African American Art Shines in Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction

Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction took place on the third day of London Sale Week. Although the star lots did not fetch extremely high prices, the results were beyond satisfactory, with a sold by lot of 94 percent and a sale total higher than the overall low estimate. The focal point of the sale was Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times, which reached US$21.1m, breaking his personal record in auction.

Marshall, aged 62, is an African American artist who grew up during the Civil Rights Movement. When he was studying art and design in college, he discovered that amongst 2,000 narrative paintings, none had African Americans as protagonists. Seeing this imperfection in the art world, he decided to make changes.

In reality, African Americans have different skin tones. Yet, in Marshall’s works, all African Americans share the same skin colour– they are all black figures. This is against reality and it gives a sense of imbalance, confronting racial stereotypes within contemporary American society. It is Marshall’s signature style.

Part of the painting

Past Times was painted in 1997. It belongs to his famous series of paintings– ‘Garden Project’, which investigates the daily life of African Americans living in urban housing projects through the canonical frame of pastoral landscape painting.

Starting at US$6m, the bidding was extremely intense. After over 20 bids, the painting was hammered down at US$18m for a telephone bidder who was represented by Jacqueline Wachter, Vice President of Private Sales Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s. The price with premium is US$21.1m, well above Marshall’s personal record of US$5m that was made last year at Christie’s sale. The painting became the 4th most expensive painting sold in the sale.

Back to the top three lots sold at the auction. The sale was headlined by Jackson Pollock with his revolutionary drip paintings Number 32, 1949, which epitomizes the chromatic brilliance, heroic gesture, and thrilling dynamism that came to define an entire generation of artists. It also embodies the radical shift Pollock pioneered through his drip technique first executed in 1947.

Offered an opening bid at US$25m, the painting was hammered down for US$30m, just enough to meet its low estimate. The painting was bought by the telephone bidder represented by Amy Cappellazzo, Chairman of the Fine Art division, for US$34m with buyer’s premium.

The second top lot fell to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Flesh and Spirit. Measuring 368.3 by 368.3 cm, it is the largest of an elite series of multi-paneled paintings the artist created in 1983.

Imbuing his painting with the symbolic potency of a relic, Basquiat engaged the very structure of Flash and Spirit as a vehicle for meaning in his aesthetic investigation and interpretation of spiritual tradition. He suffused his painting with an extraordinary exploration of the flesh, grounded in the familiar illustrations of Gray’s Anatomy, as ballast for invocation of the bygone spiritual traditions outlined in Flash of the Spirit.

The auctioneer started the bidding at US$24m but saw a tepid bidding atmosphere. He knocked down the hammer at US$27m, below the low estimate US$30m, and sold it for US$30.7m to the telephone bidder represented by Bernard Lagrange.

The third highest price was realised by David Hockney’s Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica, which represents a dazzling tour de force of a critical breakthrough from the artist's decades-long career. Considered as one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century, Hockney is best known for his contribution to the pop art movement of the 1960s.

The painting was hammed down for US$25m, within its estimate range, and sold for US$28.4m with premium included. The winning bid was made by the client of Patti Wong, Chairman of Sotheby's Asia. There is a high chance that the anonymous bidder is an Asian collector.

Of all 50 lots offered, only 3 lots were withdrawn or passed. The sale achieved 94 percent sold by lots and a total hammer price at around US$246m, exceeding the sum of low estimates.


Top four lots

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). Number 32, 1949.

Lot no.: 14
Size: 78.7 x 57.1cm

  • Galerie Anne Abels, Cologne
  • Galerie Toninelli, Milan
  • Private Collection, Sweden
  • Milton D. Ratner, Chicago
  • Robert Elkon Gallery, New York (acquired from the above)
  • Acquired by the present owner from the above in September 1983

Estimate: US$30,000,000 - 40,000,000
Hammer price: US$30,000,000
Price realised: US$34,098,000

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988). Flesh and Spirit. 

Lot no.: 24
Size: 368.3 x 368.3cm

  • Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York
  • Dolores Ormandy Neumann, New York (acquired from the above in January 1983)
  • Thence by descent to the present owners

Estimate: US$30,000,000
Hammer price: US$27,000,000
Price realised: US$30,711,000

David Hockney. Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica.

Lot no.: 21
Size: 198.1 x 304.8cm

  • André Emmerich Gallery, New York 
  • Private Collection, New York 
  • André Emmerich Gallery, New York 
  • Private Collection (acquired from the above) 
  • Acquired by the present owner from the above 

Estimate: US$20,000,000 - 30,000,000
Hammer price: US$25,000,000
Price realised: US$28,453,000

Kerry James Marshall. Past Times

Lot no.: 5A
Size: 275 x 398.8cm

  • Koplin Gallery, Los Angeles
  • Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1997

Estimate: US$8,000,000 - 12,000,000
Hammer price: US$18,500,000
Price realised: US$21,114,500

Auction summary

Auction house: Sotheby’s New York
Sale: Contemporary Art Evening Auction
Sale date: 2018/5/16
Lots offered: 50
Sold: 47
Unsold: 3
Sold by lots: 94%
Sale total: US$284,542,500