Christie's Chief Auctioneer Pylkkänen's final show in NY: A robust US$652m evening sale led by a rediscovered Monet

Last month, Christie's Chief Auctioneer and Global President Jussi Pylkkänen made waves in the industry with his announcement of stepping down after 38 years of service at the global auction house. With him having wielded the gavel for some of the house's most important sales – including the US$450.3 million Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci – many regarded the decision as "the end of an era". 

On 9 November, in what marked his final performance at Christie's New York, Pylkkänen took to the rostrum for the blockbuster 20th Century Art Evening Sale and presided over the first half of the 63-lot auction.

As the second auctioneer, Adrien Meyer, fittingly remarked, "You're on fire tonight, Jussi." Pylkkänen's hammer brought about deep and electric bidding activity, surpassing what had been witnessed in this year's auctions thus far. 

Numerous lots soared above their pre-sale estimates, with five out of his 35 lots setting records for artists including Joan Mitchell, Barbara Hepworth, Arshile Gorky, Richard Diebenkorn, and Joan Snyder.

Overall, out of the 63 lots on offer, 61 found new buyers, racking up a sale total of US$651.9 million and a remarkable sell-through rate of 96.8%. Two lots were withdrawn ahead of the sale.

*More on Pylkkänen's auctioneering journey: Christie's Chief Auctioneer and Global President Jussi Pylkkänen to step down after 38 years

The sale marked Jussi Pylkkänen's final performance in New York

The top lot went to a never-before-publicly-seen Monet Water Lilies that fetched US$74 million, followed by works by Francis Bacon, Richard Diebenkorn, and Mark Rothko. A further auction record was set for Colombian artist Fernando Botero. 

Notably, Asian buyers snapped up multiple works in the sale, including Picasso's Femme endormie from Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman's collection, the record-setting Joan Mitchell, Frida Kahlo's Portrait of Cristina, My Sister, and Egon Schiele’s watercolor portrait of Stehende Frau (Dirne), as suggested by their bidding representatives. 

Lot 35B | Claude Monet (1840-1926) | Le bassin aux nymphéas, Oil on canvas
Painted circa 1917-1919
100.1 x 200.6 cm

  • Estate of the artist
  • Michel Monet, Giverny (by descent from the above)
  • Katia Granoff, Paris
  • Mme Maillot
  • Collection Michel
  • Master Arts Establishment, Vaduz
  • Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner, 22 March 1972

Estimate on request (Expected to fetch in the region of US$65 million)
Hammer Price: US$64,000,000
Sold: US$74,010,000

Jussi Pylkkänen opened the bidding on this star lot – also the final lot that went under his gavel in New York – at US$52 million and saw two interested buyers. After a round of back-and-forth bidding, Pylkkänen brought his hammer down at US$64 million. 

A round of applause and cheers broke out in the Rockefeller saleroom, followed by a further standing ovation. 

With fees, the Monet sold for US$74 million to the client on the phone with Alex Marshall, Chairman 20/21 (Everyone forgot about the paddle number as the moment was given to the long-time auctioneer). 

Alex Marshall won the lot for his client on the phone

Pylkkänen was met with a standing ovation as he brought his hammer down

The peak of a lifetime’s study of nature, Claude Monet’s Nymphéas (Water Lillies) series are among the most important works of not only the artist’s late oeuvre, but of the Impressionist era. 

Painted circa 1917 to 1919, the present lot, Le bassin aux nymphéas, dates from the latter period of Monet’s life. After his death in 1926, the piece was inherited by his second son and only direct heir Michel Monet. Having changed hands several times, it went to the present owner's family in 1972, who kept the work private ever since. 

The most expensive Water Lillies painting ever sold at auction is Nymphéas en feur (circa 1914-1917), which came from the Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller and sold for US$84.6 million in 2018 at Christie's New York. 

As for the artist's auction record, it goes to Meules (1890), a Haystacks painting that fetched US$110.7 million at Sotheby's New York in 2019. 

Nymphéas en fleur (Water Lilies in Bloom) (circa 1914-1917), 160.3 x 180 cm | Sold: US$84.7 million, Christie's New York, 2018, from the Rockefeller Collection

Claude Monet in his garden at Giverny

Today's Giverny Garden

In search of a permanent base which he could finally call home after years of upheaval, in the spring of 1883 Monet had moved his family to Giverny. There he purchased an adjacent plot of land near his property, intending to fulfil his passion for gardening, while building something ‘for the pleasure of the eye and also for the purpose of having subjects to paint’.

