Sotheby’s Wraps Up New York Auctions with US$310m Contemporary Art Sale

Propelled by the record-obliterating US$450.3m paid for Salvator Mundi, three big auction houses have achieved sale totals of above US$2b and pulled off one of the most lucrative New York sales seasons.

Overshadowed by Christie’s unparallel sale of the last Da Vinci painting, Sotheby’s failed to impress buyers and collectors at its sluggish Contemporary Art Evening Sale, despite the gimmicky offer of a Ferrari Formula-I racing car at the sale. The sale wrapped up the New York auctions with an anticlimactic end.

Yet, Sotheby’s deserved a credit for its remarkable sell-through rate of 95.8%, with only three lots unsold out of a total of 72. The sale brought in a solid total of US$310m (US$303m excluding the Ferarri car), a 12% increase from its US$276m contemporary art sale in 2016.

The auction was presided over by Oliver Baker, Chairman of Sotheby's Europe. The leading lot of the sale was Francis Bacon's Three Studies of George Dyer

George Dyer

This set of Three Studies of George Dyer was painted in 1966 and appeared in public just once at a Marlborough Gallery show in 1967. Bacon used his unique visual vocabulary to create the heavily distorted portraits that encompass the full range of his and Dyer’s tempestuous and passionate love.

The bidding started at US$30m and rose to US$35.5m after six bid increments. The bid was only US$500,000 higher than its pre-sale estimate of US$35m and was followed by no subsequent bids. The auctioneer asked for a higher bid but in vain. The painting was hammered down at US$35.5m and was sold for US$38.6m to a telephone bidder represented by Alex Branczik (image above), Head of Contemporary Art, Europe. 

The second most expensive painting was Andy Warhol's Mao, which had been held in private European collection since 1972. This painting belongs to the very first group of only 11 Mao paintings, executed between March and May 1972 by Warhol.

The bidding began at US$26m and increased to US$28.5m after six bid increments. The painting was then hammered down at US$28.5m, below its pre-sale estimate of US$30m-40m. It was sold for US$32.4m with buyer's premium to an Asian private collector. 

Roy Lichtenstein's Female Head was acquired just months after its execution in 1977 from Leo Castelli Gallery and appeared at auction for the first time. Female Head fuses the diverse vernaculars of Cubism, Surrealism, and Pop in a captivating dialogue between masterpieces both past and present.  

Offered an opening bid of US$7.5m, the painting elicited a six-minute bidding by five bidders. After 26 bid increments, it was hammered down at US$21.5m, far exceeding its estimate US$10m-12m. It was sold for US$24.5m including buyer's premium. 

Ferrari F2001

Another highlight of the sale fell to lot no. 55 - Michael Schumacher’s Monaco Grand Prix-Winning Ferrari F2001. It was the first time a car has been offered at a Sotheby’s art auction. The Ferrari sparked a six-minute battle between eight bidders and was sold for US$7.5m, a new auction record for a modern era Formula One car.

Top 3 lots (by price realized)

Francis Bacon. Three Studies of George Dyer.

Lot no.: 40
Created in: 1966
Size: 35.6x30.5cm

  • Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London
  • Basil and Elise Goulandris, Athens (acquired from the above in 1968)
  • Private Collection
  • Acquired by the present owner from the above

Estimate: US$35,000,000 - 45,000,000 
Hammer price: US$35,500,000
Price realized: US$38,614,000

Andy Warhol. Mao.

Lot no.: 45
Created in: 1972
Size: 208.3 by 152.4 cm.

  • Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich
  • Gian Enzo Sperone, Turin
  • Private Collection, Turin (acquired by the present owner from the above in 1972)
  • Acquired by the present owner from the above

Estimate: US$30,000,000 - 40,000,000
Hammer price: US28,500,000
Price realized: US$ 32,404,500

Roy Lichtenstein, Female Head.

Lot no.: 29
Size: 152.4 by 127 cm.

  • Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC #789)
  • Acquired by the present owner from the above in November 1977

Estimate: US$10,000,000 - 15,000,000
Hammer price: US$21,500,000
Price realized: US$24,501,500


Auction summary:

Auction house: Sotheby’s New York
Sale: Contemporary Art Evening Auction
Auction date: 2017/11/16
Sale total: US$310,289,350
No. of lots: 72
Sold: 69
Unsold: 3
Average price per lot: US$4,496,947
Sell-through rate: 95.8%

(All prices realized have included buyer’s premium unless otherwise specified)