2018 was a year of drama, plot twists and breaking major new records for auction sales. As the year comes to an end, we reflect on some of the top auction sales of 2018.
1. Kerry James Marshall: Record $21.1 million sale for Chicago artwork
Kerry James Marshall, “Past Times,” 1997
To much acclaim, Sotheby’s sold Kerry James Marshall’s remarkable contemporary masterpiece Past Times for $21.1m, the highest sale price ever for a living African American artist. The estimate for Past Times was set at $8-12m, double of Marshall’s previous record. While Marshall didn’t see any of that money himself, as it was a secondary market piece originally purchased for $25,000 by The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority of Chicago, the sale certainly had a great impact on the artist’s primary market and the art market as a whole. It reflected and massively contributed to a new wave of interest from gallerists and collectors, towards artists of colour who have been largely underrepresented in the mainstream auctions market. Works by artists like Frank Bowling, Jack Whitten and Barkley L Hendricks, which were more frequently sold at Swann’s African American auctions, attracted great interest at Sotheby’s and Christie’s post-Marshall record. Also following the sale, a series of new records were set for 20th century African American artists like Jacob Lawrence, Robert Colescott and Sam Gilliam, to name a few.
2. The Great Picasso Shopping Spree
Pablo Picasso, Femme au Béret et à la Robe Quadrillée (Marie-Thérèse Walter), 1937
Picassos were, as per usual, ubiquitous in London’s Impressionist sales this year. The greatest surprise came when an international art advisory firm, Gurr Johns, spent $155 million on at least 13 of them in two days. The firm, which buys and sells on behalf of its clients, won four pieces at Sotheby’s one day and at least nine others at Christie’s the day before. When asked, Gurr John’s Harry Smith was not able to reveal the identity of his client. Although some speculated that it could be for the a Middle Eastern client, ahem, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, given that Diane Abela, his Middle East consultant was present at all times. Some argued against that speculation however, given that the nature of the paintings may be considered risqué in the Arab world. The identity of the serial Picasso buyer is yet to be known.
3. Artificial Intelligence Debut at Christie’s
Obvious, Portrait of Edmond Belamy, 2018
The first artwork produced by artificial intelligence to be sold at a major auction was sold at Christie’s New York in October. Portrait of Edmond de Belamy, from La Famille de Belamy (2018) is an algorithm-generated composition created by the Paris based art collective, Obvious, that was sold for $432,500, 43 times its estimate. With arguable aesthetic merit and a slightly misleading narrative, the portrait made headlines but not all in praise. Famous art historian Bender Grosvenor seemed to have captured the general consensus online when he described the work as “a woeful blancmange of a painting,” and suggested that the price very well might have been rigged. One theory making sense of the sale was that the buyer may not necessarily have been an art lover but a speculator betting that AI will have a place in the future of the art market.
4. Hockney’s New Record
David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures),1972
Up until earlier this year, the idea that David Hockney could quickly rise to become the most expensive living artist did not seem believable. That was, until a few months ago when word got out that Joseph Lewis, British art collector, was seeking $80 million for his Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures). Even more surprising was the announcement that Christie’s planned to sell it without a reserve. It’s standard practice that most lots sold at auction carry a reserve minimum as well as a guarantee but neither of those arrangements were set. Bidding also abruptly stopped at exactly $80 million ($90.2 with buyer’s premium) which got people to speculate a pre-arrangement. If that was the case, it goes without saying that the risk Christie’s undertook was huge as it could have been sold for far less.
5. Nightclub Memorabilia Bidding War
Andreas Farkas, Modiano, 1930
The contents of Annabel’s nightclub, which hosted the likes of Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Naomi Campbell and the Queen herself, went on sale in November after its venue in Mayfair closed down. While the club’s interiors were decked with valuable artworks, some of the most surprising items ended up performing best at the Christie’s auction. A 1930’s art deco cigarette advertising lithograph for Modiana designed by Andreas Farkas was estimated at £1,000 but ended up closing at £193,750. Many thought the estimate was uninformed however, as quite a few of his works had previously sold for up to £37,500. In total, the 265 lots fetched a hefty £4 million with everyone from Rita Ora to Elizabeth Hurley wanting a piece of the club.
6. Rockefeller sales bringing in the highest amount ever for a single collection
Paul Maze, Flowers in a Striped Vase, 1974
After six months of anticipation, 10 days of online sales, and three days of live auctions, The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller brought in $832,573,469 at Christie’s New York, well-exceeding expectations and marking the highest ever auction total for a private collection, doubling the previous record held by that of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. The biggest surprise performance was a painting by the Paul Maze, also known as “the last British Impressionist”, which was a pastel of flowers that closed at $100,000, 100 times its estimate. Another great outcome was that the auction reassured the market for impressionist works with Monet’s Nymphéas en Fleur (“Water Lilies in Bloom”) selling for $85 million with fees, at a time when there seems to be more of a cultural focus on contemporary art as well as somewhat of a consensus that the work was not his best water lilies piece.