Around the Auction World: May 2021

James Ardis
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This time last year, the auction industry was at a standstill, hoping to wait out a pandemic. As it became clearer that those efforts were futile, the focus turned to bidding online, adapting to live streams, and building all-digital viewing rooms. 

May 2021 offered a sneak peek at how the industry will benefit from this new digital infrastructure even after the pandemic. As vaccines become more plentiful in some parts of the world, auction houses have leveraged both in-person bidding and their online platforms this month. The same proved true for a series of major art fairs.

Pablo Picasso, Femme assise près d’une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse). Image from Anthony Devlin/PA Wire.
Pablo Picasso, Femme assise près d’une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse). Image from Anthony Devlin/PA Wire.

More good news came from two of the auction industry’s major players, Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Although their 20th-century and contemporary art sales this month were billed as direct competition, both auction houses emerged as winners. The results further signaled the strength at the top of the market. 

From Basquiat to online bidding, Auction Daily looks back at the major headlines around the auction world in May 2021.

Industry Trends

Frieze New York 2021 was the first major art fair in New York City since the start of the pandemic. Its success proved art buyers still have a healthy appetite, a good omen both for art fairs and the auction industry. While much of the focus was on the in-person component of the fair, many galleries benefited from the online viewing rooms.

As some collectors look forward to in-person bidding, Bidsquare launched its “Auctions Near Me” tool. The new feature makes it easier for collectors to plan out their bidding strategy online before picking up a paddle.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Versus Medici. Image from Sotheby’s.
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Versus Medici. Image from Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s New York welcomed back in-person bidders with a marathon of evening sales on May 12th. Featured lots included the auction debut of a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, Versus Medici. The piece achieved USD 50.8 million, beating its pre-sale estimates and becoming one of the highest results for a Basquiat work.

The same week, Christie’s offered a portrait of Picasso’s muse to an empty salesroom. In the age of live-streamed auctions, though, this didn’t stop collectors. The Picasso portrait left its pre-sale estimate of $55 million in the dust, realizing $103.4 million.

Exhibition View. Now Is the Time: Recent Acquisitions to the Contemporary Collection. Image from the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Exhibition View. Now Is the Time: Recent Acquisitions to the Contemporary Collection. Image from the Baltimore Museum of Art.

As the art world tries to better champion diversity, the Baltimore Museum of Art claims a 2018 deaccessioning effort funded its recent purchase of works by underrepresented artists. The museum presented the acquired artworks this month as a proof of concept. Deaccessioning has been one of the biggest art world controversies throughout the pandemic, one that the Baltimore Museum of Art has often found itself at the center of.

Quote of the Month 

“There is a genuine desire not just for buying art but buying art in a way that makes you feel good, that gives you the opportunity to empower others along the way. More than ever, people are much more socially conscious of where their money goes, and they want to grab the opportunity of giving back to underserved communities.”

Shlomi Rabi, founder of Greenhouse Auctions

Auction Highlights

Choi Wook-kyung, Untitled, c. 1975. Image from Rago.
Choi Wook-kyung, Untitled, c. 1975. Image from Rago.

Beyond industry mainstays like Picasso and Basquiat, collectors had an eclectic mix of lots to choose from this month. That included two abstract paintings by South Korean artist Choi Wook-kyung, presented by Rago and Wright.

A Julien’s Auctions sale of Janet Jackson memorabilia exceeded expectations. The jacket that Jackson wore on her Rhythm Nation World Tour obliterated its pre-sale high estimate of $6,000, achieving $81,250.

Meanwhile, car enthusiasts had over 100 classic vehicles to choose from in Bonhams’ annual Amelia Island Auction. Among the oldest cars on offer was the 1909 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost.

Rolls-Royce 40/50HP Silver Ghost Open Drive Landaulette, 1909. Image from Bonhams.
Rolls-Royce 40/50HP Silver Ghost Open Drive Landaulette, 1909. Image from Bonhams.

More Highlights From the Month

Provenance, Paws, and Personality: Sue Pearson’s Teddy Bear Collection Available in SAS Event

BYDealers Offers 20th-Century Canadian Art, From the Group of Seven to Les Automatistes 

Keith Haring’s Legacy and History at Auction

3 Record-Breaking Fabergé Egg Auctions From Across the Industry

Artist to Know: Chryssa Vardea

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Writer
James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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