Exploring Christie’s Vault, Jam-Packed With $200 Million in Art

Works by Rothko, Basquiat, Cy Twombly, and more bump up against each other in this humble storage space.
A Sneak Peek Inside Christie's Underground Art Vault

Every November, often for no more than a day or two, some of the most valuable of art in the world sits unseen, frame against frame, in the bowels of Christie’s Auction House in New York’s Rockefeller Center.

It’s there as part of New York’s annual November auction bonanza, which begins next week, when Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips will sell (or at least, try to sell) more than $1.5 billion worth of art over the course of five days.

A work by Mark Rothko estimated to sell for $25 million to $35 million.
Source: Christie's

The paintings in Christie’s vault were shipped from private collections around the globe, often just days in advance of the formal previews.

Even as Alexander Rotter, the co-chairman of Christie’s Postwar & Contemporary department, toured the vault (which is air controlled and accessed via an elevator that operates only with a digital key), upstairs in the auction house’s public galleries, much of the Eppler collection, a $60 million trove of modernist works by such giants as Alexander Calder, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning, was already on display.

A work for sale by the prized contemporary artist Kerry James Marshall.
Source: Christie's

The majority of the works—both on display and in the vault—will appear in Christie’s postwar and contemporary day sales, which, together, are expected to bring in a total of $479 million. “The market is unusually strong,” said Marc Porter, the chief executive officer of Christie’s Americas at an event co-hosted by Bloomberg Media Group on Wednesday night. “It’s largely driven by estates coming onto the market, and some discretionary selling.”

A work by Leonardo da Vinci, which will go up for auction with an estimate around $100 million,
Source: Christie's

Inside the Vault

Much of the art in the approximately 500-square-foot vault is hung on sliding wire racks that can be rolled back and forth, while others, including a 1957 painting by the artist Mark Rothko, was displayed on wheeled stands.

A 1957 painting by Cy Twombly is estimated to sell in the region of $20 million.
Source: Christie's

Art handlers scurried in and out of the space, taking paintings up to private viewing rooms for particularly important clients, but even with several masterpieces from the show missing (the $100 million Leonardo, for instance, was still on its way from London at the time of the visit), the art casually hanging on wire racks totaled hundreds of millions of dollars. Pull one rack, and out pops a white painting by Twombly estimated to sell around $20 million. On another is a painting by the contemporary artist Kerry James Marshall, whose almost universally lauded exhibition at the Met Breuer earlier this year drew crowds for months. (Estimated to sell between $1 million and $1.5 million, the work, in comparison with everything else on view, is a comparative bargain.)

Peter Doig’s Almost Grown, which carries an estimate of $10 million to $15 million.
Source: Christie's

Other pieces in the vault included a painting by Philip Guston estimated to sell in the range of $5 million to $7 million, a $25 million-to-$35 million 1982 work by Jean Michel Basquiat, whose market has recently seen a single work crest at $100 million, and a work by John Currin, an artist represented by the powerful Gagosian gallery, which carries the ambitious estimate of $6 million to $7 million.

Blockbuster Sale

Since 2015, the auction market has been comparatively subdued, particularly on the highest end, so the extraordinary number of $20 million-plus artworks in Christie’s upcoming sale represents something of a comeback for the auction house. “You can definitely get a general read of the art market” from the sale, said Rotter. “After the results are in.”

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