The result was the now world-renowned ‘Giverny Garden’. He tore the existing kitchen garden up and began cultivating his tranquil retreat, adding a Japanese-style footbridge and a free-form pond. Around the pond was filled with towering weeping willows, iris, trees and other seasonal flowers.

During the last 30 years of his life, Monet immersed himself in his horticultural oasis to depict the water landscapes. These works replaced the varied contemporary subjects he had painted in his early artistic career with two celebrated subjects: Japanese bridge and water lilies.

In more than 250 canvases, the Impressionist master captured the changing images of the water lilies and their reflections on the pond at all hours of morning, day and evening. While the early paintings in the series encompassed a larger scenery of the garden, he gradually moved his focus closer to the water's surface, experimenting with the transitory effects of sunlight on it, with each canvas showing subtle differences under different weather. 

Details of the present lot

Details of the present lot

Lot 12B | Francis Bacon | Figure in Movement, Oil and dye transfer lettering on canvas
Executed in 1976
198.9 x 147.3 cm

  • Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris
  • Galerie Alice Pauli, Lausanne
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1977

Estimate on request (Expected to fetch in the region of US $50 million)
Hammer Price: US$45,000,000
Sold: US$52,160,000

The second top lot of the sale went to Francis Bacon's Figure in Movement, which was opened at US$40 million and received two bids to hammer at US$45 million. With fees, the lot sold for US$52.2 million to the telephone bidder with paddle number 7003, represented by Alex Rotter, Chairman, 20/21 Art Departments.

One of the major British painters of the post-World War II period, Francis Bacon is widely recognized for his iconic, violently distorted portraits of scathed and traumatized humanity. 

Executed in 1976, the work takes its place within the canon of masterworks that followed the tragic death of his beloved George Dyer in 1971 – a turning point in Bacon's career, one that would change the direction of his art for the rest of his life.

Alex Rotter won the lot for his client with paddle number 7003

Francis Bacon (right) and his lover George Dyer (left)

In the Autumn of 1963, when Bacon was almost 54 and Dyer was around 30, the two met in a pub in Soho. At first glance, Bacon was instantly attracted to the handsome young man with the build of a Michelangelo figure and an air of latent violence. 

An intense friendship immediately sprung up between the two very different men, with Dyer becoming Bacon’s lover, muse and dependent for nearly a decade. Their deeply passionate relationship, however, would turn out to be a stormy and tempestuous one, fueled by alcohol and endless conflicts. 

On that fateful night in 1971 – less than thirty-six hours before the opening of Bacon's career-defining retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris – Dyer decided to put a halt to all those sufferings: he took his life in the bathroom of the hotel. 

Trapped in the abyss of guilt and grief, Bacon created a series of his posthumous paintings known as the Black Triptychs, which replayed in harrowing detail the tragic events of his lover's last, lonely hours.

Francis Bacon | Triptych May-Jun 1973 (1973) | Private Collection

Francis Bacon | In Memory of George Dyer (1971) | Foundation Beyeler, Basel 

Bacon later said, “After all, I’ve had a very unfortunate life, because all the people I’ve been really fond of have died. And you don’t stop thinking about them; time doesn’t heal. But you concentrate on something which was an obsession, and what you would have put into your obsession with the physical act you put into your work."

Here, in Figure of Movements, a circle magnifies the figure’s face, fusing hints of Dyer’s likeness with fleeting echoes of Bacon’s own. The figure is depicted in a state of contortion, as though wrestling with his own life force, his form engulfed by darkness.

At the corner of the work is a "fury", a device Bacon uses to reference themes of guilt. Also known as "Eumenides", these furies appear in the great tragedian Aeschylus’ three-part saga, the Oresteia. Born of drops of blood, they haunt Orestes after he kills his mother, Clytemnestra.

Modelled on an image of a diving bird, they are especially common in his work throughout the era following Dyer’s death. In addition to Dyer, his former lover Peter Lacy also died on the eve of one of his major gallery openings, and the presence of these furies suggests that perhaps Bacon saw himself as similar to Orestes: unable to escape fate.

The figure is depicted in a state of contortion

The "fury" is modeled on an image of a diving bird

Lot 4B | Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) | Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad, Oil on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Painted in 1965
181.3 x 211.1 cm

  • Poindexter Gallery, New York
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1969

Estimate upon request (Expected to fetch in the region of US$25,000,000)
Hammer Price: US$40,000,000
Sold: US$46,410,000

Heading to the auction with an on-request estimate of US$25 million and a third-party guarantee, Richard Diebenkorn’s Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad was opened at US$25 million. When it was about to be hammered at US$27.5 million to the client of Max Carter, Vice Chairman, 20/21 Art Departments, Americas, a lady in the saleroom raised her paddle, and a five-minute-long bidding war immediately followed. 

