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Spanning four cities and four hours, Christie’s virtual auction brings in $420m in sales

Crossing time zones and geographies, Christie’s global virtual auction on Friday, July 10, was the latest move in an art market rapidly adjusting to the pandemic. In the end, the near four-hour event, which spanned four major cities, brought in $420.9 million (Dh1.54b) in sales.

The relay-style sale named “One” was live-streamed online, a new way of working for auction houses since the outbreak started and stay-at-home measures were rolled out in many cities. Starting about an hour late, the auction kicked off in the evening in Hong Kong, followed by Paris and London around lunchtime, and then finally moved to morning in New York.

More than 80,000 people tuned in, with the majority of viewers watching via social media. Technical glitches did arise, including the live feed freezing at certain points. There was also a moment of confusion between the auctioneers in London and Paris, as one almost tried to sell the other’s lot.

A total of 79 artworks were offered, featuring Impressionist, modern and contemporary artworks by artists from the US, Europe and Asia.

The top lot went to Roy Lichtenstein’s Nude with Joyous Painting, which features the American pop artist’s dot style. The vibrant 1994 piece was at the centre of a bidding war between two clients in Hong Kong and New York. The bidder in Asia won, closing the deal at $46.2 million. The price exceeds the presale estimate of $16.2 million.

The second highest sale was Barnett Newman’s Onement V, featuring one of the artist’s signature “zip” marks, a band of colour that bisects the painting. The beautiful blue canvas sold for $30.9 million in New York.

Brice Marden’s Complements, an 8-foot-wide diptych with meandering forms, sold for the same price in New York. It set a new record for Marden, achieving the highest price for the American artist at auction and tripling the value of his previous sale.

His was not the only artist record broken though. The auction saw record highs for six others as well. Ruth Asawa’s mesmerising hanging sculpture sold for $5.3 million, and Richard Avedon’s black and white photograph fetched $1.1 million.

Wayne Thiebaud’s striking Four Pinball Machinessold for $20.1 million with premium. Though it did not break the presale estimates of $18 to $25 million, it did double the artist’s previous auction record of $8.5 million at Sotheby’s in November.
In Hong Kong, the top lot was Gerhard Richter’s luminous painting Frost (1), which achieved $10.3 million. In London, Rene Magritte’s foliage filled L’Arc de Triomphe went for twice its estimate, selling to a telephone bidder in New York for $22.4 million.

Much like the venues for the relay sale, buyer breakdown was also varied, with 37 per cent coming from the Americas, 38 per cent from Europe, the Middle East and Africa and 26 per cent from Asia Pacific.

With a sell-through rate of 94 per cent and achieving well within its estimate of $333.4 to $444 million, the auction proved that the appetite for art remains, though the bruised economy and ongoing health crisis have certainly taken a toll. The $420.9 million figure pales in comparison to last year’s numbers, when Christie’s evening sales for Impressionist, modern and contemporary art brought in $937.8 million.

With the pandemic still raging around the world, virtual auctions may yet have time to catch up.