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Record Breaking Art Auctions in May

After the astronomical success of the Contemporary auctions last November, it seemed unlikely for May Contemporary sales to meet the benchmark set six months ago. However, expectations have been redefined. Christie’s Post War and Contemporary sales fetched US$640 million in a single week, setting a new auction record for value sold at auction for any collecting category. According to Christie’s specialists, 37 new records were achieved during their Contemporary sales, ushering in “a new era in the art market, wherein seasoned collectors and new bidders compete at the highest level within a global market.”1 The Christie’s sale was led by three works selling for over US$45 million, setting new records for each of the respective artists: Jackson Pollock’s Number 19 sold for US$58.3 million, Roy Lichtenstein’s Woman with Flowered Hat sold for US$56.1 million, and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Dustheads sold for US$48.8 million.

Top 10 Lots Sold in Post-War and Contemporary Sales in May 2013°

Top 10 Lots Sold in Post-War and Contemporary Sales in May 2013 Top 10 Lots Sold in Post-War and Contemporary Sales in May 2013 (click on image for details)

Of the top 10 prices achieved so far in Post-War and Contemporary sales, six sales resulted in a new auction record for the artist.

The top-selling work at Sotheby’s also set a new record for an artist at auction: Barnett Newman’s Onement VI sold for US$43.8 million, supplanting the record set last year for the artist at Christie’s. This lot was followed by Gerhard Richter’s Domplatz, Mailand (Cathedral Square, Milan), which sold for US$37.1 million, the highest auction price ever achieved for a living artist. Sotheby’s also attributed their success to the global make up of their bidders, with collectors from 35 countries registering to bid in the sale. Contemporary sales in New York concluded with Phillips evening sale, which sold a total of 30 lots for US$78.6 million on May 16. Compared to past Contemporary auctions at Phillips, this year’s sale was significantly smaller; 44 lots were sold last year compared to 30 this May, with only one work selling for over US$5 million (Andy Warhol’s Four Marilyns, which sold for US$38.2 million).

Major May Art Auction Sales 2013 vs. 2012: Value Sold Major May Art Auction Sales 2013 vs. 2012: Value Sold (click on image for details)

Christie’s set a new record for the auction industry, with three Contemporary Art sales and the Andy Warhol single-owner sale bringing in over US$600 million in a single week.

Overall, sales have looked promising for May. With only a little over half of the auction results in so far (sales as of May 17), total sales have already amassed to US$2.1 billion, showing signs of exceeding the US$2.9 billion achieved by May sales in 2012. Several auction houses have made significant gains this year, with Bonhams and Christie’s New York already surpassing their May 2012 totals. Modern and Impressionist sales at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s earlier in May were strong and included notable highlights, but failed to attract the same spotlight that the Contemporary sales did a week later. Another sign of progress has been the success of spring auctions in China. China Guardian Auctions have offered an increased number of lots in their sales this spring, while maintaining a high sell-through rate. So far in May, China Guardian has sold over US$318.3 million, with impressive records set by Wu Zuoren (Chinese, 1908–1997), Gong Xian (Chinese, 1618–1689), and Shen Shichong (Chinese).

Major May Art Auction Sales 2013 vs. 2012: Lots Sold Major May Art Auction Sales 2013 vs. 2012: Lots Sold (click on image for details)
Overall, auction houses are offering and selling more lots at auction this season than in 2012. Perhaps most noticeable on this list is China Guardian, who has sold 30% more lots in their spring sales in 2013.


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Katharine Markley is the lead art market analyst for artnet Analytics.

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