritual terms.

Well, there’s two reasons I think Avant-Garde’s revamped mission is timely and novel.

First, I believe that many in the art world have lost touch with the true meaning and power of art, because the industry has been corrupted by avarice and materialism. The .01 percent has put their megawatt spending power into the trendiest artists, but this has actually had detrimental implications for the rest of the art market. Prices for blue-chip artists have skyrocketed out of control; in light of the multimillion-dollar records broken every auction season, “merely affluent” buyers “assume the $50,000 work they can afford is not worth buying,” the New York Times reported last year. Without these buyers, smaller galleries have been closing, or losing their best artists to what art critic Jerry Saltz calls the “Mega Death Star” galleries that cater to the super-rich. It is increasingly clear that only the .01 percent of buyers, galleries, and artists are benefitting from this apparently “flourishing” art market.

Jeff Koons - Rabbit
Jeff Koons’ Rabbit sold at auction in May 2019 for over $91 million.

All this is to say that I feel the corruptive forces of money have created a top-heavy art market that does not honor the true, transcendental purpose of art: to bring us closer to our higher selves. Avant-Garde seeks to counter the art world’s materialism by encouraging our collectors to first and foremost connect to art on a deeper, intuitive level, and support artists and galleries that resonate with them, regardless of their art-world status. And rather than conceiving of art-buying as “collecting” art—a rather possessive and egotistic notion—we encourage buyers to think of themselves as art caretakers or hosts, welcoming the art into their space like an honored guest that will share its beauty and wisdom.

We encourage buyers to think of themselves as art caretakers or hosts, welcoming the art into their space like an honored guest that will share its beauty and wisdom.

The second reason I believe Avant-Garde’s mission is unique is that, quite simply, I do not know any arts professional that has ever addressed how to have a spiritual connection to a work of art. Put another way: any talk of spirituality in art tends to be an armchair intellectual exercise. In graduate school, for instance, I read artist Wassily Kandinsky’s 1910 treatise On the Spiritual in Art; we discussed it in the classroom, and wrote response papers addressing its philosophical points. But my professor never encouraged us to stand before a Kandinsky and really try to internalize his message, and write about that feeling. I do not mean to discredit the academic community, or dismiss the intellectual value of art, which is important. But no amount of reading about the spirituality of art will ever approximate the direct experience of it. Or, to quote artist Marina Abramovic: “Nobody’s life is changed by somebody else’s experiences. I want more from the public. I want them to be involved and to go through changes as I do.”[1]

Abramovic - TheArtistisPresent
Marina Abramovic, The Artist is Present, performance piece at the Museum of Modern Art, 2010.

The truth is that you do not need a PhD in art history to “get” a work of art. Anyone can have a spiritual experience of a work of art if they apply the principles of mindfulness: presence, awareness, and compassion. Avant-Garde works with our clients to cultivate mindful contemplation of art; we encourage collectors to begin from an intuitive experience of art, to which we add our art historical and market expertise. In service of this mission, I will also be offering contemplative art tours each month, and speaking engagements that can bring a mindful art experience to your community, conference, or even office lunch hours.

The goal of life is rapture. Art is the way we experience it.
–Joseph Campbell

The most beautiful thing is that the benefits of a mindful art interaction go far beyond the walls of your lived spaces: you’ll find yourself bringing that mindfulness into the rest of your life—heightening your awareness as you walk down the street, noticing beautiful details of the world you hadn’t noticed before. If you find yourself inspired by our message, please contact Avant-Garde to see how we can work together. Whether you’re a complete novice to art or spirituality, we’d love to cultivate your interest in both.

Peace, Love, and Art,

Signature

Emily Casden, Director

[1] “Toward a Pure Energy,” Germano Celant in conversation with Marina Abramovic, in Germano Celant, Marina Abramovic, Public Body: Installations and Objects, 1965–2001, Milan: Edizioni Charta, 2001, p. 17.