$1 billion art week could mark recovery

Key Points
  • Three auction houses set to auction more than $1 billion in fine art this week.
  • The star of the week will likely be an untitled work from Jean-Michel Basquiat.
  • The Basquiat could fetch $60 million, and be the most expensive work sold for the week.
"Leda and the Swan" by Cy Twombly
Source: Christie's

The three major auction houses are set to auction off more than $1 billion worth of fine art this week, marking a test of whether collectors can shrug off turmoil in Washington and sagging stock markets.

Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips have an estimated $1.3 billion worth of works on the block this week. That would mark an increase from last May's sales total of $1.1 billion, but about half the sales totals from the market's recent peak in 2015.

This week is arguably the most important of the year for the big auction houses and comes at a critical moment in the art market. While prices, confidence and supply rebounded after the presidential election, with solid buying last November and early in the year at art fairs, it remains to be seen whether the uncertainty in Washington and recent softness in stocks could slow the growth.

For their part, the auction companies are optimistic.

"I think the mood is very good," said Loic Gouzer, co-chairman of Christie's Americas post-war and contemporary art. "Clients are calling on a constant basis wanting to know what's going on, what's for sale, they want to see the works." He added that "for us the driving force is the works. If we have the works, the quality is there and people follow."

The big demand and the biggest prices are in post-war and contemporary art, which are more popular with today's younger, new rich.

The star of the week will likely be Jean-Michel Basquiat, the 1980s artist who's primitive, bold canvases have become favorites of collectors who came of age in the 1980s. Sotheby's is selling a 6-foot untitled Basquiat from 1982 that's expected to sell for $60 million, which could be the most expensive piece sold for the week.

"You have what we call a perfect storm," said Gregoire Billault, head of contemporary art at Sotheby's. "We have a painting that is completely fresh, never seen, kind of a new discovery because the only image we've had was this thumbnail and it's also the very best. So this combination of these elements explain the price we are asking for that painting, and the story will tell."

"Untitled" by Jean-Michel Basquiat
Source: Sotheby’s

Christie's has a Basquiat of its own titled "La Hara," that depicts a police officer. It could sell for between $22 million and $28 million.

The other contender for the top seller this week is Cy Twombly's "Leda and the Swan," which has remained in the same collection for 25 years and is a sister painting to one displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The piece is expected to fetch up to $55 million.

A Francis Bacon triptych, once owned by famed author Roald Dahl, is being sold by Christie's and could fetch between $50 million and $70 million.

While the prices are high, they are still a fraction of the top prices in 2015, when top paintings were selling for nine figures. At that time, rich collectors from Russia, China, the Middle East and Latin America were bidding up values way beyond their estimates.

Today, the Russians have largely vanished from the market, along with the Middle Eastern buyers, who are grappling with lower oil prices. Now, the bidders are largely coming from the U.S. and Asia.

"Europe is down but that doesn't mean that you're not going to have amazing European bidders," Billault said. "Asia and America are the two biggest and more aggressive economies participating in our auctions."

While economic factors like stock markets weigh on the minds of collectors, the auction houses say prices ultimately depend on how much a particular collector loves a particular painting.

"The market and the mood can have its own curves," Gouzer said. "But one constant is that our market is still growing. You have collectors coming from around the world and every year we have new buyers."