This past week, Christie’s announced auction channel sales of £3.9 billion (US$5 billion) for 2019.
Key highlights for the year included:
- A new top price for any living artist at auction, achieved with Jeff Koon’s Rabbit, which realized US$91,075,000 at Christie’s New York in May 2019.
- Numerous record prices in 2019, including top prices for artworks and objects sold in London (David Hockney, Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, for £37,661,248/US$49,521,696), Hong Kong (Sanyu, Five Nudes, for HK$303,984,992/US$38,848,420) and Geneva (Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime ref. 6300A for ONLY WATCH for CHF31,000,000/US$31,244,094). In Paris Nicolas de Staël’s Parc des Princes realized €20,000,000/US$22,254,368, and set a record for the artist and was the top price for any lot sold at Christie’s Paris this year.
- Christie’s remained the auction house of choice for major private and estate collections, achieving the top three results for named collections in 2019 with Masterpieces from the Collection of S.I. Newhouse, The Robert B. and Beatrice C. Mayer Family Collection, and Maharajas and Mughal Magnificence.
- Strong results were also achieved for the collections of notable collectors David Gilmour, Drue Heinz, the Irving Collection, James and Marilynn Alsdorf, Terry Allen Kramer, Eileen and I.M. Pei, Richard L. Weisman, George Michael, the Clarke Collection, Ron and Diane Disney Miller, the Matthys-Colle Collection, works from the UniCredit Group, Jeremy Lancaster, and masterpieces from a Rothschild Collection.
A Celebration of George Michael
The year opened with news that The George Michael Collection was to be sold in London. Highlights were exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Shanghai before a special multi-media exhibition at King Street drew thousands of fans to celebrate the singer’s life, his music and the art he lived with.
The collection spoke volumes about a man who touched millions, due to the autobiographical nature of many of the works and because it revealed the extent to which George Michael had supported YBA artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
Numerous artists’ auction records were set across the live auction and the online sale, but perhaps the most poignant came with Commissioned Portrait Untitled (George) by Michael Craig-Martin, the man who taught many of the YBAs at Goldsmiths in London. The wall-mounted LCD sold for £175,000 in the online sale, contributing to a collection total of £11,328,125.
The money raised from the sale will extend the philanthropic legacy built by George Michael during his lifetime.
The Golden Light of The Setting Sun
Paul Signac (1863-1935), Le Port au soleil couchant, Opus 236 (Saint-Tropez), 1892. Sold for £19,501,250 on 27 February 2019 in London
On a chilly night in London, Paul Signac’s pointillist masterpiece of a summer sunset over the port of Saint-Tropez struck a chord with collectors. Painted in May 1892, the work eclipsed Signac’s record price at auction, which had been set at Christie’s in 2007.
Christie’s Global President Jussi Pylkkänen described the painting as ‘one of the last great Signacs in private hands’, a billing that befitted the price it achieved: £19.5 million (including premium).
Fit for Royal Feet
An important Safavid ‘polonaise’ carpet. Sold for £3,724,750 on 2 May 2019 in London
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to walk on gold? In May Christie’s offered a Safavid rug woven with silver- and gold-wrapped thread, which sold for £3,724,750 — almost seven times its low estimate.
It was one of two polonaise carpets being auctioned that day, both of which were handmade in the royal ateliers of 17th-century Isfahan in Iran and presented to the future King of Poland. He in turn gifted them both to the Arch-Chancellor of the Holy Roman Empire, and they spent the following 300 years in the Weissenstein Palace in Germany
The exceptional price they achieved was largely due to their brilliant condition, which, said specialist Louise Broadhurst, was the result of being hung rather than walked on. The other carpet, which realised £3,895,000, is soon to be exhibited at the Houston Museum of Fine Art.
The Fruit of Cézanne’s Labours
According to Alex Rotter, Chairman of the Post-War & Contemporary Art department in New York, the 11 masterpieces from the collection of S.I. Newhouse, the late American publishing magnate and one of the great art collectors of his age, represented ‘one of the most sought-after groupings of art in private hands’.
Works were spread across two auctions: the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale and the Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale. The star lot of the former proved to be Cézanne’s still life, Bouilloire et fruits, a mature work painted in Aix-en-Provence.
Bidding opened at $30 million and rose swiftly before it was eventually captured by a telephone bidder. The £59,295,000 paid came close to passing the record figure for a work by Cézanne at auction.
Just 48 hours later, in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, another work from Newhouse’s collection would break a very significant record indeed.
An African Spirit Mask
But first came the auction of this mesmerising Kifwebe masterpiece. Worn over the face and accessorised with raffia-palm beards, Kifwebe masks have been used for hundred of years by the Songye people of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Before the auction, Christie’s specialist Susan Kloman explained that the mask’s patina, built up over years of handling, suggests it was once of great importance. On the day of the sale the mask, which would have been used to summon spirits, achieved $4,215,000, setting a new world record for any Songye artwork.
