The Back Room

The Back Room: Testing, Testing

Every Friday, Midnight Publishing Group News Pro members get exclusive access to the Back Room, our lively recap funneling only the week’s must-know intel into a nimble read you’ll actually enjoy.

This week in the Back Room: a London auctions recap, David Kordansky loses a star, Duncan McCormick’s curious auction rise, and much more—all in a 9-minute read (2,371 words).


Top of the Market

Learning From London

Christie's 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale, February 28, 2023. Courtesy Christie's Images Limited 2023..

Christie’s 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale, February 28, 2023. Courtesy Christie’s Images Limited 2023.

All eyes were on London’s modern and contemporary sales last week as the first public market test of the year. It feels longer than ever since the New York auctions last fall, when the $1.5 billion Paul Allen sale left the market in a mood of tentative optimism. Since then, financial markets have continued to be impacted by the war in Ukraine, crypto-volatility, and China’s unpredictible Covid policies. While London has so far managed to stave off a recession, the consensus is that it, along with the rest of the global economy, is still careening towards one.

So what can we take away from Christie’sSotheby’s, and Phillips’s marquee evening sales last week? We break it down below.

1. Sale Totals Are Down

Sale totals are down across the board compared with the equivalent sales last year. Here’s the breakdown (after withdrawn lots).

Christie’s 20th / 21st Century Evening Sale

  • Totalled £128.9 million ($155.4 million) with fees, which is a 38.3 percent drop compared with the £209 million achieved for this portion of last year’s analogous sale, a relay between Shanghai and London.
  • 74 lots, which is a 15.9 percent drop on the 88 lots offered last year
  • Sell-through rate: 87 percent

Sotheby’s Now and Modern and Contemporary Evening Sales

  • Totalled £172.6 million ($208.2 million) with fees, also a 22 percent dip on the £221.4 million that Sotheby’s realized a year ago for the equivalent sales.
  • 56 lots, 23.3 percent fewer than last year’s 73
  • Sell-through rate for Now: 100 percent  
  • Sell-through rate for Modern and Contemporary: 83 percent

Phillips’s 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale

  • Totalled £20.3 million ($24.3 million) with fees, 32 percent down from the evening sale held a year ago.
  • 23 lots, a whopping 43.9 percent down on the 41 lots offered in 2022
  • Sell-through rate: 100 percent

2. The Air Is Thinning at the Top of the Market

Despite some rosy post-sale press releases, a read between the lines shows the top end of the market failed to ignite the lucrative bidding wars specialists might have been counting on this season.

  • The top lot at Christie’s was an enormous late Picasso portrait Femme dans un rocking-chair (Jacqueline) (1956, estimate: £15 million – £20 million / $18 million – $24 million). The work, which was guaranteed by a third party, hammered below estimate at £14.5 million ($17.4 million) on just one bid.
  • One of the top lots at Phillips, Gerhard Richter’s 1983 abstract Mathis, offered by French collector Marcel Brient, was withdrawn at the last minute, wiping an estimated £10 million to £15 million off the slate. The night’s next top performer was a late De Kooning painting, also offered by Brient, which hammered at £5 million ($6 million), less than its £7 million ($8.4 million) low estimate.
  • Taken at face value, the results at Sotheby’s tell a different story, with trophy lots on the line-up including a restituted Wassily Kandinsky “Murnau” painting, which set a new high-water mark for the artist of £37.2 million ($44.9 million). Four more works achieved more than £15 million ($18 million). However, it should be noted that every single eight-figure lot in the sale carried was guaranteed, hammered within estimate, and did so without fireworks.

3. There Is Continued Appetite for the New New

After rocketing 500 percent in sales in five years, by the end of 2022 total sales in the ultra-contemporary category declined 10 percent year-over-year, per data from the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database. While the feeding frenzy may have calmed down for many of last year’s market stars, speculative bidding was alive and well for the still-new-enough hot names.

  • Christie’s sale opened on Michaela Yearwood-Dan’s Love me nots, which hammered at £580,000 ($753,800)—buoyed with fees to £730,800 ($879,956), setting a squeaky new record for the artist.
  • Sotheby’s the Now sale was 100 percent sold and seven artist records were set, for Michael Armitage, Raghav Babbar, Miriam Cahn, Guglielmo Castelli, Jana Euler, Spencer Lewis, and Chloe Wise.
  • At Phillips, Caroline Walker’s Threshold (2014) ignited an 11-minute bidding war before it hammered at £730,000 ($872,521), that is £927,100 ($1.1 million) with fees—more than 3.5X its high estimate, and smashing the record set at Christie’s evening sale just a few nights earlier.

4. …But Petering Interest in the Old New

In a sign of the fast-changing tastes of the market, Katya Kazakina pointed out in her column last week that the familiar names that performed explosively at auctions in the recent past were conspicuously missing from the lineup. Trendy works of Black portraiture, bro-primitivism, and Spanish New Wave were nowhere to be seen, nor were erstwhile auction faves like Jadé Fadojutimi, and Christina Quarles. Another two artists who used to be ubiquitous: Amoako Boafo and Nicolas Party, just had one lot apiece on the block this week, and the results tell a story of dynamite cooling.

  • Boafo’s The Shadow of Imana hammered at £400,000, just £50,000 above its high estimate, at Christie’s.
  • At Sotheby’s, Party’s Trees hammered at £1.1 million, within its £900,000 – £1.3 million estimate.

