The Art Detective is a weekly column by Katya Kazakina for Artnet News Pro that lifts the curtain real going on in the art market.
Massive auction season has arrived, with over $1.9 billion worth of art for sale at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips. That is almost double the total from last May. The market feels feverish and there is more top quality art at once than we’ve seen in years.
“It feels like May 2008,” a major art dealer told me, referring to the peak of the market cycle just before the financial crisis.
The shipments come because of death and divorce, museum divestitures, and a seemingly insatiable appetite for blue-chip and emerging art.
The most expensive lot is Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe, valued at over $200 million at Christie’s. It comes from the estate of Thomas and Doris Ammann, the Swiss siblings, and the art is sold for charity. The auction house also acquired the collection of art patron Anne Bass, who passed away in 2020. The group of just 12 lots is valued at over $243 million, led by a pair of crimson Rothkos and a trio of Monets. The top lot is Rothko’s Shades of Red (1961) estimated at $60 million to $80 million.
Sotheby’s continues to relieve the trove of divorcees Harry and Linda Macklowe. The court-ordered sale brought in $676 million in November. The remaining batch could inject another $200 million into the market, led by a moody dark-skinned Rothko untitled (1960) estimated at $35 million to $50 million.
The biggest Basquiat of the season (both price and size) is untitled (1982), sold by the Japanese collector Yusaku Maezawa at Phillips. It is valued at $70 million and is backed by an irrevocable offer. Maezawa bought it from Christie’s six years ago for a record $57.3 million.
Institutions also contribute to the heat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is selling a Cubist sculpture by Picasso (it recently got another cast of the same work as a gift from Leonard Lauder), valued at $30 million at Christie’s. On the other side of town, the Toledo Art Museum expects to raise a whopping $64 million from the sale of three paintings— by Cezanne, Matisse and Renoir — at Sotheby’s.
Those are the sellers most people know when they go to the auction attack. But the art detective has identified other notable senders whose names aren’t in the catalogs.
The Mexican financier is the anonymous seller of Pollock’s Number 31 (1949), according to a person familiar with his collection. The work will be sold on May 12 at Christie’s for an estimated value of more than $45 million.
A Martinez representative said he often buys and sells art at auctions and will never comment on his activities because they are private.
Modest in size (31 inches long and 22 inches wide), the dripping painting on paper is a dazzling vortex of color and gesture. It was sold at auction in 1988 for $3.5 million and has been in private collections in the US and Japan ever since. The current owner acquired the work in 2006 from DL Fine Art in Geneva, a company affiliated with dealer Dominique Lévy, who is known to work with Martinez. In the same year, Martinez reportedly bought another much larger Pollock, number 5 (1948), for $140 million from David Geffen. (That figure is still the highest known price ever paid for the Abstract Expressionist master.)
Pollock’s auction record stands at $61 million for a larger but less distinctive black-and-white composition, Number 17 (1951), offered during the first part of the Macklowe Collection sale at Sotheby’s in November.
Robert Soros and Melissa Schiff Soros
The Macklowe Collection isn’t the only divorce-driven art sale this season. Andy Warhol’s Elvis (1963) comes to market as a result of the split between financier Robert Soros and Melissa Schiff. The iconic image of Elvis Presley brandishing a gun is valued at $15 million to $25 million. It is guaranteed and backed by an irrevocable offer, which means that it is as good as sold. According to its provenance, it previously belonged to Frederick Hughes, Warhol’s manager, and then to Jane Holzer, a collector and one of Warhol’s superstars. Soros acquired it in 1998.
Soros did not respond to an email asking for comment.
The mega collector, hedge fund titan and Mets owner is the anonymous seller of Naked woman is lying (1932), according to connoisseurs of his collection the most expensive Picasso of the season. It is valued at $60 million and will be offered at Sotheby’s on May 17.
The striking work shows Picasso’s young lover Marie-Thérèse Walter as an octopus-like creature against a pastel blue background.
Sotheby’s declined to comment on the seller’s identity. Representatives for Cohen did not call back for comment.
Cohen has owned the painting since 2008. Before that, it was in the collection of the Picasso family.
David Sambol sells various works from his collection at Christie’s evening and day auctions, according to acquaintances of the group. The most important of these are: Small deli (2001) by Wayne Thiebaud, estimated at $4 million to $6 million; Studio (2009) by Lisa Yuskavage, estimated at $700,000 to $1 million; and tumble shapes (2015) by George Condo, estimated at $1.5 million to $2.5 million.
Sambol, who sells anonymously, was not immediately available for comment. Christie’s declined to comment. The lots are classified in the catalog as ‘property from an important private collection’.
“He’s been collecting for 15 years,” said one person familiar with his property. “He just finished. Some collections have an expiration date. Not everyone is a King Tut and wants to be buried with them.”
Patrick De Pauw, a descendant of a Belgian collecting family, takes another crack in the sale of Francis Bacon’s Study for Red Pope 1962, 2nd version 1971 (1971), according to acquaintances of the collection. It was bought in 1973 and acquired by pedigree by a “private European collector” who sells anonymously, according to Sotheby’s provenance.
Estimated at $40 million to $60 million, the 1.5-foot-tall canvas will be on sale at Sotheby’s on May 19. The lot has an internal guarantee, so the sellers are paid regardless of the outcome of the auction.
This can be risky as the painting was not sold in 2017 when it was offered by Christie’s in London. At the time, it was valued at £60 million ($78 million). The low estimate is now almost half that, a smart move to spark interest.
It is Bacon’s only canvas depicting his beloved George Dyer and Pope Innocent X, two of the artist’s most famous subjects, in the same composition. They seem to be looking at each other through glass.
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