New York’s May auction season has come to a close.
Almost $2 billion worth of art was sold by the three major houses—Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips—over the course of two weeks. That sum, while significant, marks a much-reduced total compared to the same period in previous years: Last year, for instance, saw around $2.5 billion in sales. A series of late withdrawals of major works and some surprising below-estimate sales will also do little to assuage the worries about an art market in flux amid an uncertain economic climate.
Despite this broader picture, a number of artists set major records under the hammer. Here, we select 10 notable results achieved during the May auctions.
Louise Bourgeois, Spider, 1996
$32.8 million (6% below mid-estimate)
Standing at more than 10 feet tall and 18 feet wide, Louise Bourgeois’s towering bronze Spider became the most expensive sculpture by a woman artist to sell at auction when it hammered for $32.8 million at the Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Auction.
This work—which belonged to Brazilian financial services firm Fundação Itaú—just beat the previous $32.1 million record set in 2019 for a similar work, Spider (1997).
Only four works from the artist’s iconic “Spider” series have been sold at auction. Whilst this price sets a new record under the hammer for Bourgeois, it is still well below the reported $40 million paid for a 1996 steel edition of the sculpture, which Hauser & Wirth sold at last year’s Art Basel.
Blinky Palermo, Ohne Titel, 1970
$6.4 million (3% over mid-estimate)
This work, from the “Stoffbilder” series of fabric paintings, is considered to be among German abstract painter Blinky Palermo’s greatest achievements. The artist, who passed away aged 33, remained largely unknown in the U.S. until the late 1980s, when the Dia Foundation opened an exhibition in Chelsea with works by the artist alongside his German contemporaries Joseph Beuys and Imi Knoebel.
Few of Palermo’s “Stoffbilder” works are kept in private collections (most are now in museums), yet three works from the series have been auctioned in the past year.
This most recent sale comfortably beat the artist’s previous auction record of $5.6 million, which was set in 2022 at Christie’s by a 1969 work from the series. The most recent result also topped the $5.1 million paid for another work from the series that sold at Christie’s a week before.
Simone Leigh, Las Meninas II, 2019
$3.1 million (3% over mid-estimate)
Simone Leigh set her new auction record twice in one week during the New York sales. First, Christie’s sold the bronze sculpture Stick (2019) for $2.7 million at its 21st Century Evening Sale. Three days later, Sotheby’s sold Las Meninas II (2019) for $3.1 million.
The terracotta, steel, raffia, and porcelain sculpture was first exhibited in 2019 at Goodman Gallery in Cape Town and measures six feet by seven feet. The work was described by Sotheby’s as “utterly arresting—boldly evocative of the themes of Black female subjectivity, sovereignty, and African diasporic artistic traditions that characterize [Leigh’s] acclaimed practice.”
These sales cap off a remarkable period for the artist, who represented the United States at the Venice Biennale last year, and currently has a widely acclaimed solo show at the ICA Boston.
Nicole Eisenman, Night Studio, 2009
$2.4 million (143% over mid-estimate)
Nicole Eisenman is regarded as one of the most significant figurative painters working today; their work is held in prominent museum collections from the Museum of Modern Art to the Tate. They won the prestigious MacArthur Genius Award in 2015 as well as the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Carnegie Prize.
Night Studio (2009) was featured in the artist’s retrospective “Al-ugh-ories” at the New Museum in 2016 and was also the cover work for the traveling show “Nicole Eisenman and the Moderns: Heads, Kisses, Battles” in 2022.
The price achieved for the work smashed its estimate, beating the artist’s previous auction record of £862,500 ($1.2 million) for Mermaid Catch (1996), which sold at Christie’s London in 2021.
El Anatsui, Prophet, 2012
$2.3 million (123% over mid-estimate)
Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui’s practice revolves around making everyday materials into totemic installations. Twice a participant in the Venice Biennale (in 1990 and 2007), the artist’s practice touches on themes of the environment, ethnicity, and consumption.