5. Mixed Results for German Modern and Impressionists

      • At Christie’s, two Ernst Ludwig Kirchner paintings failed to find buyers, as did an Erich Heckel painting, and Edgar Degas’s Trois Danseuses. An Otto Dix watercolor hammered at £200,000 ($240,460), less than half its low estimate. It was a sad day, too, for Chaim Soutine, whose Femme assise dans un fauteil, was also a pass, eaten up by the house, which had guaranteed it.
      • Later at Sotheby’s, Frank Auerbach’s Head of J.Y.M., a highlight lot expected to bring in between £1.2 million and £1.8 million, was withdrawn very quietly ahead of the sale. And a Robert Delauney—the evening’s priciest work sans guarantee—hammered £1 million below its £7 million low estimate

The Bottom Line

All told, London’s sales kept the market ticking along, with active participation even if no one was flexing big. Given the economic headwinds, things could definitely have been worse.

This early litmus test showcases the art market’s resilience to economic downturn. That said, this season’s slimmed down catalogues, multiplying presale financial agreements, and greater tendency towards opacity (notably, Sotheby’s did not disclose withdrawn lots at the head of its sale) are smoke and mirrors projecting a healthier market than is strictly accurate. Still, there are some realities—such as the true value of overpriced artists whose markets have been inflated by speculation—that are becoming clearer by the minute.

Read More: 

Naomi Rea on Christie’s

Eileen Kinsella on Sotheby’s

Vivienne Chow on Phillips

Katya Kazakina on the Flip Class of 2023


Paint Drippings

The latest Wet Paint tracks Calvin Marcus’s sudden departure from David Kordansky and outlines the new watering holes, both secret and not technically open, in New York City that dealers are flocking to.

Here’s what else made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…

Art Fairs

  • Harry Van der Hoorn and Thomas Woodham-Smith, co-founders of the original Masterpiece fair, will hold The Treasure House Fair this June in London. It will take place in Chelsea in lieu of this year’s cancelled edition of Masterpiece. (Press release)
  • And Now proprietor James Cope is launching the new Dallas Invitational Art Fair this coming April 20 through 23, coinciding with the Dallas Art Fair. The event will be held in guest rooms at the Fairmont Hotel which is across the street from the marquee fair. (The Art Newspaper)
  • The same week, Art Brussels will host its 39th edition at Brussels Expo, and they’ve just announced their 180 exhibiting galleries. (Press release)

Auction Houses

  • Seven more works from the Paul Allen collection are hitting the block at Christie’s during its May sales in New York. Estimated to bring in more than $40 million on the high end, the works include three paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, three oils by David Hockney and a 1929 Edward Hopper watercolor. (Financial Times)
  • Phillips New Now sale in New York on March 8 brought in $8.4 Million. Highlights included works by Emma Webster and Derrick Adams, and six records were set for artists including Daisy Dodd-Noble and Tammy Nguyen. (Press release)
  • Led by Pablo Picasso’s Femme nue couchée jouant avec un chatSotheby’s is presenting work from storied Californian collectors Jan and Maria Shrem across the New York auctions this May. (Press release)


  • Kate Fowle, former director of MoMA PS1, has joined Hauser and Wirth as curatorial senior director, based in New York. (ARTnews)
  • Sargent’s Daughters is planning an expansion to its New York City flagship location. (Press release/Wet Paint)
  • Otobong Nkanga has left Mendes Wood DM to join Lisson Gallery.  (The Art Newspaper)


  • The Whitney Museum of American Art’s director Adam D. Weinberg is stepping down this fall after 20 years. Deputy director Scott Rothkopf is next in line to take on the role beginning November 1. (New York Times)
  • Hansen Mulford, chief curator of the Orlando Museum of Art, has quietly retired after 42 years. The news comes just under a year after the FBI raided the museum for a group of questionable paintings on display attributed to Jean-Michel Basquiat. The investigation is still ongoing. (Orlando Sentinel)
  • Tate Liverpool will close from October 16, 2023 through 2025 to undergo a major revamping process that is set to cost around $36 million. (BBC)

Tech and Legal News

  • Copenhagen’s Von Bartha Gallery will present a new solo exhibition by Swiss artist Athene
  • The auction of the Yuga Lab’s first-ever Bitcoin-based NFT netted around $16.5 million in sales. Two hundred eighty-eight of the 300-edition artworks were claimed by bidders, and the remaining 12 inscriptions for “future contributors, future donations, and philanthropic efforts.”  (CoinDesk)
  • The World Intellectual Property Organization has sided with Ethan Arnheim, who was accused of cybersquatting for running satirical websites that mock the Sheldon Solow Foundation and its tax exemption status. (The Art Newspaper)

“The art dealer Larry Gagosian agreed to an interview about Ms. Zhukova, a longtime client, but cut it off at the first question, after the mention of the word ‘Moscow,’ and said he was uncomfortable.”


—An interaction with the mega-dealer, who has been conducting business with Russians since at least 2003, recalled in a New York Times profile of Russian-American socialite Dasha Zhukova, ex-wife to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who is in the midst of rehabilitating her image in the wake of the war in Ukraine. (NYT)

Work of the Week

Duncan McCormick’s Red Tree House (2020)

Duncan McCormick, Red Tree House (2020). Courtesy of Phillips.

Duncan McCormick, Red Tree House (2020). Courtesy of Phillips.

Date: 2020


Estimate: £10,000 – £15,000 ($11,994 – $17,992)


Selling at: Phillips, 20th Century and Contemporary Art Day Sale


Sold for: £152,400 ($182,799)


Sale Date: March 3


It isn’t an exaggeration to call Duncan McCormick an international man of mystery at this point. Aside from his birthdate and residence in Shropshire, U.K., the only other line item in the bio on the painter’s personal website is that he held a single exhibition at Waterhouse and Dodd gallery in London in 2022. Curiously, Waterhouse and Dodd’s website makes no mention of the exhibition, though the gallery did offer McCormick’s whimsical, candy-colored landscapes, suburb-scapes, and interiors at the 2023 editions of Art Palm Beach and the Palm Beach Show. (As part of the former event, Waterhouse and Dodd even dedicated an online viewing room to McCormick.)

