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June 26, 2020, 4:43 p.m. EDT

Art World Awaits Live-Streamed New York Auctions

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The art world soon will learn what the appetite is for blue-chip, high-value works when Sotheby’s and Phillips live-stream their postponed major New York auctions next week, followed by Christie’s, which will live-stream a global sale from four consecutive locations on July 10. 

On tap in three major sales at Sotheby’s beginning at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, July 29, will be several significant pieces offered at multi-million dollar estimates, many of them carrying third-party guarantees and irrevocable bids—insurance that the works will sell at substantive prices.

The evening begins with 18 highlights from the collection of Denver gallerist Ginny Williams , featuring top works by mid-century female artists including Joan Mitchell , Lee Krasner , and Louise Bourgeois , at an estimated range between US$17. 2 million to US$25 million. The auction will be followed by the contemporary sale, with 30 lots, and a total estimate range between US$171.4 million and US$239.1 million, and then by the impressionist and modern sale, with 28 lots, at an estimate range between US$59.1 million and US$83.5 million. 

The top lot across the three sales—and the highest ticket item at all major auction houses—is a towering three-piece work by Francis Bacon , Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, carrying an estimate between US$60 million and US$80 million. 

Also on tap is Clyfford Still’s PH-144 (1947-Y-No. 1) , with an estimate between US$25 million and US$35 million, from the collection of Harry W . and Mary Margaret Anderson , Roy Lichtenstein ’s White Brushstroke I , estimated between US$20 million and US$30 million, Vija Celmins Night Sky #7, estimated between US$6 million and US$8 million, and Jean-Michel Basquiat ’s , a work on paper, with an estimate between US$9 million and US$12 million. 

The impressionist and modern leg of the Sotheby’s sale will include Pablo Picasso ’s ê , with an estimate between US$9 million and US$12 million, and the highly anticipated and unusual private collection of Latin American modern and surrealist works led by Wifredo Lam ’s Omi Obini , with an estimate between US$8 million and US$12 million. 

Phillips will offer a smaller sale than usual at 6 p.m. EDT on Thursday, July 2, in 25 lots, with an estimated price range between US$29.4 million and US$41.6 million. The sale is led by Joan Mitchell’s Nöel , estimated between US$9.5 million and US$12.5 million , and Basquiat’s Victor 25488, 1987, estimated between US$8 million US$12 million. A portion of the Basquiat’s sale proceeds will benefit the Art for Justice fund. 

The virtual auctions will be the first major test of the public art market, which has, since March, largely been conducted digitally through online auctions and private sales. In recent weeks, live sales have returned to Europe and Asia in some cases, but the blockbuster impressionist and modern and contemporary art sales—conducted live, but virtually—will largely set the direction for the rest of the year. 

Christie’s sale of 80 lots will include both impressionist and modern and post-war and contemporary art, in sync with a restructuring of its departments announced today, and, unlike the others, will be conducted globally . Also, the auction, which begins in Hong Kong at 8 p.m. on July 10, before moving to Paris, London, and New York, will include clients in the salerooms where regional guidelines allow. Likely this means there will be bidders in the room in Hong Kong, Paris, and London, and potentially a limited number in New York. 

Pent-up Demand for Masterpieces

Many in the art world are expecting strong results from a mixture of pent-up demand, high quality works, and a strong stock market. Unlike the financial crisis of 2008-09, the economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic has affected Main Street far more than the wealthy, says Evan Beard , national art services executive at Bank of America Private Bank.

The art market, Beard says, is “driven by sentiment and liquidity at the high end.” 

The masterpieces that are being brought to market “will hold up quite well,” he adds. There could be some downward price pressure, however, on “B level” work from “A” artists, “that may have sold at a higher price in perfect times,” Beard says. 

“We have been really impressed with the quality of the works,” says Morgan Long , senior director at the Fine Art Group, a London-based art advisory and investment firm. “The test will be if something can sell internationally for US$10 million or US$20 million that not that many people have seen.”

Long and her colleague Philip Hoffman , CEO at the Fine Art Group, say the firm has been extremely busy in recent weeks, and through their global network of advisors, have in many cases been able to physically see works on offer. 

“The appetite is there,” Long says. “It’s a good time to sell and to buy.” Recently, the firm has purchased “some great things for clients [at prices] that we didn’t think they could get them at,” she says. But prices at the marquee auctions should be strong. As Hoffman notes, “there’s a small amount of supply,” and “there are a lot of people slightly bored sitting at home.” 

The quality of the work on offer is also likely to draw the attention of collectors. 

“I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen so many iconic works from seminal artists come through various estates,” says Naomi Baigell , managing director at Yieldstreet x Athena Art Finance. “And it’s not just seminal artists, but iconic works by these seminal artists, and works by younger artists that are top of the line.” 

Baigell pointed to Christie’s offering of Barnett Newman ’s , carrying an estimate between US$30 million and US$40 million—a rare auction item given that Newman wasn’t that prolific, and many of his best works are in private institutions. Christie’s also is offering a Wayne Thiebaud masterpiece, , for an estimate between US$18 milion and US$25 million. 

One factor in the upcoming auctions is that many works, including the Ginny Williams collection, carry guarantees, ensuring healthy price support for the market, says Cynthia Sachs , chief investment officer at Yieldstreet x Athena. “It will be interesting to see if [prices] go above the low estimates,” Sachs says.

One critical aspect of these sales is that they will set benchmark valuations for the high end of the market, valuations that Yieldstreet x Athena and other art lenders need to accurately value their loan books. The initial weeks of the Covid-19 crisis, there were fears the market would be inundated with artworks offered by distressed sellers, but that never happened. “From what I’m hearing, prices have remained fairly solid from the last comparable levels in November,” Sachs says.

Market observers also expect this unusual auction season may set a precedent for how future auctions will be conducted, allowing the auction houses to lean more on digital strategies that are more efficient and cost-effective, such as being able to move the production and distribution of huge paper catalogs into the digital sphere with online, interactive versions.

“The whole market will be watching it very closely,” Beard says. “We’re taking something that has gone on since the 18th Century in the same way to now in this completely digital environment. It’s an interesting moment.”

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