As much as a billion dollars' worth of postwar and contemporary art may change hands next week at Christie's and Sotheby's fall sales.
"A billion-dollar contemporary art sale will happen soon enough," Christie's specialist Koji Inoue told A.i.A. at a press preview.
"We now are seeing prices higher than in 2007 and 2008," Brett Gorvy, Christie's head of postwar and contemporary art, said at a preview, comparing the current art market to that before the recession. But, referring to expanding art markets in the Middle East, Asia and South America, he concluded, "We're not at the end of something; we're at the beginning of something."
"It's truly ‘Wall Street comes to the art market,'" Miami Beach-based art consultant Lisa Austin told A.i.A. when reached by phone last week. "When traders see this kind of money changing hands, why would they stay out of it?" She added, "There's a lot of quality work here. People sense that the market is on a tear, and they want to take advantage of that."
There are some controversial works on offer, including a group from the Dia Art Foundation, being sold at Sotheby's to establish an acquisitions fund. "Dia has always been about the art of our time," a Dia press representative told A.i.A. by phone this week. "Keeping Dia current is our goal, though there is no specific wish list of works in place."
Hedge fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen is also selling some artworks at both houses, including examples by Warhol, Richter and Brice Marden, according to the New York Times. Cohen's firm, SAC Capital, agreed this month to pay the government $1.2 billion to resolve charges of insider trading.
Christie's Nov. 12 sale, of 73 lots, is expected to bring from $500 million to $700 million. If the sale accomplishes its low estimate, the house will surpass its own record, for any auction, of $495 million, set in May 2013.
Christie's expects to set a record with its Francis Bacon triptych, Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969), which is tagged in excess of $85 million. The current $86.3 million Bacon record was set in May 2008 at Sotheby's New York by a 1976 triptych. (It was, at the time, the record for a contemporary work of art.) Each panel of the Freud work is 6½ feet high and contains a separate depiction of the artist, each with a distorted physiognomy. The painting portrays a longtime friend and rival, and has an unusual backstory: according to Gorvy, the panels were separated by an unscrupulous dealer in the mid-1970s, and remained separate for about 15 years; they were reunited by an assiduous collector in 1989.
"This piece is worthy of a high or record auction price," said Todd Levin, director of New York's Levin Art Group, talking to A.i.A. by phone this week. "I expect it to do very well."
Another anticipated record-setter at Christie's is Christopher Wool's Apocalypse Now (1988), which is estimated at $15 million to $20 million, far surpassing the current Wool record of $7.8 million, set at Christie's London in 2012. Inscribed in bold block capitals on a white background are the words "sell the house sell the car sell the kids" (referring to a letter from a soldier stationed in Vietnam in the 1979 film of the same name). Quoted in the catalogue, curator Richard Flood says of the work, "It offered such a simple, reductive solution for moving on that it became a kind of late-eighties mantra." Wool's solo show is now at New York's Guggenheim Museum (through Jan. 22, 2014). The work reportedly had been owned by former hedge-fund manager and museum trustee David Ganek and was scheduled to be in the show, but is now for sale by an unnamed seller.
Christie's anticipates Andy Warhol's Coca-Cola (3), 1962, will go for up to $60 million. The work, hand-painted on cotton (as opposed to silkscreened), features a black-and-white Coke bottle over 5½ feet in height, and the brand's iconic logo, also in black.
Other potential blockbuster items at Christie's include a 1957 Rothko abstract in orange and yellow, estimated to go for as much as $35 million; a giant orange Jeff Koons balloon dog sculpture from 1994-2000 for $35 million to $55 million; and a 1949 drip painting by Jackson Pollock for $25 million to $35 million.
The following night, Sotheby's 64-lot sale is expected to bring as much as $424.6 million. The sale includes nine works by Cy Twombly, seven by Warhol, and five works by John Chamberlain, including the Dia Foundation works.
Warhol's Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), 1963, a 13-foot-wide, two-panel painting, is the subject of 22 pages in the sale catalogue, including a fold-out reproduction. Estimated at $60 million to $80 million, it is one of a group of four "double disaster" canvases. The other three are in museum collections. The left panel shows 15 silkscreens of a car crash that become darker from top to bottom; the right panel is pure silver.
"Warhol was a practicing Catholic," auctioneer Tobias Meyer told A.i.A. at a preview, "so the repeated images serve something like the prayers in a litany, and the blank panel on the right approximates the white light you see when death approaches."
Sotheby's sale also includes a 1963 Liz #1 (Early Colored Liz), one of Warhol's trademark images of Elizabeth Taylor, estimated at $20 million to $30 million; according to the Times, it's one of the works on offer from Steven A. Cohen. Also reportedly from the trader's holdings is Richter's A.B. Courbet (1986), a 10-foot-high squeegee painting in red, yellow, blue and green. The piece is tagged at $15 million to $20 million.
The Dia works include Chamberlain's sculptural tribute to Warhol, Candy Andy (1963), which Sotheby's expects will bring as much as $3 million; a 24-inch-high Barnett Newman canvas, Genesis—The Break (1946), estimated at up to $4.5 million; and other works by Chamberlain and Cy Twombly.
At both houses, there are relative bargains to be found. Levin highlighted Joseph Cornell's Untitled (Compartmented Medici Princess [Bronzino]), a 15-inch-high shadowbox work. It is estimated to sell for $1.8 million to $2.2 million at Christie's sale on Tuesday.
"I expect the Cornell to do exceedingly well, his record having been smashed at the previous auction in May," Levin said. "I see no reason why this compartmented Medici box shouldn't exceed its estimate."
At the end of Christie's sale comes Cindy Sherman's Untitled 48 (1979), also known as "The Hitchhiker," from the "Untitled Film Stills."
"Of all Sherman's output, it's among the best known," Levin said. "The high estimate of $1.5 million seems very low to me. It's a once-in-a-blue-moon chance to own one of the most famous and desirable images that Sherman ever created."