The gallery (which operates a location on East 76th Street in New York, too) did not reply to an email inquiry about its history with McCormick, his representation status with the gallery, or what might have accounted for Red Tree House bringing more than 10X its high estimate after fees in its record-setting performance at Phillips last week. What we do know is that the result wasn’t an anomaly. None of the four McCormick paintings offered at auction to date has been estimated to sell for more than £15,000—and yet, none has gone for less than £119,700 (just shy of $146,500 at the time), according to the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database. All four works mounted the auction block between December 8, 2022 and March 3, 2023, and all were acquired directly from the artist by whomever consigned them to the auction houses, deepening the market intrigue around McCormick’s sudden rise.

—Tim Schneider

Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.

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The Back Room: The Doig Defection

Every Friday, Midnight Publishing Group News Pro members get exclusive access to the Back Room, our lively recap funneling only the week’s must-know intel into a nimble read you’ll actually enjoy.

This week in the Back Room: a different type of Peter Doig solo show, a job posting for the ages, the quick COVID recovery of California’s creative class, and much more—all in a 6-minute read (1,757 words).


Top of the Market

Going His Own Way

Peter Doig, Swamped (1990). Image courtesy Christie's.

Peter Doig, Swamped (1990). Image courtesy Christie’s.

It isn’t often that one of the world’s most expensive living artists exits their longtime gallery to go independent. But Peter Doig wasn’t afraid to step out, as we learned two weeks back. And what prompted his split with Michael Werner Gallery, his dealer for nearly a quarter-century, has been the talk of the industry ever since.

How sought after is Doig’s work? His auction record stands at $39.9 million, for the sale of Swamped (1990) at Christie’s New York in November 2021. To date, five Doig works have sold for more than $20 million each under the hammer, while 19 works have gone for more than $10 million each, according to the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database.

That’s rare air for a 63-year-old painter still regularly wielding his brushes. Which makes Doig’s decision to fly solo all the more intriguing—though maybe not as lonely as it might sound at first.


What We Know

Doig’s recently opened solo exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in London features 12 new paintings, and Werner’s name is nowhere to be found on their wall labels. When asked by our colleague Eileen Kinsella, a representative for the gallery confirmed that it no longer represents Doig.

Neither does any other commercial dealer, it turns out.

“Peter is now working independently and not represented by any gallery,” said Parinaz Mogadassi, the artist’s wife as well as the founder and proprietor of Tramps Gallery on the Lower East Side.

Mogadassi worked with Doig in her previous roles at both Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and at Werner. Her statement makes the Courtauld exhibition the highly unusual case where fresh works went straight from a major artist’s studio to an institution’s walls, with no gallery managing the handoff.

The paintings on view at the Courtauld, some large in scale, include works that were created in the Scottish-born artist’s new studio in London, where he recently relocated from his longtime home in Trinidad. None are for sale at present.

If they were, though, they could add up to more than $10 million in market value. Sources said primary-market prices for Doig’s work tend to run in the seven figures. (The Courtauld show also includes 19 works on paper; some works are loaned from private collections, including that of François Pinault.)


What Caused the Rift?

The picture has gotten clearer with time.

One source told Kinsella that Doig simply appeared to be “taking a pause, or a beat.” But another hinted at something deeper, relaying that “the split between painter and gallery had been happening gradually for quite a while, and that the Courtauld show simply had the effect of making it more official,” Kinsella wrote.

Our colleague Annie Armstrong built on this foundation in last week’s Wet Paint. Her conclusion? The breakup stemmed from “slights inflicted by the gallery that [Doig] felt constituted breaches of their relationship.” The water allegedly boiled over fast enough to leave Werner “largely out of the picture for the last stage of exhibition planning” at the Courtauld.

Although Armstrong’s sources alluded to “several signs of a deteriorating relationship” between the gallery and Doig over the course of the pandemic, chief among them seems to be the severing of “financial ties” between Werner and Mogadassi.

Aside from Mogadassi having curated a show for Werner, Tramps had long “acted as a feeder gallery” to the larger dealer. Several artists, including Florian Krewer and Raphaela Simon (both of whom studied under Doig at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf) and Kai Althoff—were funneled up from Tramps to Werner’s blue-chip operation, with a profit-sharing model governing the exchange.

In 2021, though, the pipeline closed up. “I left for many reasons, but let’s put it this way—when you work with and for others it should feel collegial not conspiratorial,” Mogadassi told Wet Paint via email. (A Werner rep declined to comment, other than to reconfirm Doig’s exit.)


Doig’s Next Act

Does anyone but Doig stand to benefit if and when his new paintings at the Courtauld meet the market, to say nothing of whatever he makes next?

For starters, Mogadassi said that Tramps “has collaborated extensively with Doig on projects in the past, and will certainly continue to do so in the future. It is an organic evolution of both the personal and professional relationship between he and I.”

But there’s another figure to consider, too: the super-secretive, super-powerful Joe Hage, the London-based artist manager and partner at law firm Joseph Hage Aaronson. In her February 16 Financial Times columnMelanie Gerlis wrote that Hage “has managed Damien Hirst and Peter Doig for many years and works with other artists and estates.”

Among those others is (or at least, was) at least one more A-lister. Our colleague Kenny Schachter wrote in his most recent column that, “For eons [Hage] served as Gerhard Richter’s gatekeeper.” He went on to venture that Doig may have split with Werner so that Hage could be the one “directly leading the conversations” around his work.


The Bottom Line

Armstrong’s sources downplayed Hage’s importance in motivating the split between Doig and Werner. But the twin presence of Hage and Mogadassi should also remind us that there is a major difference between Peter Doig going without gallery representation, and Peter Doig going it alone.

In that sense, Doig’s divorce from Werner becomes another chapter in the larger story of star artists embracing a new level of autonomy with new types of support, not just hopscotching from one blue-chip dealer to the next when irreconcilable differences arise.