The two nibbled the price up by half-million increments until it reached US$40 million. As the lady declared to give up, Pylkkänen confirmed with her, "Are you sure? You've come a long way," and she persisted. Eventually, the lot went to Carter's client with paddle number 1650 for a final price with fees of US$46.4 million, setting a new record for the artist. 

Diebenkorn's previous auction record stood at US$27.3 million, set by Ocean Park #40 (1971) when it was sold at Sotheby's New York in 2021. That work came from the collection of late American philanthropist Anne Marion (1938-2020), heiress to the Four Sixes Ranch in Texas. 

Max Carter won the lot for his client with paddle number 1650

Richard Diebenkorn in 1962

Ocean Park #40 (1971), 236.2 x 205.1 cm | Sold: US$27,265,500, Sotheby's New York, 2021

Richard Diebenkorn was a 20th-century artist from California, who switched expertly between figuration and abstraction. 

In 1964, Diebenkorn, then based in Berkeley, was invited by the State Department to visit the Soviet Union as part of the US-USSR cultural exchange program. The United States Information Agency deemed Diebenkorn an apt painter to engage with the local ‘socialist realist’ artists because at the time he was one of the few prominent American artists who was not working in abstraction, which Soviet authorities opposed.

During the trip, he visited many artist studios and cultural institutions, including the State Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, where he was deeply inspired by Henri Matisse. Before that, he had only seen black-and-white reproductions of the artist's world-famous works. 

Henri Matisse | Harmony in Red (The Red Room) (1908) | State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

The present lot in detail, showing Matisse's influence on the work

Painted just months after his visit to the Soviet Union, Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad saw him pay homage to Matisse, with bold fields of color flattening the composition to a great extent. By doing so, he moved from his figurative scenes to abstract paintings, paving the way for his most celebrated Ocean Park series. 

In particular, the highly decorative floral curlicues that populate the upper left quadrant of the present work is a direct reference to Red Room (Harmony in Red) (1908), one of the most famous of Matisse’s paintings, and a canvas that Diebenkorn saw firsthand during his visit to Leningrad. 

Residing in the same private collection since it was acquired in 1969, this work has been widely exhibited and published, including on the cover of the catalogue for the critically acclaimed 2016 exhibition Matisse/Diebenkorn at the Baltimore Museum of Art and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Lot 19B | Mark Rothko (1903-1970) | Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange), Oil on canvas
Created in 1955
207 x 152.5 cm

  • Estate of the artist
  • Marlborough A.G., Liechtenstein/Marlborough Gallery, Inc., New York, 1970
  • Paul and Bunny Mellon, Virginia, 1970
  • Their sale; Sotheby's, New York, 10 November 2014, lot 14
  • Helly Nahmad Gallery, New York
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate upon request (Expected to fetch in the region of US$45 million)
Hammer Price: US$40,000,000
Sold: US$46,410,000

Coinciding with the major Mark Rothko retrospective at Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, Christie's presented an early abstract work from the artist, Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange), which was expected to fetch in the region of US$45 million.

On an opening bid of US$34 million, the work was hammered to a US$40 million bid from the client of Emily Kaplan, Co-head of 20th Century Evening Sale, Americas, with paddle number 7004. With fees, the final sum came to US$46.4 million.

A leader of postwar modern art, Rothko was born in Latvia in 1903 and immigrated to the US with his family in 1913. In 1921, he entered Yale University with a scholarship but dropped out two years later. Like his peers, he found his direction and place in New York. It was there, in 1925, that he began to study at Parsons School of Design, receiving his first kind of formal artistic training. 

Emily Kaplan won the lot for her client with paddle number 7004

Mark Rothko's major respective, featuring around 115 pieces from important public and private collections, is currently on show until April 2024 at Fondation Louis Vuitton

His early paintings were figurative, depicting intimate scenes and urban landscapes that show the loneliness of persons in drab urban environments.

This gave way in the early 1940s to a repertoire inspired by ancient myths and surrealism, which Rothko uses to express the tragic dimension of the human condition during the War. 

In the 1950s, he had arrived at his mature style of Abstract Expressionism, creating the celebrated "Colour Field paintings", the instantly recognizable works that would define his practice until his suicidal death in 1970. 

Mark Rothko is celebrated for his abstract expressionist art

Rothko once explained, “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on … And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions… If you are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.

