The NY spring season has concluded with the major auctions of Contemporary and Modern art. While the sales have not been a disaster, most lots have sold either below or close to the low estimate, with some last-minute withdrawals. One year ago, the May sales already marked a clear recalibration of prices. Over the past 12 months, the market has continued its slowdown, and this week's sales have confirmed the trend. It is not a brusque fall or a crash, but a slow-motion downward spiral in prices, with very few but exciting surprises.


In fact, the winners of the season are Latin-American artworks, with the absolute triumph of Leonora Carrington. Her magnum opus, "Les Distractions de Dagobert," sold at Sotheby's Modern Evening auction for a hammer price of $24,500,000 ($28,485,000 with fees) after a long 10-minute battle between Argentinian businessman and collector Eduardo Constantini, bidding personally from his seat near the front of room, and a client bidding over the phone with the also Argentinian-born Alejandra Rosetti, SVP Head of Business Development for Sotheby's in Miami. The painting was hanging in the place of honor, right behind the auctioneer, demonstrating that Sotheby’s was aware of the importance of the piece.

Initially, other clients placed bids, but the competition soon narrowed down to the two primary bidders: Constantini and the telephone bidder with Rosetti. They drove the painting well over the high estimate of $18 million. When the price reached $20.8 million, a third competitor entered the field, probably an Asian client, as on the phone was Jen Hua, the house's deputy chairman for Asia and chairman for China. Reaching $24,500,000, the auctioneer, Oliver Barker, waited a few seconds giving them the opportunity to bid higher, then pronounced the usual fair warning, raised the gavel, and said, "The gentleman has waited long enough," Constantini was declared the winner while the room erupted in a cheerful applause.

And he certainly had waited a long time. As he declared shortly after, Constantini had been patiently waiting for 30 years, ever since he was the underbidder in 1995 at Sotheby’s, when the same painting sold for $475,500 (adjusted for inflation, that’s about $990,000 today). Today's seller was the buyer back then


This is a new record for Carrington, whose previous record was $3.3 million two years ago. It is also the second highest price for a Latin American artwork, following Frida Kahlo’s record of $34.9 million achieved in 2021 in the same Sotheby’s saleroom and bought by the same collector, Eduardo Constantini, founder of the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (Malba).

But while this was the highlight, with Leonora Carrington now among the top five most valuable women artists at auction, this week has also seen the recognition of many other Latin American artworks.  In the same Sotheby’s sale, another Carrington sold for $2,480,000, a Remedios Varo for $4,174,000 and Leonor Fini reached $444,500 over a $200,000 estimate. (All prices include fees)


The day before, Christie's opened the night with the Rosa de La Cruz sale, which achieved a solid 100% sold (the full sale was guaranteed) and established records for Ana Mendieta ($450,000 hammer for a 1983 floor sculpture 'Untitled, Serie mujer de arena / Sandwoman Series') and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose light string, 'Untitled (America #3)' 1992, attracted three bidders, and sold for $11.5 million hammer, just under the $12 million high estimate. The winner was the Pola Museum of Art in Hakone, Japan, in a bidding battle with what was possibly another Asian contender. The previous auction high for a Gonzalez-Torres was $7.7 million, set in 2015, according to the Artnet Price Database.


The Gonzalez-Torres installation was the top seller from the De la Cruz evening sale, and in a dramatic gesture, Christie’s dimmed the lights at the start of the bidding, adding glamour to the theater of sales.

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