Asian Collectors Compete for American Abstraction in Sotheby’s $271 Million Contemporary Art Evening Auction in New York

NEW YORK, 14 November 2019 – Grégoire Billault, Head of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Department in New York, said: “Tonight was a truly global affair and further demonstration of a deep market for Contemporary art. The sale was headlined by exceptional, fresh works by American titans of Abstract Expressionism that were acquired by major private collectors across Asia. It was particularly thrilling to witness the 15-minute bidding for the Clyfford Still masterpiece, which has remained in the same private collection since it was purchased from Marlborough Gallery in 1970. The fantastic result for Mark Rothko’s Blue Over Red brings our annual sales of works by the artist to nearly $100 million, evidence of the continued strength of the market for Rothko.”

David Galperin, Head of Sotheby’s Evening Auctions of Contemporary Art in New York, commented: “With new world auction records for Charles White and Norman Lewis, in addition to a truly outstanding result for Kerry James Marshall’s Vignette 19 after heated competition from around the world, we are thrilled to continue our strong track record of market-leading results for the work of exceptional postwar African-American artists. It is exciting to be a part of this significant recalibration and market re-evaluation, happening in every sector of the art world today. We set out to present the market with the very best examples of what we believe collectors want, and were pleased to see the energy and significant depth of bidding in the room tonight.”

Exceptional works by Charles White and Norman Lewis were offered for the first time in a Contemporary Art Evening Auction at Sotheby’s, and both works achieved new world auction record prices. The auction opened with a four-minute bidding battle between at least six bidders for White’s Ye Shall Inherit the Earth, which achieved $1.8 million (estimate $500/700,000). Embodying White’s social activism, the work depicts Rosa Lee Ingram, an African-American woman who became the subject of one of the most explosive capital punishment cases in American history in the late 1940s. The work was included in all three locations of the artist’s recent museum retrospective across the United States. And following a competition between at least eight bidders, Lewis’s Ritual fetched $2.8 million (estimate $700,000/1 million). The work is a masterful example of the Abstract Expressionist artist’s eye for color and composition.

Kerry James Marshall’s Vignette 19, hailing from the artist’s celebrated series of Vignette paintings, sold for $18.5 million – the second-highest auction price ever achieved for the artist’s work, and 2.5x the painting’s high estimate. Earlier in the auction, Marshall’s Small Pin-Up (Lens Flare) from 2013 achieved $5.5 million, surpassing its $3.5 million high estimate.

Asian private collectors acquired top works by American titans of Abstract Expressionism, led by Willem de Kooning’s large-scale Untitled XXII, which achieved $30.1 million. Executed at a critical moment in the artist’s career, the work represents the apex of the artist’s mature output. Exhausted by the noise and tension of life in Manhattan during the early part of his career, de Kooning permanently moved to Springs, East Hampton in 1963 to immerse himself in the light-filled, tranquil environment.

The first work from Mark Rothko’s critical year of 1953 to appear at auction in over a decade, Blue Over Red sold for $26.5 million to an Asian private collector. Blue Over Red was acquired directly from the artist in 1957 by legendary dealer and collector Harold Diamond, and subsequently spent decades with Baltimore collectors Israel and Selma Rosen, who offered the work at auction in 2005, when it sold for $5.6 million. It has remained in the same private collection since 2007.

Following a 15-minute bidding battle, Clyfford Still’s quintessential masterwork PH-399 achieved $24.3 million, far-surpassing its $18 million high estimate. PH-399 was selected by Still himself for inclusion in his seminal 1959 exhibition Paintings by Clyfford Still, organized by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. Personally curated by the artist, this exhibition was Still’s first large-scale survey, and remains among the most important exhibitions of his career.

Additional world auction records were achieved tonight for the work of Brice Marden and Wayne Thiebaud. Measuring nine feet across, Marden’s Number Two sold for $10,920,600. The work is a monumental ode to the artist’s most advanced explorations of form and color, and has remained in the same private collection since it was acquired from Pace Gallery in 1985. Its sister painting – Number One – resides in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. On the eve of his 99th birthday, Thiebaud’s Encased Cakes sold for $8.5 million – marking the artist’s first cake counter to appear at auction since 1997.

Measuring an impressive 72 inches tall, the work is also of exceptional scale within the artist’s oeuvre, and has remained in the same distinguished private collection since it was acquired directly from the artist in 2011, the year of its completion.

Photo by Sotheby’s
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