Having long been a disciple of the emotional power manifested by many of the European Old Masters, with these colour field paintings Rothko ultimately wanted the viewers of his works to undergo an almost religious experience when stood before them (Rothko himself specified that 18 inches was the optimum distance from which to fully appreciate his work).

In evolving this idea, he was profoundly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche's ground-breaking treatise, The Birth of Tragedy, which introduces the dichotomy and dualism inherent in human nature. Rothko’s works, therefore, often saw two main passages of colour vie with one another for dominance, seeming to both emerge from and recede into the painting's more neutral background, evoking the perpetual struggle of the human condition.

The present lot | Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) (1955), 207 x 152.5 cm

Mark Rothko | The Green Stripe (1955), 170 x 141 cm | The Menil Collection, Texas

Other lots that sold above US$10 million and record-breaking works:

Lot 22B | Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) | Femme endormie, Oil on canvas
Painted in Boisgeloup on 17 July 1934
72.4 x 54 cm

  • Estate of the artist
  • Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, Paris (by descent from the above)
  • The Pace Gallery, New York (acquired from the above, 30 October 1991)
  • Acquired from the above by the late owner, 14 December 1992

Estimate: US$25,000,000 - 35,000,000
Hammer Price: US$37,000,000
Sold: US$42,960,000

Lot 41B | Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) | Fruits et pot de gingembre, Oil on canvas
Painted in 1890-1893
33.4 x 46.6 cm

  • Ambroise Vollard, Paris (acquired from the artist)
  • (possibly) Galerie Paul Rosenberg, Paris
  • Eugène Blot, Paris (possibly acquired from the above, by 1926)
  • Galerie M. Goldschmidt & Co., Frankfurt and Berlin, and L' Art Moderne S.A., Lucerne (jointly owned, September 1929)
  • Sidney and Jenny Brown, Baden (acquired from L’Art Moderne S.A., 5 November 1933, then by descent)
  • Stiftung Langmatt Sidney und Jenny Brown, Baden (bequest from the above, 1987)

Estimate: US$35,000,000 - 55,000,000
Hammer Price: US$33,500,000
Sold: US$38,935,000

Lot 16B | René Magritte (1898-1967) | L’empire des lumières, Oil on canvas
Painted in 1949
48.5 x 58.8 cm

  • Alexander Iolas Gallery, New York (acquired from the artist, August 1949)
  • Hugo Gallery, New York (acquired from the above)
  • Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York (acquired from the above, 30 March 1950)
  • Louise Auchincloss Boyer, New York (gift from the above, December 1950)
  • Gordon Auchincloss Robbins, New York (by descent from the above, July 1974)
  • Louis K. Meisel Gallery, New York (acquired from the above)
  • Daniel Filipacchi, Paris (acquired from the above, 1974)
  • Byron Gallery, New York (by 1978)
  • Private collection (acquired from the above, 1981); sale, Christie's, New York, 13 November 2017, lot 12A (world auction record for the artist at the time of sale)
  • Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: US$25,000,000 - 35,000,000
Hammer Price: US$30,000,000
Sold: US$34,910,000

Lot 14B | Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) | Untitled, Oil on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Painted circa 1959
247.7 x 219.7 cm

  • Estate of the artist
  • Joan Mitchell Foundation, 2004
  • Cheim & Read, New York
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2005

Estimate: US$25,000,000 - 35,000,000
Hammer Price: US$25,000,000
Sold: US$29,160,000

Lot 31B | Andy Warhol (1928-1987) | Sixteen Jackies, Silkscreen ink on linen, in sixteen parts
Painted in 1964
203.2 x 162.6 cm

  • Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
  • Dunkelman Gallery, Toronto
  • Anon. sale; Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc, New York, 3 May 1974, lot 548
  • Sperone Westwater Fischer, New York
  • Saatchi Collection, London, 1984
  • Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 6 May 1992, lot 26
  • Samuel and Ronnie Heyman, New York
  • Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 17 November 1998, lot 44
  • Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: US$25,000,000 - 35,000,000
Hammer Price: US$22,200,000
Sold: US$25,940,000

Lot 6B | Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) | Charred Beloved I, Oil on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Painted in 1946
135.9 x 101 cm

  • Estate of the artist
  • Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, 1952
  • Marie and Walter M. Zivi, Chicago, 1956
  • Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago, 1976
  • Gerald S. Elliott, Chicago, 1976
  • Victoria and S. I. Newhouse, Jr., New York, circa 1989
  • Adriana and Robert Mnuchin, New York, circa 1993
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1993

Estimate on request (Expected to fetch in the region of US$20 million)
Hammer Price: US$20,000,000
Sold: US$23,410,000