Will Doig and his team push this paradigm even further into new territory? That’s one question that no one can predict yet. But the industry is, and should be, anxiously awaiting the answer.



Paint Drippings

Wet Paint is on break this week, but here’s what else made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…


Art Fairs

  • Hong Kong nixed its nearly three-year mask mandate this past Wednesday, removing one more inconvenience for residents and visitors ahead of Art Basel Hong Kong. (NPR)
  • Early sales at Arco Madrid were particularly strong for Spanish galleries, but healthy attendance by international collectors and institutions gave dealers hope for the fair’s trademark slower-burn success. (Midnight Publishing Group News)

Auction Houses

  • We unearthed the identities of four major consignors to this week’s London auctions, which sought to ring up as much as $506 million via works sourced in part from the likes of an Israeli real estate tycoon and one of Mexico’s richest men. (Midnight Publishing Group News Pro)
  • Despite a tumultuous economic environment, Christie’s London kicked off the auction week with back-to-back evening sales that brought a within-estimate total of £167.8 million ($202.2 million). (Midnight Publishing Group News)
  • One night later, Sotheby’s London held a dual evening sale that netted £172.6 million ($208.2 million), short of the $297.2 million realized a year ago in the same sales. (Midnight Publishing Group News)

Galleries and Agencies

  • Gagosian has announced representation of Derrick Adams, with a solo show set to open at the gallery’s Los Angeles space this September. (LGDR’s website still lists Adams as one of its artists.) (Press release)
  • Mike Goss, the former Sotheby’s CFO and Bain Capital COO, has been named a partner at Art Intelligence Global. (Press release)
  • Former Hauser and Wirth associate director Jed Moch is joining New York’s Company Gallery as its new director. (Press release)


  • Thomas Lee, the billionaire financier and noted collector who sat on the boards of MoMA and the Whitney, died by suicide at age 78. (Evening Standard)
  • Mitchell Rales donated $1.9 billion in cash and stock to his Glenstone Foundation, the nonprofit running his private museum of the same name. The gift boosts the value of Glenstone’s asset trove to $4.6 billion, nearly on par with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Bloomberg)
  • The opening of the Smithsonian Institution’s American Women’s History Museum is likely at least a decade off, but efforts to establish its home have already received $55 million in donations, including from fashion designer Tory Burch, Walmart heiress Alice L. Walton, and philanthropist Melinda French Gates. (Midnight Publishing Group News)

Tech and Legal News

  • A new E.U.-wide directive on sales tax, set to take effect in 2025, could impose a 20 percent levy on artworks. The move has riled up France’s art market, which has benefited from being able to charge a reduced tax rate of just 5.5 percent in many cases. (Midnight Publishing Group News)


 “The ideal candidate must be dedicated to a simple goal: make life easier for the couple in every way possible.”

—Excerpt from a since-deleted ad for an executive assistant position on the New York Foundation for the Arts job board. Numerous signs suggest that the post, which was widely ridiculed for its mind-melting gauntlet of responsibilities and $65,000-to-$95,000 salary range, came from art-world power couple Tom Sachs and Sarah Hoover. (Midnight Publishing Group News)


Data Dip

California’s Creative Bounceback

Courtesy of the Otis College Report on the Creative Economy 2023.

Courtesy of the Otis College Report on the Creative Economy 2023.

California’s creative economy largely outperformed both its counterpart in New York and the state of California overall in recovering from the pandemic, according to the latest edition of Otis College of Art and Design’s annual report on the subject.

The trend is visible in the following key findings from the study, which tracks individual and aggregate data across five creative sectors: entertainment; fine and performing arts; architecture and related services; creative goods and products; and fashion.

  • The creative economy directly contributed 14.9 percent ($507.4 billion) of California’s $3.4 trillion worth of gross regional product in 2021, and 7.6 percent (1.8 million) of its 23.4 million jobs.
  • Employment in California’s creative economy rebounded by roughly 3 percent year over year in 2021, compared to 2.7 percent in the state’s overall economy, and only about 1 percent in New York state’s creative economy over the same period.
  • Drilling down further, Los Angeles county’s creative employment rate improved by roughly 4.5 percent in 2021, versus less than 2 percent in New York City’s creative economy during this stretch.

California’s recovery at the state level is all the more significant because its creative economy dwarfs New York state’s in overall size. For example, California hosted 1.1 million entertainment jobs in 2021, accounting for 4.8 percent of all creative sector employment. Although entertainment jobs in New York made up roughly the same share of the state’s total employment (4.5 percent), they numbered only 542,321—about half as many as their west-coast counterparts.

—Eileen Kinsella

[Read More]



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The Back Room: Who Benefits, Exactly?

Every Friday, Midnight Publishing Group News Pro members get exclusive access to the Back Room, our lively recap funneling only the week’s must-know intel into a nimble read you’ll actually enjoy.

This week in the Back Room: the strange calculus of charity auctions, Adam Lindemann tries to make history (again), a Ugandan star on the rise, and much more—all in a 6-minute read (1,654 words).


Top of the Market

Goodwill Stunting

Auctioneer Simon de Pury conducts an auction on May 26, 2022 during the annual amfAR Cinema Against AIDS Cannes Gala at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Cap d'Antibes. Photo: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP via Getty Images.

Auctioneer Simon de Pury conducts an auction on May 26, 2022, during the annual amfAR Cinema Against AIDS Cannes Gala at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Cap d’Antibes. Photo by Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP via Getty Images.

Are benefit sales a problem, a solution, or both? In last week’s Art Detective column, Katya Kazakina dived into the world of charitable auctions—specifically, their potential to be used as a vehicle for (ahem) market encouragement.

While raising funds for underfunded institutions and other causes they hold dear is a solid motivation for any artist to donate their work to a benefit sale, recent history suggests that appearing in such sales can also be a wise (and lucrative) move for their markets.

