Heavy Hammers Fall at the New York Auction Houses

This year’s fall sales could be best remembered for what didn’t move
Willem de Kooning’s “Woman as Landscape,” an oil-on-canvas painting, yielded a record price of $68.9 million for the artist at the sale of the Barney A. Ebsworth collection on Nov. 13. Christie’s Images Ltd. 2018

Auction records were broken last week for artists both living and dead, including East Hampton’s own Willem de Kooning, but this year’s fall sales could be best remembered for what didn’t move.

At Phillips auction house, a small Jackson Pollock drip painting on Masonite with an estimate of about $18 million and a good deal of fanfare attracted no suitors last Thursday evening. Residents of Brazil, which houses the Museu de Arte Moderna Rio de Janeiro, may rejoice that their only Pollock on public view could still be available to them, at least until another effort to sell the painting is made. The museum has said that selling it was necessary to sustain its operations. It has been in the collection since 1952, when it was donated by Nelson Rockefeller, who had bought it from Betty Parsons in 1950, the year it was made.

One of the more successful marquee sales was the Barney A. Ebsworth collection at Christie’s. Mr. Ebsworth, who died earlier this year, was a travel-industry mogul whose lifelong quest for only the best examples of the artists he collected resulted in a world-class assemblage of 20th-century American art. The evening sale on Nov. 13 of 42 lots brought in $317.8 million. (All sales figures noted here include the buyer’s premium, a percentage of the sales price added to the final bid in the auction.) 

The Ebsworth auction has the added interest of being the first to include a “secure, encrypted certification of the sale for the successful bidder, providing a permanent digital record of relevant information about the artwork” through blockchain technology.

Several of the artists in this sale had East End ties, including Willem de Kooning, whose “Woman as Landscape” set a record for his work at nearly $69 million. He also had a drawing in the sale that did not sell. Pollock’s “Composition With Red Strokes” from 1950 was not a record-breaker, but it sold for a very respectable $55.4 million, not too far above the floor of its pre-sale estimate of $50 to $70 million. The de Kooning was also well within its range of $60 to $80 million, which seemed to be the trend for the week in general.

Arshile Gorky’s painting “Good Afternoon, Mrs. Lincoln” soared above its high estimate of $9 million to achieve more than $14 million. Gorky was part of the Hampton Bays Art Group, a loosely knit group of painters who lived or visited Hampton Bays and North Sea in the years leading up to Abstract Expressionism, of which this painting was an example.

Also selling well were Joan Mitchell, whose “12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock” netted more than $14 million. Adolph Gottlieb’s “Bonac” sold for $4.8 million, and Franz Kline’s “Painting” disappointed at $4.5 million, below its $5 million low estimate.  

In the day sale on Nov. 14, a Bruce Weber photo, “Fuller, Newfie Studio, Cedar, Michigan” sold for a relatively wallet-friendly $1,875. A large James Brooks painting surpassed its high estimate of $120,000 to sell for $187,500.

Christie’s regular Post-War and Contemporary Sale last Thursday evening featured a Mark Rothko work, “Untitled (Rusts, Blacks on Plum),” that sold for $35.7 million, just over its low estimate. Mitchell, who helped lead every sale her work was included in, achieved $8.75 million for a 1967 painting, “Russian Easter.” Richard Prince’s “Island Nurse” sold for nearly $5.5 million, and Vija Celmins’s drawing “Star Field” soared to $2.4 million over a $1.2 million high estimate. A few Andy Warhols were included in the sale and mostly sold in the $4 million to $6 million range; these included a “Paint by Numbers” and “Disaster” painting; a “Birth of Venus,” as well as a “Jackie” painting. Two de Koonings in the $4 to $6 million range did not find buyers.

The Christie’s day sale on Friday included works with estimates between around $8,000 and $2 million, with examples by Lee Krasner, Donald Sultan, Saul Steinberg, and Norman Bluhm along with some of the other artists previously mentioned. Many of those lots exceeded their high estimates, some by a factor of three.

At the Sotheby’s sale on Nov. 14, lots by de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Mark Rothko, Warhol, and Prince contributed to a $314-million total for 54 lots. De Kooning’s “Amityville” from 1971 and “Untitled X” from 1977 were responsible for $11.6 million and $8.3 million, respectively. Two works by Rothko together added another $10 million. Two Lichtenstein paintings yielded $12.7 million. In a special sale of works from an individual collector, David Teiger, another de Kooning painting from 1987 fetched $9.3 million, close to its high estimate of $10 million.

Sotheby’s day sale last Thursday featured Julian Schnabel’s “Large Rose Painting (Near Van Gogh’s Grave),” which sold for $1.2 million, within its estimate. Two “Untitled Film Stills” by Cindy Sherman, #33 and #60, sold for $399,000 and $225,000. respectively, and a third, #107, sold for $62,500.

The day sale also included a fluorescent sculpture by Dan Flavin and work by Ross Bleckner, John Chamberlain, George Condo, Elizabeth Peyton, Robert Gober, Robert Motherwell, James Rosenquist, Warhol, and de Kooning. A de Kooning work on paper titled “East Hampton IV” sold within its estimate, at $312,000.

Two Gottlieb drawings exceeded expectations, with one of his untitled “Bursts” selling for $225,000, significantly more than its high estimate of $60,000. His untitled “Pictogram” sold for $106,250 (over a high estimate of $70,000). A Gottlieb oil on canvas, “Mood,” sold for $1.179 million, just below its estimate. Lee Bontecou’s sculpture “Do” sold for $567,000, with a pre-sale estimate of $300,000 to $400,000.

Earlier in the week, David Killen continued to sell his recently found de Kooning drawings, adding two more to his Nov. 11 sale. These included “Untitled III,” an oil on newspaper from 1976, and “Untitled IV,” a large-format oil on paper. “Untitled III” sold for more than $32,000 and “Untitled IV” sold for close to $600,000. The third and last sale will be held on Dec. 9.