Shopping the Fall Art Auctions

Courtesy Sotheby's

The season’s blockbuster art sales are about to begin. A short list to navigating the sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury.

Come November, the world’s art aficionados descend upon Manhattan for a different kind of holiday shopping spree. Armed with bidding paddles, billfolds and quilted Chanel flap bags, they file into Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury for a string of high-profile art sales, a growing tradition since the 1970s. “New York is the place in which both sellers and buyers want to congregate and present their most important works of modern and contemporary art,” says Zach Miner, head of the evening sale at Phillips de Pury.

The scene itself is pure theater. Staffers work the phones, taking calls from buyers halfway across the world or, in some cases, stealthily seated on the other side of the room. High rollers sip Champagne from VIP boxes. Meanwhile, the auctioneer cracks jokes and greets regulars between tracking prices in a spitfire cadence.

Every season the guest list becomes increasingly international and the prices become more staggering. (Last November saw several records, including a $69 million 1917 Modigliani nude.) This year promises to be no exception, with works ranging from museum-caliber Picassos to iconic Pop paintings. Even Liz Taylor’s jewels will be on sale at Christie’s in December. Since million-dollar works can become multimillion-dollar art in a matter of seconds—especially as demand grows for a dwindling supply of 20th-century masterpieces—familiarity with the offerings is key. Herewith, an analysis of the art worth raising a paddle for this season.

Christie’s New York

November 1 and 8, 20 Rockefeller Plaza; christies.com

Marc Chagall, Daphnis et Chloë, 1961

Stats: A complete set of 42 lithographs in color—26 sheets at 21 x 14 inches and 16 sheets at 22 x 30 inches

Estimate: $1 million–$1.5 million (on the block November 1)

Bang For Your Buck: Quality and quantity could make this the smartest buy of the season. Chagall’s 42-print take on the myth of Daphnis and Chloë—which is, essentially, a Nicholas Sparks novel set in ancient Greece—is as richly hued and whimsical as many of the artist’s better-known works. Plus, adds Tudor Davies, head of Christie’s prints department, “they’re as good as new.” Portfolios such as these were issued so that the individual lithographs could be removed and framed. Fortunately for the lucky buyer, this seller never took his out of the box.

Alexander Calder, The Wave, 1966

Stats: Painted sheet metal; 102 x 90 x 72 inches

Estimate: $2.5 million–$3.5 million (on the block November 8)

Who’s Buying: This is one of several works by the 20th-century American sculptor (best known for his mobiles) that will be auctioned off at Christie’s this season. “We have interest from all over the world—people in the Middle East, Russia, Asia,” says Christie’s specialist Koji Inoue. “He’s been one of the most recession-proof artists.” Bid wisely: The Wave could very well top its estimated price. Christie’s sold a comparable piece last November for $6.4 million.

Pablo Picasso, La Femme qui pleure, I, 1937

Stats: Drypoint, aquatint, etching and scraper on Montval woven paper; 30 x 22 inches

Estimate: $1.5 million–$2.5 million (on the block November 1)

The Backstory: This small print is pricey, but it has a killer provenance: It originally belonged to the Spanish poet Juan Larrea. But most importantly, the striking image of a woman embodying the suffering of Spain is associated with Guernica, Picasso’s monumental response to the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). “It shows Picasso working out some of the iconography we see in the large-scale mural,” Davies says.

Roy Lichtenstein, Still Life with Sculpture, 1974

Stats: Oil and magna on canvas; 42 x 52 inches

Estimate: $4.5 million–$6.5 million (on the block November 8)

Under the Influence: In the 1970s, the Pop master ditched his comic-strip aesthetic and mined art history for inspiration, riffing on artists from Pablo Picasso to Salvador Dalí. This piece draws from Henri Matisse’s Goldfish and Sculpture, in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. Lichtenstein’s undervalued ’70s-era work is starting to climb in price value—in May 2010, Christie’s sold a 1978 painting for more than $10 million.

Damien Hirst, Disintegration (The Crown of Life), 2006

Stats: Butterflies and household gloss on canvas; 117 x 78 x 5 inches

Estimate: $1.2 million–$1.8 million

Don’t Call it a Comeback: Hirst, the poster child for boom-time excess—remember that $100 million skull?—is “not a flash in the pan,” says Zach Miner, head of Phillips de Pury’s evening sale. “There’s returning interest in his work.”

Phillips de Pury & Company

November 7, 450 Park Ave.; phillipsdepury.com

Anish Kapoor, Untitled, 2008

Stats: Stainless steel; 90 x 90 x 17 inches

Estimate: $800,000–$1.2 million

Met-Approved: The Indian-born, UK-based artist behind Chicago’s Bean has found success on a global scale. “There’s interest in his work from every region of the planet,” says Miner. This particular piece has some added cachet: a strikingly similar work is in the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sotheby’s

November 2, 1334 York Ave.; sothebys.com

Gustav Klimt, Litzlberg am Attersee, 1914

Stats: Oil on canvas; 43 1/3 x 43 1/3 inches

Estimate: Upwards of $25 million

Backstory: Klimt’s painting was part of a series of lawsuits seeking the return of Nazi-seized art to the original owners’ heirs. This piece was taken from Amalie Redlich in 1941 and somehow found its way to the Museum der Moderne in Salzburg, Austria. In July, it was given back to Redlich’s grandson, who will donate a portion of the sale profits to the construction of the museum’s new wing.

Fernand Leger, Nature morte (composition pour une salle a manger), 1930

Stats: Oil on canvas; 47 x 33 1/3 inches

Estimate: $2.5 million–$3.5 million

MoMA’s Hand-Me-Downs: The Museum of Modern Art acquired Nature morte in 1964—but sold it in 1979. That might not seem like a vote of confidence, but there’s now a greater appreciation for Léger’s work from the ’30s, which comes at a relative bargain compared to his paintings from the 1910s. “Léger had a long career with many phases,” Shaw says. “Along with Miró and Picasso, he’s one of those artists whose late periods were historically less prized than the earlier ones.” In the case of all three artists, that’s changed in recent years.

Rene Magritte, La territoire, 1956

Stats: Oil on canvas; 29 x 47 inches

Estimate: $3.5 million–$5.5 million

Trend-Spotting: “Surrealism is the last of the real ‘isms’ of modern art to be appreciated commercially,” says Simon Shaw, head of the Impressionist and modern art department at Sotheby’s. “And Magritte in particular has been undervalued.” To wit, La territoire is one of at least three major oils by the artist to be offered in November alone.