As a case in point, consider the most recent fundraising gala for the Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach. The six-lot live sale raised more than $700,000 thanks to a roomful of museum trustees, connected donors, and other wealthy individuals battling it out for new works by buzzy artists with long wait lists at major galleries—all (allegedly) in the name of philanthropy.

The biggest-winning talents of the night included…

  • Marina Perez Simão, whose benefit piece brought $140,000 versus primary-market prices ranging from $35,000 to $250,000 at
  • George Rouy, whose contribution commanded $160,000 versus primary prices topping out at $100,000 at Almine Rech.

Notably, neither artist had previously appeared at auction, per the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database.

So, which parts of this construct get a little uncomfortable?

For starters, charity auctions can contribute to speculative bubbles forming. Katya cites the cautionary tale of Jacob Kassay, who saw one of his iridescent silver canvases sell for 12X its high estimate at a Kitchen benefit in New York during the Zombie Formalism boom. Soon after, he achieved a (for-profit) auction record of $317,000…  shortly before his auction market collapsed.

Still, the number of hot young artists persuaded to take the gamble would indicate the risk to reward ratio remains persuasive.

As Katya puts it, charity auctions create a “virtuous cycle—not dissimilar to the curse of BOGO (“Buy One, Gift One”)—where everyone seems to benefit, but which is based on the asymmetry of access and information. While galleries and artists don’t directly profit from these sales, many find ways to indirectly monetize them to build up publicity and justify steep primary market prices.”

It’s little wonder, then, that it is now common practice for some of today’s best-selling contemporary artists to regularly donate works to auction for charitable causes. As a case study, Katya pinpoints Rashid Johnson, whose top three auction prices to date were all achieved by such lots…


Rashid Johnson’s Benefit Sale Boom

  • May 2021: $1.95 million artist record set at Christie’s for Anxious Red Painting, sold to benefit the Community Organized Relief Effort.
  • November 2021: $2.55 million artist record for Bruise Painting “Or Down You Fall, sold to benefit climate-law initiative
  • November 2022: $3 million artist record (yes, again) for Surrender Painting “Sunshine,” sold to benefit the Right of Return Fellowship to support formerly incarcerated creatives.

Johnson’s primary prices have also lifted skyward the same timeline…

  • 2021: large “Bruise” paintings, shown at David Kordansky Gallery, were priced at $600,000 to $1.2 million each.
  • June 2022: large new paintings exhibited at Hauser and Wirth in Menorca were offered at $975,000 to $1.75 million


The Inflection Point

Once upon a time, artist-donated works were kept to dedicated charity sales and benefit galas. But lots to raise philanthropic funds have been appearing in major auction houses’ main evening sales with increasing frequency in the past 10 years, further blurring the lines between a good cause and cold commerce.

The inflection point arrived in May 2013, when Sotheby’s contemporary evening and day sales in New York included 25 works sold to benefit the Whitney Museum’s campaign for a new building. Leading the charge was a new Jasper Johns painting that went for $2.85 million, helping to push total sales for the grouping to $19.1 million, more than 150 percent of its $12 million high estimate.

The tide has risen considerably since then, elevating right along with the larger growth in demand for works by living artists at auction. And yet, in some ways, we still have no more resolution than we did a decade ago.

The haziness extends to auction data itself. Benefit works offered in for-profit auctions are recorded alongside typical commercial results in the Midnight Publishing Group Price; works donated to live and silent auctions conducted by nonprofits are not.

Also in question is whether money spent on benefit sales qualifies as tax deductible. Several attorneys disagree on the merits. Meanwhile, auction houses tend to defer the judgment to the charities themselves.

All of which means that the parameters, ethics, and market machinations of charity auctions remain murky even as the competition, prices, and stakes increase.


The Bottom Line

It is no doubt generosity and passion for the cause that drives many artists to donate their beloved works to benefit auctions. But if the cards are played just right, those same artists could also reap the significant rewards of new visibility among a high net worth crowd, a new benchmark for secondary sales, and new justification for higher primary-market prices.

Maybe there really is no such thing as a selfless act in the art market…




Paint Drippings

The latest Wet Paint track Kanye West’s surprise appearance at a Frieze Los Angeles party, and argues that the city of Angels has reversed its opinion on infamous flipper Stefan Simchowitz

Here’s what else made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…


Art Fairs

  • Check back later today for our Frieze Los Angeles opening-day sales report.
  • Zona Maco opened its 19th edition in Mexico City last week, and sales rolled in steadily with an emphasis on photography and textile works. (Midnight Publishing Group News)
  • The Open Art Fair in London canceled its 2023 edition, stating “that there is not sufficient interest from exhibitors to justify” the event. (Press release)


Auction Houses

  • Hindman’s sale of surrealist paintings more than doubled its presale estimate, netting more than $1.4 million. Better than half that total (about $780,000) came from the sale of five Gertrude Abercrombie paintings. (Press release)
  • Christies Ventures, the auction house’s V.C. arm, is acquiring a non-controlling equity stake in Australian art financier Art Money for an undisclosed amount. (Financial Review)


Galleries and Agencies

  • Peter Doig split with dealer Michael Werner after almost a quarter-century of representation. (Midnight Publishing Group News)
  • Venezuelan–American artist Loriel Beltrán joined Lehmann Maupin and made his debut this week at Frieze Los Angeles, while mythology-informed painter Cassi Namoda signed with 303 Gallery in New York (but will continue working with Goodman Gallery in JohannesburgCape Town, and London). (Press releases)
  • Mendes Wood DM is expanding to Paris, opening a new space in the city’s 3rd arrondissement in the Place des Vosges. (ArtDaily)



