A Record-Breaking Year at Auction: A Look Back at 2013

Leading experts to conclude that a new dawn for the art market has begun, leaving the Great Recession of 2008 in the dust
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As 2013 comes to a close, the art world can claim it a year of resurrection, with auction sales blowing through the roof as the months marched on. Along with record-breaking sales, the entire market jumped up a whopping 27 percent from 2012, leading experts to conclude that a new dawn for the art market has begun – leaving the Great Recession of 2008 in the dust, at least for now. Top-tier buyers from China, Russia and the Middle East were on the hunt for big names in modern art, driving up sales and excitement at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and pushing the booming art market onto the front page of newspapers around the globe.

In the auction room at Christie’s New York, Courtesy Christie’s Auction House.

Auction sales this year have proven that the very, very rich are alive and well, and definitely interested in investing in museum-quality works of art. As far as paintings go, the work by big name artists made the most moves skyward, with the super successful sales being of high quality. That said these prize pieces were also extremely expensive. Both major auction houses hit new highs, with Christie’s climbing from $973.5 million in 2012 to an exciting $1.4 billion in 2013, leaving Sotheby’s in the dust at $851.7 million, still a significant spike from $794.7 million in 2012.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969. Courtesy Christie’s Auction House.

By and large, the most talked about auction was the sale of Francis Bacon’s triptych, Three Studies of Lucian Freud from 1969, which blew records off the charts by attaining $142.4 million at Christie’s on November 12. The painting sold for $22.5 million above the previous record holder for most expensive painting bought at auction, which was Edvard Munch’s The Scream, sold in May of 2012 at Sotheby’s for $119.9 million. Three Studies of Lucian Freud was especially coveted, as it is not only one of two existing full length tripytchs of Freud, but the three pieces were also separated for 15 years in the 1970s, before being reunited by the seller. The piece was sold to Acquavella Galleries on behalf of an undisclosed client, and its high price also contributed to a record for Christie’s itself, which sold $692 million of art in the three hours of the evening sale alone, pushing the auction house into lead position in the art market.

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Orange), 1994-2000, Courtesy Christie’s Auction House.

Another significant art world milestone is of the crowning of Jeff Koons as the new holder of the World Auction Record for a Living Artist, formerly held by 81-year-old Gerhard Richter. Also in the November 12 auction at Christie’s, Koons’ stainless steel Balloon Dog (Orange) pulled in $58.4 million, $3.4 million above the high estimate, and was sold by Peter M. Brant. Koons has also been drumming up publicity in 2013, forging burgeoning friendships with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, as well as designing the cover of Lady Gaga’s new album, Art Pop. Aside from his celebrity antics, Koons also held rival shows filling both Gagosian and David Zwirner Galleries this spring, and his upcoming retrospective opening at the end of June 2014 will be the last exhibition at the Whitney’s Breuer building uptown, before it moves to its new Meatpacking digs.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Dustheads, 1982, Courtesy Christie’s Auction House.

The museum-quality exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat works at the cavernous Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea drew continuous lines in the chilly weather, during its run from February 7 to April 6. Soon after the exhibition closed, Basquiat’s piece Dustheads, which refers to the drug PCP (also known as angel dust) broke the artist’s own auction record. Again a Christie’s coup, the piece sold for $48.8 million at the Postwar and Contemporary Art Sale on May 15th, blasting through its estimate of $25 million to $35 million.

Andy Warhol, Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), 1963, Courtesy Sotheby’s Auction House .

Although outshined by the string of successful auction lots at Christie’s, Sotheby’s did make news, by setting a new record for Andy Warhol. In the November Contemporary Art Evening Sale, up on the block was the highly anticipated Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), a piece only shown publicly once since 1987. Pulling in $105.4 million, the bidding easily surpassed the pre-sale, high estimate of $80 million. The giant piece, which measures 8 by 13 feet, exceeded Warhol’s previous auction record by $30 million. While they pale only in comparison to Silver Car Crash, other Warhols fetched prices above expectation in November, including Coca-Cola (3) which went for $57.2 million at Christie’s, and Liz #1 (Early Colored Liz) for $20.3 million, which selling at Sotheby’s, also exceeded its high estimate.

In the auction room with Andy Warhol’s Liz #1 (Early Colored Liz), Courtesy Sotheby’s Auction House.

The energetic To Fellini by Philip Guston, which evokes Impressionism, Franz Klein and phrenetic movement, wowed spectators at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Sale in May. The widely-shown picture was another that went for more than double its high estimate, nabbing $25.8 million. Jackson Pollock’s 1948 painting Number 19 in the same May sale reached $58.4 million over its $35 million high, yet another record for the artist’s work sold at auction.

Jackson Pollock, Number 19, 1948. Courtesy of Christie’s Auction House.

Even Americana is making waves. In the recent December 4 American Art Sale at Sotheby’s, Normal Rockwell’s classic Saving Grace more than doubled its high estimate. The picture sold for an unheard of $46 million, breaking the artist’s own record (formerly at $15.4 million), as well as the record price paid for an American painting.

Philip Guston, To Fellini, 1958. Courtesy of Christie’s Auction House.

Despite the headlines these grandiose auction house victories do not necessarily represent the art world as a whole, but instead show the rise of big spenders who want a sure thing, buying big names as if they were AAA rated stocks. According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, the rich are getting richer, rising $422.2 billion in net worth amongst the leading 200 billionaires around the world. And with this rise, especially in places like China, Russia and the Middle East, comes a taste for very expensive art, which doesn’t mean it will bring the mid-sized faction of the art world with it. Mega-galleries like Gagosian, David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth and Pace are growing their empires with name brand artists and super-sized price-tags while mid-sized galleries, like Nicole Klagsbrun, are closing their brick and mortar spaces and opting for temporary pop-ups.

Norman Rockwell, Saying Grace, 1951. Courtesy Sotheby’s Auction House.

Will 2014 continue the upward push of auction prices into an even higher echelon, or are we in another bubble that is about to burst? The art world awaits the coming year with bated breath.

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