Lot 39B | René Magritte (1898-1967) | L’île au trésor, Oil on canvas
Painted in 1945
60.3 x 80.4 cm

  • Edmond Salembier, Belgium (acquired from the artist, 1946)
  • J. Toledo, São Paolo (acquired from the above, by 1975); sale, Sotheby’s, London, 2 December 1981, lot 70
  • Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: US$14,000,000 - 18,000,000
Hammer Price: US$11,250,000
Sold: US$13,347,500

Lot 10B | Tamara de Lempicka | Fillette en rose, Oil on canvas
Painted circa 1928-1930
115.9 x 72.8 cm

  • Boris Kitchen, San Francisco (acquired from the artist, then by descent); sale, Sotheby's, New York, 5 November 1982, lot 279
  • Acquired at the above sale by the late owner

Estimate: US$7,000,000 - 10,000,000
Hammer Price: US$12,500,000
Sold: US$14,785,000

Lot 7B | Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) | Nu couché, Oil and Ripolin on canvas
Painted on 13 October 1968
114 x 162.5 cm

  • Galerie Louise Leiris (Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler), Paris (acquired from the artist)
  • Anon. sale, Sotheby's Parke Bernet, New York, 1 November 1978, lot 58
  • Acquired at the above sale by the late owner

Estimate: US$10,000,000 - 15,000,000
Hammer Price: US$11,500,000
Sold: US$13,635,000

Lot 18B | Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) | The Family of Man: Ancestor II, Bronze with dark brown and green patina (Auction record for the artist)
Conceived in 1970; this bronze version cast in 1974
Height: 276.9 cm

  • Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., London (acquired from the artist).
  • Mr. and Mrs. Allen Kohl, Milwaukee.
  • Hokin Gallery Inc., Palm Beach.
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner, 11 February 1983.

Estimate: US$4,000,000 - 6,000,000
Hammer Price: US$9,700,000
Sold: US$11,565,000

Lot 5B | Egon Schiele (1890-1918) | Ich liebe Gegensätze, Gouache, watercolor and pencil on paper
Executed on 24 April 1912
47.9 x 31.5 cm

  • Franz Friedrich "Fritz" Grünbaum, Vienna (by 1928, from whom spoliated after March 1938)
  • Gutekunst & Klipstein, Bern (1956)
  • Erich Lederer, Geneva (by 1963, until at least 1985)
  • Anon. sale, Galerie Kornfeld, Bern, 17 June 1987, lot 170
  • Serge Sabarsky Collection, New York (acquired at the above sale)
  • The Woodbridge Company, Toronto
  • Private collection, New York (acquired from the above, 1 December 1991)
  • Restituted to the heirs of Fritz Grünbaum (2023)

Estimate: US$1,500,000 - 2,500,000
Hammer Price: US$9,200,000
Sold: US$10,990,000

Lot 42B | Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) | Quatre pommes et un couteau, Oil on canvas
Painted circa 1885
22.2 x 26.1 cm

  • Ambroise Vollard, Paris
  • Sidney and Jenny Brown, Baden (acquired from the above, 4 July 1933, then by descent)
  • Stiftung Langmatt Sidney und Jenny Brown, Baden (bequest from the above, 1987)

Estimate: US$7,000,000 - 10,000,000
Hammer Price: US$8,700,000
Sold: US$10,415,000

Lot 50B | Fernando Botero (1932-2023) | The Musicians, Oil on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Painted in 1979
217.2 x 189.9 cm

  • Marlborough Gallery, New York
  • Private collection, Monterrey
  • Anon. sale, Sotheby's, New York, 29 November 1983, lot 28
  • Private collection, New York
  • MacKenzie Galleries, Toronto
  • Tanenbaum collection, Toronto
  • Anon. Sale, Christie’s, New York, 23 May 2006, lot 46
  • Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: US$2,500,000 - 3,500,000
Hammer Price: US$4,200,000
Sold: US$5,132,000

Lot 20B | Joan Snyder (b. 1940) | The Stripper, Oil, acrylic, spray enamel, canvas strips, thread, glitter and tape on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Executed in 1973
153 x 293.4 cm

  • Private collection
  • Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1989

Estimate: US$80,000 - 120,000
Hammer Price: US$390,000
Sold: US$478,800

Auction Details:

Auction House: Christie's New York
Sale: 20th Century Evening Sale
Date: 9 November 2023
Number of Lots: 63
Sold: 61
Unsold: 2
Sale Rate: 96.8%
Sale Total: US$651,946,000