The Ultimate Modern Icon
Standing at just over three feet high, and made from polished stainless steel, the sculpture seems to be a mass of contradictions — solid, weightless, sensual, inert. It was instantly embraced by artists and critics, drawing comparisons with Brancusi’s perfect forms.
‘I couldn’t get my head around its simple beauty at first,’ recalled Damien Hirst. ‘I was stunned. The bunny knocked my socks off.’
Rabbit was offered in New York, the ultimate prize in the sale of masterpieces from the collection of S.I. Newhouse. Bidding started at $40 million and quickly rose to $60 million, with the work finally selling for $91,075,000. It was the top price achieved at Christie’s in 2019, and set a new world auction record for a work by a living artist.
An Homage to Monet and Matisse
Executed on three canvases spanning almost five metres, Zao Wou-Ki’s monumental Triptyque 1987-1988 was his homage to Monet and Matisse — two of the painters who inspired his 1948 move from China to Paris.
The painting, which its owner had acquired directly from the artist, was the second-largest by Zao Wou-Ki ever to have been offered at auction.
In his autobiography, Zao wrote of his intent when working on this scale: ‘I wanted to make the surface of the canvas vibrate with contrasts or multiple bursts of a single colour… I later realized that balance is more easily attained on a large surface rather than small… I had transitioned from sentimental painting to painting space.’
Triptyque 1987-1988 led the Spring Season sales in Hong Kong, and when it was offered on 25 May it produced a very impressive result: HK$178,000,000, or just under US$23 million.
The Birth of Modern Business
In late spring, books and manuscripts specialist Margaret Ford announced that Christie’s would be offering this exceedingly rare book, a tome that experts agree has had a profound influence on modern economics.
Somma di arithmetica was written in 1494 by Luca Pacioli, a friend and collaborator of Leonardo da Vinci. The most important mathematical book of the Renaissance, it outlined the principles of capital, accurate bookkeeping and inventory control, used the plus and minus symbols in print for the first time, and offered advice on the ethics of good business.
The Financial Times described Somma di arithmetica as ‘a how-to guide to succeeding in business’, adding that it contained a guide to communicating large numbers with hand signals: ideal for making discreet deals on trading floors.
The book came to auction on 12 June at Christie’s in New York, just a few miles from Wall Street. It achieved $1,215,000, easily eclipsing the prices paid for the other two copies that have appeared at auction in the past 50 years.
An Art Deco belt-buckle brooch by Cartier. Sold for $1,545,000 on 18 June 2019 in New York
After a global tour, a special New York exhibition, and a 12-hour auction presided over by five auctioneers, the Maharajas & Mughal Magnificence collection totalled $109,271,875 in New York — the highest for any auction of Indian art and Mughal objects, and the second highest for a private jewellery collection.
Almost 400 lots were offered, ranging from legendary Golconda diamonds to dazzling coloured stones, jewelled objects used in the royal courts to swords and daggers once owned by Indian rulers. Bidders came from 45 countries across five continents, and included a significant number of institutions.
One of many star lots was an Art Deco emerald belt-buckle brooch by Cartier, which was designed for Sybil Sassoon, Marchioness of Cholmondeley, who wore it to the coronations of King George VI in 1937 and Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Applause rose from the packed saleroom when it fetched $1,545,000.
David Gilmour’s ‘Black Strat’
Fender Stratocaster known as ‘The Black Strat’. Sold for $3,975,000 on 20 June 2019 in New York
When the first guitar from a 122-strong collection belonging to Pink Floyd guitarist, singer and songwriter David Gilmour sold for $423,000 against a low estimate of $10,000, gasps could be heard from the hundreds of bidders and fans who had queued round the block for a seat in Christie’s Rockefeller Center saleroom.
The price was not such a surprise given the huge interest in the run-up tot the sale. Over 12,000 fans had booked timed slots to to view the guitars on their world tour, 500,000 people had looked at the instruments online, and more than 2,000 collectors from 66 countries had registered to bid in the auction.
Gilmour’s iconic ‘Black Strat’, which he played on The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall, was the final lot in the sale and sold for $3,975,000, becoming the world’s most expensive guitar in the process.
After the auction, the Black Strat’s new owner told Rolling Stone magazine that after winning the penultimate lot, the Black Strat’s flight case, for $175,000 (175 times the low estimate), he thought he would ‘look like a jackass’ if he didn’t bag the guitar to go with it. Gilmour donated his proceeds from the sale, which realised a total of $21,490,750, to the charity ClientEarth.
The Match That Inspired A Masterpiece
This monumental canvas broke two records when it appeared as part of Christie’s FIAC Week sales in Paris in October — the highest price ever for a work at auction by Nicolas de Staël, and the highest price ever for a painting of a soccer match.