  • Tate Britain will unveil the first complete rehang of its free collection displays in 10 years. Half the 800 works on view will be by women artists, including overlooked greats from the 17th, 18th, and 19th (Press release)
  • SFMOMA named Sheila Shin its first-ever chief experience officer, tasking her with taking “strategic priority to enhance its role as an inclusive, community-centered museum.” (ArtDaily)
  • The Blanton Museum of Art in AustinTexas received a gift of 5,650 works of Latinx and Chicanx art donated by collectors Gilberto Cárdenas and Dolores Garcia. (Artnews)


Tech and Legal News

  • LACMA accepted a gift of 22 NFTs by 13 international artists from pseudonymous collector Cozomo de’ Medici, just days after the Centre Pompidou announced its first NFT acquisitions, including a CryptoPunk donated by Yuga Labs. (Midnight Publishing Group News)
  • London art law powerhouse Joseph Hage Aaronson added Jonathan Olsoff and Antonia Serra, the former worldwide and European general counsel (respectively) at Sotheby’s, as well as VAT and customs expert Andrew Hare. Olsoff shuttered his post-Sotheby’s firm, the New York-based Olsoff Cahill Cossu, in January to move overseas. (Financial Times)


*Correction to last week’s edition: We incorrectly stated that Phillips’s London evening sales would be led by two late Willem de Kooning canvases from the collection of Marcel Brient with a combined upper estimate of £24 million ($29.1million). In fact, there will be one late de Kooning and one Gerhard Richter.

[Read More]


“No one sold Jeff Koons for $20 million before me. After me, it was all $20 million.”


Adam Lindemann, pumping up his forthcoming sale of works at Christie’s on March 9 by arguing that his willingness to auction pieces by major living artists improved their markets forever after. Lindemann sold Koons’s Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold) at Sotheby’s for $23.5 million in 2007, four years after acquiring it for roughly $1.2 million. (New York Times)


Work of the Week

Collin Sekajugo’s Stock Image 40 – Colourful Wedding

Collin Sekajugo, Stock Image 40 - Colourful Wedding (2022). Photo by Aurélien Mole. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia Paris / Brussels.

Collin Sekajugo, Stock Image 40 – Colourful Wedding (2022). Photo by Aurélien Mole. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia Paris / Brussels.


Date:                   2022

Seller:                 Galerie Nathalie Obadia

Price:                  €45,000 ($48,012)
Offered at:          1-54 Marrakech
Fairs Dates:         February 9–12


One of the most celebrated aspects of the 2017 Venice Biennale was the inauguration of the Ugandan pavilion. Opening the new national exhibition space was a two-person show by Collin Sekajugo and Acaye Keruneni that earned a special mention (along with the French pavilion) from the biennale’s jury. It also launched Sekajugo onto a new career trajectory that continued at the latest edition of 1–54 Marrakech last week.

Derived from stock photographs, Sekajugo’s compositions call attention to the creeping neo-colonialism enabled by the way Western aesthetics and identity proliferate around the globe. Stock Image 40 – Colourful Wedding riffs on a press image from the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle; it’s part of his latest series of portraits of ambiguous figures of power and influence.

Galerie Nathalie Obadia featured the painting in its booth at 1–54 Marrakech as a complement to the Sekajugo solo exhibition currently on view in its Faubourg Saint Honoré location in Paris. The dealer began working with him in Paris and Brussels after the 2017 biennale’s opening.

Sekajugo also just recently expanded his gallery network by signing with Blum and Poe in territories outside Europe. Expect to see more of his striking work in a major fair booth near you in 2023.


—Naomi Rea


Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.

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The Back Room: Old Masters, New Life?

Every Friday, Midnight Publishing Group News Pro members get exclusive access to the Back Room, our lively recap funneling only the week’s must-know intel into a nimble read you’ll actually enjoy.

This week in the Back Room: an Old Masters auction overview, an Ernie Barnes mystery, a Winfred Rembert groundswell, and much more—all in a 7-minute read (1,913 words).


Top of the Market

Back From the Dead?

Sotheby's sale of Old Masters in New York on January 26, 2023. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Sotheby’s sale of Old Masters in New York on January 26, 2023. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Has the European Old Masters market found a new lease on life? Results from the genre’s marquee auctions in New York this January gave more merit to the idea than we’ve had in years. But a closer look suggests that it would be wise to keep our expectations in check.

Our colleague Eileen Kinsella wrote that the Old Masters sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s last month “marked the most robust in recent seasons, bolstered by top-notch private collection offerings… museum interest, and to an increasing extent, fresh interest from new buyers.”

Recent data backs up her claim. In 2022, Sales of European Old Masters (which we define as artists born between 1250 and 1820) continued a two-year ascent, generating $785.3 million, per the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database.

That total represents 11 percent year-over-year growth compared to the $704.4 million brought by the genre in 2021—as well as its highest total in the past half-decade.

Meanwhile, lots by ultra-contemporary artists (which we define as those born after 1974) moved in the opposite direction in 2022. Annual sales in the genre declined for the first time in five years, dropping from $741.4 million in 2021 to $668.2 million last year.

Against this backdrop, the biggest hits at the Old Master auctions of January 2023 felt like something more than a random anomaly. Consider some of the…


New Artist Records Set

  • Peter Paul Rubens’s Salome presented with the head of Saint John the Baptist sold for $26.9 million after fees (estimate: $25 million).
  • Goya’s Portrait of Doña María Vicenta Barruso Valdés… sold for $16.4 million after fees (estimate: $15 to $20 million), more than doubling his previous high of $7.7 million.
  • Bronzino’s Portrait of a young man with a quill and a sheet of paper sold for $10.7 million after fees (estimate: $3 million to $5 million).
  • Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s album of illustrations for the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine sold for $2.7 million after fees (estimate: $1.5 million to $2.5 million).

New high marks were also established for the likes of Marinus van Reymerswale, Gerard de LairesseThomas DaniellGiuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari, and Jean Valette-Falgores (called Penot).

