The art market is on such a tear even the insiders are scratching their heads. Since New York’s spring sales started last week, at least $2.1 billion of art has been sold at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, with the top 10 lots accounting for almost $800 million.
Christie’s said collectors from 35 countries were bidding at its May 11 sale while Sotheby’s said clients from more than 40 countries were out in force the next evening. They jockeyed for Impressionist, modern, postwar and contemporary art.
“There’s a lot of money out there and people are chasing great works,” said Mera Rubell, who, along with her husband, Don, runs a private museum in Miami showcasing their collection. “Now the young artists are selling for millions.”
That means bargain hunters will be sorely disappointed: Picasso and Monet may be at record highs, but prices for living (if not quite young) artists are nipping at their heels. The 60-year-old Christopher Wool’s canvas spelling “Riot” in chunky black letters sold for $29.9 million — the same price paid for a 1948 Picasso portrait of his lover Francoise Gilot.
Records were smashed. In just 11 minutes, bidding for a Picasso surged from $100 million to $160 million before settling at $179.4 million, the most expensive work ever purchased at auction. The value of the work increased by 462 percent.
You know the market is frothy when a Monet that sells for $40.5 million doesn’t make the final cut for a top 10 list.
The sales continue today at Christie’s and Phillips. Here are the top 10 lots so far in New York:
Pablo Picasso, “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’),” $179.4 million
This is the most expensive work ever sold at auction: Pablo Picasso’s colorful 1955 painting “Women of Algiers.” The price smashed the record held by Francis Bacon’s $142.4 million triptych, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,’’ since November 2013. The Picasso buyer so far is unidentified. (Christie’s, May 11)
Alberto Giacometti, “L’Homme au Doigt,” $141.3 million
Alberto Giacometti’s 1947 bronze sculpture of a life-size pointing man set an auction record for a sculpture and for the Swiss artist. The price beat the high five years ago for Giacometti’s $103.4 million “Walking Man” sculpture — also a record at the time for any artwork at auction. (Christie’s, May 11)
Mark Rothko “No. 10,” $81.9 million
Five bidders chased this 1958 deep red and black abstract work. The price is the second-highest for a Rothko; his auction record is $86.9 million, set in 2012. “No. 10” spent 30 years in the same private collection. (Sotheby’s May 13)
Pablo Picasso, “Buste de Femme (Femme a la Resille),” $67.4 million
Picasso’s scarlet 1938 portrait of the artist’s lover Dora Maar was consigned by casino mogul Steve Wynn. His reaction after the sale? “I thought it was a fair price,” he said. (Christie’s, May 11)
Vincent Van Gogh, “L’Allée des Alyscamps,” $66.3 million
The buyer of Van Gogh’s 1888 painting was a bespectacled Asian man in the salesroom who spoke on the phone while bidding and declined to be identified. The seller bought this vibrant autumnal view of a tree-lined lovers’ lane in Arles, France, for $11.8 million in 2003 — making this an eye-popping 461.9 percent price increase. (Sotheby’s, May 5)
Lucian Freud, “Benefits Supervisor Resting,” $56.2 million
The late British artist’s portrait of a fleshy, naked British civil servant named Sue set an auction record for the artist. Sue has been a model for Freud in other paintings. In 2008, “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” sold for $33.6 million. (Christie’s May 13)
Andy Warhol “Colored Mona Lisa,” $56.2 million
Warhol’s 10-foot-tall silkscreen from 1963 shows multiple images of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait of Mona Lisa in blue, yellow, black and pink. (Christie’s May 13)
Claude Monet, “Nympheas,” $54 million
This painting of one of Monet’s most recognizable images, the water lily pond in the artist’s garden at Giverny, France, sold to a U.S. private collector. Painted in 1905, it was estimated at $30 million to $45 million by the auction house. (Sotheby’s, May 5)
Francis Bacon “Portrait of Henrietta Moraes,” $47.8 million
Bacon’s work depicts the artist’s friend and model reclining nude on a mattress. (Christie’s May 13)
Mark Rothko, “Untitled (Yellow and Blue),” $46.5 million
This 8-foot-tall 1954 abstract was once owned by U.S. banker Paul Mellon and his wife, Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, and later by Christie’s billionaire owner Francois Pinault. It was sold by Malaysia’s Low family, which has investments and business interests around the world. The new owner is an Asian private collector. (Sotheby’s, May 12)