5 Key Takeaways from the New York Fall Auction Season

More than $2 billion worth of art was sold over a packed series of auctions in New York this past fortnight. This slate of sales will likely be viewed as a key barometer of where the art market currently stands, amid a year of broad uncertainty. Works by emerging artists to Impressionists were proffered across the auction houses, and the picture that emerged from the week, perhaps unsurprisingly, was mixed.

Remarkable results were achieved across the sales, but there is still a clear sense that the art trade is some way from the highs it has enjoyed in recent years.

Here, we share five things that we learned from the New York auction season.

1. Demand for abstract art continues to soar.

In this year’s Artsy Collector Insights Report, we polled collectors for the genres and themes of art that were most important to them. Abstract art emerged as the clear winner, with some 50% of respondents selecting the genre.

At these latest sales, it was clear that demand for abstract art remains strong, with several examples among the top performers across the various auctions. Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) (1955) sold for a hefty $46.4 million at Christie’s. The artist also set a new record for a work on paper at Sotheby’s, when Untitled (1968) sold for $23.9 million, well above its $10 million estimate.

Works by Brice Marden, Helen Frankenthaler, and František Kupka were among the other top-performing lots across the sales, while several notable abstract artists also set new auction records for works under the hammer:

Richard Diebenkorn’s Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad (1965) sold for $46.4 million at Christie’s.Joan Mitchell’s Untitled (2023) sold for $29.2 million at Christie’s. (The following week, the second-highest record for Mitchell was set at Sotheby’s when Sunflowers, 1990–91, sold for $27.9 million.)Arshile Gorky’s Charred Beloved 1 (1946) sold for $23.4 million at Christie’s.Agnes Martin’s Grey Stone II (1961) sold for $18.7 million at Sotheby’s. Ad Reinhardt’s Red Painting (1953) sold for $3.3 million at Sotheby’s.Joan Snyder’s Celebration (1979) sold for $239,400 at Christie’s. Hedda Sterne’s Road #7 (1956) sold for $650,000 at Sotheby’s.

2. Demand for ultra-contemporary artists—particularly women artists—is steady.

Among the most closely watched lots over the past two weeks have been those by ultra-contemporary artists, many of whom have experienced sharp upticks in auction prices over recent years. There are several signs that this boom is not yet over. Artists such as Nicolas Party, Jia Aili, and Rashid Johnson were among those to achieve notable seven-figure results, while new records were set for Mohammed Sami ($422,000, three times its high estimate) and Oscar yi Hou ($95,250, more than double its high estimate; yi Hou was featured in The Artsy Vanguard 2022). The real story of ultra-contemporary art this season, however, has been focused on women artists.

This was particularly the case at Sotheby’s, where works by Marina Perez Simão, Stefanie Heinze, Loie Hollowell, Emma Webster, Jenna Gribbon, Issy Wood, Caroline Walker, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and Ilana Savdie all sold for solid six-figure prices.

Jadé Fadojutimi—one of the stars of this season—broke her auction record twice over the fortnight: First, A Thistle Throb (2021) sold for $1.68 million at Sotheby’s, then Quirk my mannerism (2021) sold for $1.9 million at Phillips less than a week later. Fadojutimi’s previous auction record was set in October 2021, when Myths of Pleasure (2017) sold for £1.172 million ($1.61 million) at Phillips London. All three works by the artist that sold over this season’s auctions exceeded that price.

3. …As is demand for late women artists.

In addition to new records for Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell, Hedda Sterne, and Joan Snyder, works by late female artists were among the strongest performers against their estimates across this auction season.

Barbara Hepworth’s The Family of Man: Ancestor II (1970) set a new record for the artist upon selling for $11.7 million at Christie’s. A trio of works by Tamara de Lempicka sold for estimate-beating prices at Christie’s across the fortnight, led by Fillette en rose (1928–30), which sold for $14.9 million. Helen Frankenthaler’s Archangel (1989)—one of five works by the artist auctioned across the sales—sold for $1.4 million at Christie’s.Pat Passlof’s Drizzle (1960) sold for $214,200 at Christie’s.Etel Adnan’s Untitled (2003)—one of six works by the artist to be sold over the November sales—sold for $268,061, more than 200% above its mid-estimate. At Sotheby’s, a trio of works by Georgia O’Keeffe comfortably exceeded their estimates, led by Pink Tulip (Abstraction – #77 Tulip) (1925), which sold for $5.7 million.Works by Louise Nevelson, Susan Rothenberg, Alice Neel, and Rosemarie Castoro also outperformed their estimates across the sales.

4. We’re not out of the woods yet.

While the figures from this fortnight of sales looked impressive in parts, there were still several significant indicators of an art market in flux. Each auction house held a sale that cumulatively fell beneath their low estimates:

Sotheby’s modern art sale reached a hammer total of $190 million against a low estimate of $200 million.Phillips’s Triton Collection sale hammered for $69.9 million against a low estimate of $72.7 million.Christie’s first evening sale of the season recorded a total hammer price of $88.4 million against a presale estimate of $96 million.

Auction houses took assertive action to manage proceedings, with several withdrawals across the sales. For example, Sotheby’s modern evening sale was reduced to 33 lots from an original 40 and still posted an 84% sell-through rate.

There was also a notable clutch of works by blue-chip artists that failed to achieve their low estimates. Works by George Condo, Alberto Giacometti, Keith Haring, Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Mark Bradford, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dalí all hammered below their low targets over the fortnight.

5. But even in choppier waters, quality prevails.

Despite the mixed results, one truism of the art market remained intact: Quality works of a certain caliber will sell—and sell well.

This was the case across a number of top lots and artist records that were set across the fortnight, particularly for pieces and artists that seldom reach the auction block.

Nowhere was this more apparent at the $406 million Emily Fisher Landau sale at Sotheby’s, the most valuable auction of works from a female collector. The sale yielded the most expensive artwork to sell at auction this year with Picasso’s iconic Femme à la montre (1932); Jasper Johns’s new record for work from his famed “Flag” series; and works by Ed Ruscha and Cy Twombly, which both achieved solid, eight-figure results.

Elsewhere across the auctions, top-drawer works by the likes of Francis Bacon, Paul Cézanne, Gerhard Richter, Claude Monet, and René Magritte were unsurprisingly among the strongest performers.

Works like these very much undergirded an auction season that, much like the art market as a whole, was characterized by unevenness and uncertainty.

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