The richest art auction season in history continues this week


In light of Wednesday’s $1.5 billion Paul Allen auction, where just 60 works became the largest single-owner sale by value ever, it feels almost quaint to describe New York’s forthcoming November sales as “mega.” And yet in the next week, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips are set to auction roughly 2,000 lots estimated to total as much as $1.9 billion.

If anything, auction house specialists predicted the Allen sale will have injected confidence into a market wobbling, ever so slightly, from fears of a global recession. “It’s the oxygen that will make the art market’s pulse race,” says Brooke Lampley, Sotheby’s chairman and worldwide head of sales for global fine art, speaking ahead of the Allen auction. “People are looking to it as a bellwether.”

The sale’s success, she continues, “will alleviate any outstanding anxiety, trepidation, or concern people have about collecting art in this economic climate. It is a symbol to art buyers of every level that the leading financial investors and art collectors in the world believe in art, no matter what.”

Yet, while there are many, very expensive artworks on offer this week, none, excepting a Warhol that Sotheby’s estimates will sell for more than $80 million, comes close to the density of super-expensive pieces that the November sales have yielded in recent years.

“You’re looking at a smaller dollar amount,” acknowledges Alex Rotter, the chairman of Christie’s 20th and 21st century art department, regarding his Nov. 17 auctions, which have a cumulative high estimate of $619 million for 110 lots. “I thought it was much more healthy to construct the sale in a different price bracket, because we took a lot of air out of the $100 million market after the Allen sale.”

The Week’s Lineup

Still, the evening sales this week are nothing to sniff at. Sotheby’s will kick things off on Monday night with a double-header: First is the collection of David Solinger, a former president of the Whitney Museum who’s credited with turning the institution into an internationally recognized force in contemporary art. Solinger died in 1996; now, his heirs are selling 23 pieces from his collection, including a de Kooning that carries a high estimate of $25 million and a Miró that’s estimated to sell from $15 million to $20 million.

Immediately following that sale comes the auction house’s Modern Evening Auction, whose star lot is a Mondrian estimated to sell “in excess” of $50 million. If it exceeds that amount by even a $1 million, it will become the most expensive Mondrian ever sold at auction; the current record is $50.6 million, set in 2015 at Christie’s New York.

“It’s a pretty unique season in terms of the kind of pedigree and provenance that we’re able to offer,” says Lampley, name-checking Solinger along with works being sold by CBS founder William Paley’s foundation. “And that’s before we get to the extraordinary objects coming to the market for the first time in decades—that’s the best Mondrian you’re going to see on the market.” All told, Monday night’s sales at Sotheby’s are expected to exceed $410 million.

Tuesday night will be Phillips’s time to shine. Although the auction house is much smaller than its ostensible rivals, it’s managed, in recent years, to put together consistently solid sales with blue-chip lots. This year, its star is a 16-foot-wide Cy Twombly from 2005 that carries an estimate of $35 million to $45 million. When the hammer comes down on the final lot, Phillips’s 46 evening sale lots are anticipated to bring from $118.5 million to $165.3 million.

Contemporary Stars

Next come the big contemporary sales.  On Wednesday, Sotheby’s will hold yet another double header with its hyper-contemporary auction, the Now, estimated to sell from $32.4 to $47.2 million worth of art.

That’s followed by the Contemporary Evening Auction, which carries an overall estimate of $249.2 million to $316.6 million and includes the week’s most expensive lot, an $80 million Warhol. The 1963 silkscreen White Disaster [White Car Crash 19 Times] is 12-feet high and is part of Warhol’s Car Crash series; in 2013, a silkscreen from the series set a record when it sold for $105.4 million at Sotheby’s in New York.

Christie’s will get to put a punctuation mark on the week on Thursday night, when it combines its 20th century and 21st century auctions into a single evening. Top lots include two artworks estimated in the region of $35 million each: a de Kooning in the 20th century sale and a Basquiat from 1982. “We wanted to have a couple of high-impact lots that we were bullish on,” Rotter says, “like that de Kooning, which is going to be one of the stars of the sale.”

While these sales might not offer the masterpieces of the Allen auction (and to be fair, no sale has before, or probably will again), Rotter says that last week’s $1.5 billion result—$1.62 billion, if you include a second sale the following morning of lesser-priced works—could be a useful takeaway for everyone.

“It’s an injection of confidence,” he says. “If you buy the right stuff and buy what you love, there will be value in it forever.”

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