De Staël depicted a night-time game that he had watched between Sweden and France at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. The work, which measures three and a half metres by two metres, hovers between the opposing realms of abstract and figurative painting.
De Staël died just three years after painting Parc des Princes, at the tragically young age of 41. After the auction, Pierre Martin-Vivier, Christie’s Director of 20th Century Art in Paris, described the work as ‘a masterpiece that challenged the whole pictorial idiom of the post-war period’.
‘The date is burned in my brain,’ says specialist Laura Mathis, recalling the day Paysage d’hiver, coucher du soleil, by the Belgium landscape painter Valérius de Saedeleer, sold in New York.
Although the 19th-century symbolist painter is largely unknown in the United States, Mathis was convinced the work would attract interest. ‘The painting has this magical quality which draws people in,’ she says. ‘So many people stopped to look at it during the view.’
De Saedeleer takes Old Master traditions and reveals them through a modern lens, explains the specialist. ‘He was painting at the end of the 1800s, when mystical symbolism was in vogue. So what we get are these distinctive, haunting landscapes painted with very thin glazes, that give the work a wonderful tonality and depth.’
Paysage d’hiver, coucher du soleil sold for $143,750, considerably higher than its pre-sale estimate. ‘De Saedeleer’s appeal crosses collecting categories,’ says the specialist. ‘I’m hopeful we will see more of his landscapes come to auction.’
The Globe-Trotting Hadrian
A Roman marble statue of the Emperor Hadrian. Sold for $5,950,000 on 29 October 2019 in New York
Standing mid-oration, with a loosely draped mantle and displaying washboard abs, this marble statue of the Roman Emperor Hadrian has been raising eyebrows for almost 2,000 years.
In 1790, after a stint in a Roman villa that had been owned by Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590), the statue was sold to Lord Darnley, the incumbent of Cobham Hall in Kent. He proudly placed it on a plinth in Cobham’s Great Hall for all to see. Then, in 1957, it passed to an American bank, which curiously mounted it inside a glass dome outside a branch in Louisiana.
In 2008 the bank asked Christie’s to auction the statue. It was bought by the English collector Christian Levett, who wanted Hadrian to greet visitors at his new Mougins Museum of Classical Art in France.
In 2019 Levett auctioned the statue in order to raise funds for the museum, and after travelling back to the United States once again it sold for a handsome $5,950,000 — the top lot of autumn’s Classic Week in New York.
The ‘Ultimate Grail’ For Watch Collectors
Henry Graves Jr.’s Patek Philippe minute repeating wristwatch. Sold for CHF4,575,000 on 11 November 2019 in Geneva
Henry Graves Jr., the American banking and railroad magnate, was the 20th century’s greatest watch collector. ‘Owning a piece from his collection is the ultimate grail,’ explains Christie’s Senior International Watch Consultant John Reardon.
Graves’ patronage of Patek Philippe is the stuff of legend — between 1922 and 1951 he ordered no fewer than 39 watches from the Swiss watchmaker. In 1928, Graves collected this yellow gold tonneau-shaped minute repeating watch from the company’s Geneva headquarters. It was the first minute repeater to be made by Patek Philippe and is also believed to be the first Patek wristwatch in Graves’s collection.
The international press described the watch as ‘a masterpiece’ and ‘oozing character’. Hodinkee, the specialist watch website, even billed the auction as one of the most important events of 2019. The timepiece more than lived up to its billing, realising CHF4,575,000 at the Four Seasons in Geneva.
Made For An Emperor
A highlight of the Autumn Season in Hong Kong, this rare Qing-dynasty bowl was once owned by the legendary Chinese porcelain collector Robert Chang, and has been described as ‘without question one of the finest works of art made for Emperor Kangxi’.
Kangxi, who reigned from 1654 to 1722, was one of the greatest patrons of art in the history of China. He established workshops in the Forbidden City in Beijing, where master craftsmen created exceptional ceramics, such as this bowl, for the imperial family.
Christie’s Chinese Ceramics specialist Chi Fan Tsang explained that the bowl’s appeal lies in ‘its seductive shape, enamelling and decoration, and the fact that it was made during a time when falangcai [porcelains painted in imperial workshops with enamels partly introduced from the West] production had reached its perfection’. The bowl sold for HK$87,200,000.
Guillaume Cerutti, Chief Executive Officer, commented: “Amid a challenging global environment, demand for art remains strong and is reflected in our 2019 results, especially for Modern and Contemporary art. In the last month alone, we were particularly pleased by the results achieved in New York for Christie’s 20th Century Art week, in Hong Kong for our Autumn sale series—despite a heightened political context—and in London during our Classic Week sales, including Old Masters. We are looking forward to continuing the momentum in 2020.”
For more on Christie’s top 2019 moments, please visit our online feature here.
Christie’s will publish full 2019 results, inclusive of private and e-commerce channel sales, in early 2020.