Prophet (2012), which is composed of found aluminum bottle caps and copper wire, was first exhibited at Axel Vervoordt Gallery in 2012 and exemplifies the artist’s mastery of found materials. The work beat its estimate by 123% at Christie’s 21st Century Evening Sale, selling for $2.3 million and far exceeding the artist’s previous record of $1.95 million for New Layout (2009), which sold at Christie’s in 2021.
The sale tees up a big year for the artist: Anatsui was selected as the next Hyundai Commission artist to present a major work at Tate Modern’s vast Turbine Hall later this year.
Diane Arbus, A box of ten photographs, 1973
$1 million (8% under mid-estimate)
One of the most celebrated photographers of the 20th century, Diane Arbus is known for her wide-ranging practice including photographs of everything from carnival performers to middle-class families.
This work features a portfolio of 10 photographs taken by the artist between 1962 and 1970 and was originally conceived to be an edition of 50. Photos in the set include a number of subjects, including the artist’s famous photograph of identical twins. While only four sets were sold during the artist’s lifetime, the artist’s estate commissioned the printing of the intended 50 editions, and this work is one of those sets.
This new record for Arbus at auction beats her previous record, set in 2015 for the 1962 photograph Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1962, which sold for $785,000 at Christie’s.
Justin Caguiat, To the approach of beauty its body is fungible, 2020
$787,400 (350% over mid-estimate)
The second appearance of Justin Caguiat’s work at auction illustrated the intense demand for works by the Japanese artist.
Caguiat’s Doll 3 Eros (2020), which sold for $504,000, marked his auction debut in 2022. That year, he had a solo exhibition at the Warehouse in Dallas and his first U.S. solo gallery show with New York’s Greene Naftali, which represents him.
To the approach of beauty its body is fungible (2020) blends abstraction and figuration in a hazy, dreamlike style. The work beat its estimate by a staggering 350%, setting a strong early pace for the artist’s work at auction.
Robin F. Williams, Ice Queen, 2019
$428,400 (243% over mid-estimate)
Robin F. Williams’s practice employs oil, acrylics, pencils, and pastels, frequently depicting female figures in a range of situations on large-scale canvases.
Ice Queen (2019) is the first work by the artist to come to auction since last May, when her last record was set by Nude Waiting it Out (2017), which sold for $327,600. That work marked the first time the artist’s work crossed the six-figure mark at auction. Whilst that work outperformed its mid-estimate by 87%, Ice Queen topped its benchmark by 243%.
The artist, who is represented by P.P.O.W and has more than 109,000 followers on Instagram, is among a number of female figurative artists that have had breakout moments at auction in recent years.
Vivan Springford, Untitled (Tanzania Series), 1971
$241,300 (141% over mid-estimate)
American painter Vivian Springford belongs to a growing cohort of previously overlooked female abstract artists that have seen increased attention over the past few years. Working within the Abstract Expressionism and Color Field movements, the artist is best known for her expressive, gestural use of color.
While Springford passed away in 2003, her work didn’t debut at auction until 2016. Two years later, Almine Rech began representing the artist’s estate. In 2019, UNTITLED (1975) sold for $150,000, the artist’s previous auction record; since then, Springford’s works have consistently sold at auction for six-figure sums.
This work, which sold at Phillips for $241,300, builds upon this market momentum: It’s one of four works by the artist to exceed $100,000 at auction within the last year.
Lois Dodd, Burning House with Clapboards, 2007
$215,900 (208% over mid-estimate)
Lois Dodd was part of a new wave of modern artists to emerge in the second half of the 20th century and is known for her observational works that depict landscapes, nudes, and still lifes.
Aged 96, the artist is the subject of a museum show—her largest yet—closing this month at the expanded Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. The exhibition covers seven decades of her practice and sheds light on a perhaps underappreciated career of observational paintings.
Whilst the artist’s market has seen an increase in activity over recent years, the sale of Burning House with Clapboards (2007) at Phillips represents a huge leap in the artist’s performance at auction. The work sold for more than 20 times the artist’s previous record price of $10,625, set 10 years ago for Untitled (Cows in a Field) (1959).