At the same time, it’s crucial to step back and contextualize the new records and fanfare against…


The Big Picture Results

The total for all evening sales at both houses was just under $149.4 million after fees. That’s more than 2.5X the combined $56 million worth of Old Master sales made in London in December, a total that was itself one of the best seasons in years, Kinsella noted.

And yet, to get an accurate picture, we also need to compare January’s auction totals to their respective presale estimates.

(Mea culpa: Although we normally try to collect hammer totals for an apples-to-apples comparison with presale estimates, that wasn’t possible this time. Nevertheless, even the premium-inclusive prices below help orient us.)



  • Main sale: $44.2 million after fees (low estimate: $46.7 million)
  • J.E. Safra collection sale: $18.5 million after fees (low estimate: $19.2 million)
  • TOTAL: $62.7 million after fees (low estimate: $65.9 million)
  • What Else to Know: Experts said that Christie’s made two shrewd choices to spur bidding: first, to offer all 75 lots across both sales sans reserve; second, to return these auctions to their usual January slot after a lackluster experiment in April. The Safra collection was 100 percent sold, too.



  • Main sale: $28.8 million after fees (low estimate: $23.0 million)
  • Fisch Davidson collection sale: $49.6 million after fees (low estimate: $40.0 million)
  • Theiline Schumann collection sale: $8.0 million after fees (low estimate: $6.7 million)
  • TOTAL: $86.4 million after fees (low estimate: $69.7 million)
  • What Else to Know: The Fisch Davidson collection (which, like the Macklowe collection, was sold as part of a divorce settlement) had been guaranteed in full, but all 10 Baroque lots found buyers en route to becoming the top auction of this cycle.


The Bottom Line

Overall, January’s Old Master auctions paint a fuzzy picture of the genre’s future.

The optimist’s view? In an unquestionably bizarre economy, the raw total of dollars spent on the category, as well as the relatively healthy performance of its top lots, represent greater signs of strength than they would in more carefree times. Add in the emergence of new buyers, especially in the U.S. and Asia, and Old Masters may have legs.

The skeptic’s view? The macroeconomic trends have been stabilizing considerably, few of the individual Master auctions meaningfully outperformed their presale expectations, and an uncharacteristically high influx of quality works this season elides that supply in this genre is still an outsize challenge—and almost always will be.

We lean toward the skeptical view. Aside from the aspects above, the art world’s true propulsion is its social value. Yes, Old Master specialists have done well to update their sales strategies and reframe their narratives in a more progressive, inclusive direction. But it’s hard to imagine the genre generating a comparable cool factor and event calendar to new art over the long term.

So it’s not surprising that the stability of Old Masters would draw in more collectors in a shaky economy. Just don’t expect the category to maintain its hold once buoyancy returns.




Paint Drippings

The latest Wet Paint tracks the disorienting news that there are two versions of Ernie Barnes’s Sugar Shack, the prized painting that energy magnate Bill Perkins bought for a staggering $15.3 million at Christie’s last May… and it turns out the other one is owned by Eddie Murphy (yes, that Eddie Murphy).

Oh, also, the New York art scene has determined that the Whitney may just be the worst party venue in the entire industry.

Here’s what else made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…


Art Fairs

  • The Dallas Art Fair has listed the 88 exhibitors for its upcoming edition (April 21–23), with Alexander Berggruen and Micky Meng among its newcomers. (ARTnews)
  • The sixth edition of the Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh opens today (through February 11), though cofounders Rajeeb and Nadia Samdani have nixed the preview day and VIP lounge to strengthen the event’s “festival” spirit. (Financial Times)
  • Of the 20 exhibitors participating in this year’s 1-54 Marrakech at the La Mamounia Hotel (February 9–12), 12 are newcomers from inside and outside the African continent, including Superposition Gallery (Miami Beach)Foreign Agent (Lausanne, Switzerland), and Mmarthouse (Johannesburg, South Africa). (Press release)


Auction Houses

  • Sotheby’s appointed Wendy Lin as its new chairman of Asia, replacing Patti Wong, who left the house at the end of last year to start her own namesake advisory. (Midnight Publishing Group News)
  • Phillips named Qing Shen as senior consultant in mainland China, where she will be tasked with “developing the company’s client base to support the expansion of Phillips.”  (Press release)
  • France acquired Gustave Caillebotte’s A Boating Party (1877) courtesy of $47 million worth of funding from LVMH. The piece will join the permanent collection of the Musée d’Orsay. (ARTnews)



  • A slew of new artist representations were announced this week, including sculptor Brandon Ndife joining Greene Naftali, artistic duo TARWUK going to White Cube, and Silverlens taking on the estates of Carlos Villa and Leo Valledo. (Press releases)
  • In Los Angeles news, the opening of Lisson’s Hollywood space has been postponed until April 15 due to construction delays, but the gallery will premier a Ryan Gander pop-up exhibition at Dries van Noten’s Little House gallery on February 14; and Sargent’s Daughters West named Angela Robins director of its L.A. outpost. (FT / Press release)
  • Marion Papillion has been reelected as president of France’s Professional Committee of Art Galleries (CPGA). The organization has also expanded to 15 members, with Philippe Joppin from High Art now acting as vice president. (Le Journal des Arts)



  • The British Museum unexpectedly closed its doors during this week’s “Walkout Wednesday” strikes in the U.K. More than 100 members of the institution’s security and visitor services staff had previously pledged to strike for one week starting February 13. (Midnight Publishing Group News)
  • After 12 years in his role, executive director Carl Goodman is leaving the Museum of the Moving Image to take on the role of president of the Florida Holocaust Museum. (New York Times)


Tech and Law

  • Yuga Labs stated in a recent court filing that the company has no “copyright registrations” over the 10,000 Bored Ape Yacht Club images, likely answering why copyright infringement is not among the charges in its lawsuit against artist and provocateur Ryder Ripps for his appropriation of BAYC artwork. (ARTnews)
  • Following a six-year investigation, a court in Geneva found veteran antiquities dealer Ali Aboutaam guilty of illegally bringing artifacts into Switzerland accompanied, in some instances, by forged documents. (Midnight Publishing Group News)
  • A Ukrainian art dealer is standing trial in France this week after being accused of stealing a prized Paul Signac painting and other artworks from museums and auction houses throughout the country. (Midnight Publishing Group News)

[Read More]


Hermès wants you to believe only one thing: He is a business guy or he is an artist… [but] he is both.”


