Warhol’s $195mn Marilyn kicks off epic New York auction season

“Gallerists have historically proven to make the best collectors,” said Alex Rotter, Christie’s chair of 20th- and 21st-century art, ahead of its May 9 sale of 36 works from the late Swiss dealer siblings Thomas and Doris Ammann. On the evening, another renowned gallerist — Larry Gagosian — helped make history when he won Andy Warhol’s “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” (1964) for $170mn ($195mn with fees). Back in 1986, it was Gagosian who had sold to work to Thomas Ammann. It is now the second most expensive work ever to sell at auction and the priciest piece of 20th-century art.

The staggering sum was still below expectations — the painting was estimated at $200mn, while some harbored hope that it would beat the record-breaking outlier, “Salvator Mundi” (c1500) by Leonardo da Vinci, which sold for $450mn in 2017.

Against the backdrop of falling stock markets, some sense prevailed, but the Marilyn marked the end of a decent auction, 33 of whose other 35 distinct and often avant-garde works came in within the sale’s estimate (two didn’t sell), making a total with the Warhol of $273mn ($318mn with fees, est. $285mn-$421mn). Another 66 works come up from the Ammanns’ collection at Christie’s on May 13, with proceeds from all going to children’s charities.

‘Portrait of a Lady (After Louis Leopold Boilly)’ (2019) by Ewa Juszkiewicz © Christie’s Images

New York’s season of sales has only just begun. “After several years of pent-up supply and demand, it’s like an Olympic fortnight, and Ammann was the opening ceremony,” says Ben Clark, chief executive of the art advisory business Gurr Johns. At the time of writing, there was still a potential $2bn worth of art coming to the evening auctions alone.

Christie’s began the mixed-owner sales on May 10 with mostly 21st-century works, including on-trend younger artists. This made a total of $87mn ($103mn with fees), which was within estimates but below initial expectations, as two works by Jean-Michel Basquiat — including a 1982 triptych estimated at $30mn — were withdrawn. The auction as a whole was relatively muted, perhaps because of the sheer amount on the block this month. The highest price of the evening was $33mn for Gerhard Richter’s 1994 “Abstraktes Bild” ($37mn with fees, est $35mn).

There were still some characteristic hikes for recent works, including a 2019 painting by Ewa Juszkiewicz which sold for $1.3mn ($1.6mn with fees) against a $200,000-$300,000 estimate. Yoshimoto Nara’s “Be Happy” (1995), which had sold for around $350,000 in 2006, went for $6.4mn on Tuesday, while Jeff Koons went in the opposite direction. An edition of his “Lobster” (2007-12) was bought for $6.9mn in 2016 but sold on for $3.8mn this week.

‘Fleurs-Coquillages’ (1928) by Max Ernst © Courtesy of Di Donna Galleries, New York

The prolonged auction season has not necessarily been good news for New York’s coinciding art fairs. “People are waiting to see what happens at these sales,” says the Manhattan dealer Emmanuel Di Donna, who was showing at Tefaf New York (May 6-10). He sold works, including gouaches by Max Ernst and André Breton, though he said these fell in the $100,000-$300,000 price range, “rather than multimillions of dollars”.

Reported early sales from the Independent fair (May 5-8) were mostly made at even lower levels, including sellout booths of paintings by Jennifer J Lee (Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery, $10,000-$12,000) and Los Angeles artist Kent O’Connor (Matthew Browngallery). At Nada New York, Charles Moffett, who recently opened a new gallery in Tribeca, reported a sellout booth of eight new paintings by Julia Jo for $12,000 each, including one to the ICA Miami museum.

David Zwirner consignment tool

As the boundaries blur between auction houses and galleries, the mega-dealers are ramping up their secondary market capabilities. This week, David Zwirner launches a consignment tool that enables would-be sellers to swiftly submit their art for evaluation via a desktop or mobile phone. The gallery hopes to improve supply to match the current demand for blue-chip art, says senior partner Kristine Bell.

Resales are not new to the gallery — Zwirner says they have been a part of his business since it launched in 1993 — but the move follows an increase in such deals, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and a lack of public shows. “We were forced to be a private dealer,” Zwirner says. He describes the difference between the two business areas: “In the primary market you are trying to introduce people to something that they don’t know; in the secondary market you are filling and identifying gaps in their collections.”

While the margins tend to be higher for new work (around 50 per cent), the secondary market offers historical works that are soaring in value. Zwirner describes his commissions as “competitive” with the auction houses, where they can reach 26 per cent. He says that, by value, the gallery makes about 60 per cent of its sales through the primary market and 40 per cent in the secondary field. “If you have a Warhol ‘Shot Marilyn’ then you should go through an auction house, but for many artists that is not the case.” His gallery of him has made secondary sales higher than public auction records for artists such as Joan Mitchell and Ad Reinhardt, he says.

Misan Harriman © David Parry/Shutterstock

The Tezos Foundation, the Swiss non-profit arm of the Tezos blockchain network, has committed £1mn to create a non-fungible token art collection. The funds have been entrusted first to Misan Harriman, a photographer, NFT collector and social activist who is chair of the board at London’s Southbank Centre. Her plan is to focus on emerging artists from Africa and Asia.

“As a black man, at the top of my game in photography, I know how lucky I have been and think every day about people who have lost in the lottery of life because of the social economics of their situation. Smart contract technology gives a fighting chance to the democratization of merit-based opportunity,” Harriman says.

Works in the Tezos Foundation Permanent Art Collection will be shown on its website and will be displayed physically “sooner rather than later”, says Arthur Breitman, co-founder of Tezos. The Foundation holds about $1bn of funds, he says.

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