The Auction Edit: A Rundown of the Top Lots, Biggest Twists, and Most Shocking Sales This Season

Over the last week, New York became a hotbed of art sales as Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips held their annual spring auctions, pulling in a combined $1.4 billion. Given the contracted market, the houses, sellers, buyers, and art-world aficionados alike watched between their fingers as night after night the auctions performed slightly below or within their estimates. 

When this much work goes under the hammer, there are always surprises to be had, even in a market slowdown. To cap off the week, CULTURED offers the insider angle on what went down at the auctions. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (ELMAR), 1982. Image courtesy of Phillips.

Top Lot of the Week: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (ELMAR), 1982

Phillips clinched the week’s top lot during their modern & contemporary evening sale with Basquiat’s massive eight-foot-wide painting. Created not long after dealer Anina Nosei discovered the artist through an exhibition at the then-dubbed P.S.1, the work came to auction through the collection of the late Italian anthropologist Francesco Pellizi, and fell well within its original estimate, collecting a cool $46,479,000. 

Most Memorable Development: Christie’s Tech Hack

Casting a shadow over the already lackluster market conditions was the Christie’s technology hack on May 9, which shut down the promotional side of the website in the crucial few days leading up to auction week. Despite the house’s insistence that it was a “technology security issue,” the art world speculated it could’ve been a more dire situation, even a sensitive data leak. Still, Christie’s managed to pull off its three major auctions and the website was back online on Sunday—10 days after it shut down. 

Brice Marden, Event, 2004-07Image courtesy of Christie's.

Biggest Plot Twist: Christie’s Pulling Brice Marden’s Event

If the hack weren’t enough, Christie’s had another surprise when it pulled its star lot—the late Brice Marden’s Eventat the eleventh hour, which was predicted to fetch between $30 and $50 million and had an in-house guarantee. Part of his "Plane Image" series, the previously never-before-seen painting had recently made a world tour, hitting Art Dubai and Art Basel Hong Kong before being splashed across the cover of the sale catalog. The reason for the late-breaking change of heart? A desire to wait until the market felt “right,” according to Christie's chairman Alex Rotter.

Most Notable Collection: The Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz Collection 

It was a bit of a shock that the de la Cruz Collection shuttered its Miami Design District location after Rosa’s death this February, with a selection of works from the private museum coming to auction through Christie’s. The evening proved to be, quite literally, a bright spot. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (America #3), 1992, headlined the sale: the house dimmed the lights and illuminated the string of light bulbs before it opened bidding. The work sold for $13.6 million to the Pola Museum in Hakone, Japan. 

Justin Caguiat, The saint is never busy, 2019. Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Brightest New Auction Star: Justin Caguiat

The Japanese-born, New York-based artist and poet made a spirited showing at Sotheby’s “The Now” sale, which is dedicated to ultra-contemporary art. His work The saint is never busy pulled in more than three times its predicted sum and set a new record for the artist at $1.1 million. Blending cloud-like abstraction with earthy tones, the painting was a big draw in his 2020 solo show at Modern Art, London. Eight bidders went back and forth over the painting, cementing Caguiat as a talent to watch. 

Leonora Carrington, Les Distractions de Dagobert, 1945. Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Most Shocking Sale: Leonora Carrington, Les Distractions de Dagobert, 1945

While Monet’s haystack may have taken the top spot at Sotheby’s modern evening sale, it was Leonora Carrington’s Surrealist stylings that made the room gasp. After a 10-minute bidding war, the 1945 painting went for $28.5 million, blowing its $12 million-to-$18 million estimate completely out of the water. Driving this surge was a story of the one that got away: Argentine real estate developer Eduardo Costantini was the underbidder on the painting 30 years prior, and said he couldn’t stand to miss out once again. 

Faith Ringgold, Dinner at Gertrude Stein’s: The French Collection Part II #9, 1991. Image courtesy of Sotheby's.​​​​

Most Missed Artist: Faith Ringgold 

The late Faith Ringgold, who died in April at the age of 93, set the Sotheby’s contemporary evening auction off to the races when her textile work, Dinner at Gertrude Stein’s: The French Collection Part II #9, went for $1.6 million, setting a new record for the artist. Depicting a scene from the Paris travels of her protagonist Willa Marie Simone, the work was met with uproarious demand (which came in direct contrast to the offered works by Frank Stella, who died earlier this month, many of which didn't meet their minimum estimates). 

Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Sandwoman Series/Serie Mujer de Arena), 1983. Image courtesy of Christie's.

Most Rapid Record-Setter: Ana Mendieta 

The late Cuban-American performance artist, photographer, and sculptor, whose work rarely comes to market, was a big draw in the de la Cruz collection sale. Her auction record was shattered twice within the span of less than an hour. A set of 12 photographs called Silueta Works in Mexico, 1973–77, set the mark at $277,200 before her 1983 sculpture Untitled (Sandwoman Series/Serie Mujer de Arena) later sold for $567,000.