—attorney Rhett Millsaps, describing his client Mason Rothschild during opening remarks in Rothschild’s trial against Hermès. The luxury brand behind the famous Birkin bag is suing Rothschild for trademark infringement over his “MetaBirkin” NFT series, which the artist and his counsel argue is protected artwork in the tradition of Andy Warhol’s “business art” practice. (Bloomberg Law)


Work of the Week

Winfred Rembert’s Cotton Pickers With Overseer

Winfred Rembert, <i>Cotton Pickers with Overseer </i>(2006). Courtesy of Brunk Auctions.

Winfred Rembert, Cotton Pickers with Overseer (2006). Courtesy of Brunk Auctions.


Date:                    2006

Seller:                  Anonymous European Owner

Estimate:             $150,000 to $200,000
Selling at:            Brunk Auctions
Sale Date:            February 4, 2023


Posthumous acclaim for Winfred Rembert (1945–2021) keeps gaining steam. This weekend, four of Rembert’s works are being offered at Brunk Auctions, with a joint high estimate of up to $380,000—and the potential to go for much more.

Rembert is known for his colorful paintings on tooled and dyed leather. Like Cotton Pickers with Overseer, they often depict his memories of a childhood spent in poverty in rural Georgia, followed by seven years on a chain gang. Rembert’s life’s story, Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow Southwon the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2022.

Two weeks ago, his painting The Black Cat (n.d.) fetched a premium-inclusive $302,400 in Christie’s “Outsider and Vernacular Art” sale, more than doubling the low estimate of $150,000 and setting a new auction record for the artist. The following day, we learned that his estate would be co-represented by Hauser and Wirth and Fort Gansevoort, with a solo show opening at Hauser’s uptown New York space on February 23.

Of the four works on offer at Brunk, Cotton Pickers with Overseer carries the highest estimate. The composition depicts rows of colorful figures amidst a sea of cotton, with white balls creating a visual rhythm. Towering above them is a white man on a horse, the overseer, depicted in profile. A single figure of a Black woman faces the viewer in the lower right corner, a witness.

When the work was first exhibited at the Adelson Galleries in 2010, it was priced at $35,000 and didn’t find a buyer, according to Adam Adelson, the gallery’s executive director. Thirteen years later, Brunk set the starting bid at $75,000, and it’s unlikely to go unsold this time.

—Katya Kazakina


Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.

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The Back Room: Waiting on the Future

Despite the many tragedies COVID-19 caused last year, the silver lining to the once-in-a-century upheaval was supposed to be that it would spark a radical rethinking of life, politics, culture, and business. But to paraphrase funk legend Rick James in the Chappelle’s Show sketch that defined an era of comedy for old millennials, inertia has turned out to be a hell of a drug in the art market.

With our third year under the shadow of COVID just a few months away, I argued in this week’s Gray Market that it’s time to stop pretending the industry has responded to the epic challenge of the pandemic with sufficient creativity and vision for the long term.

Even the best-resourced players seem most interested in re-establishing the status quo with bare-minimum tweaks.

  • Major auction houses have fixated on improving their live-streaming capabilities and “disrupting the traditional calendar” by holding the maximum number of sales that consignments will allow.
  • Dealers and art fairs have concentrated on online viewing rooms that lightly refine the same grid-based, click-to-buy template used in every other form of e-commerce.
  • NFTs are largely being treated by art sellers as just another item to flog in more or less the same ways as every other work in their respective holdings.

I had to ask: Is this really the best we can do?

It shouldn’t be. As I learned from futurist Doug Stephens’s latest bookResurrecting Retail: The Future of Business in a Post-Pandemic World, a vanguard of forward-thinking brands is putting art-market innovation to shame with their big moves toward transformational change.

His case studies reveal a grand irony: Art sellers have largely been pirouetting away from showmanship and engagement toward mechanized, repeatable, low-friction transactions at exactly the moment future-conscious retailers are doing the exact opposite.

For example, consider…

CAMP, a toy store where toys take up only about 20 percent of the space in each brick-and-mortar location.

  • The rest houses a “black-box theater of experience for kids and their families,” hosting rotating productions built inside out from currently featured toys by a team of Broadway veterans.
  • Camp sells tickets to all performances and sponsorships for each production, turning the toys into buyable souvenirs of an unforgettable day.
  • The ethos echoes what could (and sometimes does) drive great for-profit gallery exhibitions, fair booths, and (to some degree) museum shows, like the beloved John Baldessari-designed “Magritte and Contemporary Art” at LACMA.

B & H PHOTO VIDEO, meanwhile, is an A/V superstore whose sales staff consists entirely of expert photographers uniquely fit to guide buyers through costly, often-confusing specialty purchases.

  • The business thrives by offering elite customer service—something even more lacking in online viewing rooms than in physical galleries, many collectors say.

MORPHE, a next-wave cosmetics venture, has re-engineered each of its stores to double as an accessible content-production house for customers.

  • Studio time, equipment, and onsite specialists can all be booked for users’ shoots.
  • This creates (and monetizes) a reciprocal relationship between the brand and buyers who were already crafting DIY social media content in its spaces anyway. (Sound familiar?)