But this week, against a backdrop of presidential impeachment hearings, Brexit and other geopolitical distractions, numbers at New York’s marquee fall sales of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art were significantly down. The change in mood was clear on Monday and Tuesday evening as sales of Impressionist and modern art dipped 52 percent at Christie’s and 40 percent at Sotheby’s over their equivalent sales last May.
By Wednesday, Christie’s fall auction of contemporary art raised $325.3 million, versus the $539 million it achieved in the spring, when the Koons and other pieces from the S.I. Newhouse collection were included. In the absence of a prestigious estate, and with owners reluctant to release blue-chip masterworks, there was little to whet collectors’ appetites.
“This was a season with few trophies,” said Thomas Danziger, an attorney specializing in art law at the New York firm Danziger, Danziger & Muro, LLP. “The auction houses did the best with what they had.” From the seller’s point of view, he added, “The mood is not good, but the art market as we know it is not coming to an end.”
Here at Christie’s, in front of a packed auction room, the critically admired California artist Ed Ruscha created the main excitement when his rare, early word painting “Hurting the Word Radio #2,” dating from 1964, sold for $52.5 million with fees, an auction high for the artist. It was bought by one of three determined telephone bidders, after it had been guaranteed to sell for at least $30 million.
Entered from the celebrated Beverly Hills collection of Joan and Jack Quinn, who had acquired the work directly from the artist, this five-foot-high sky-blue canvas depicted the word RADIO in bright yellow letters, tugged and pinched by metal C-clamps.
The enigmatic fusions of Pop and conceptual art, centered on texts, produced by Mr. Ruscha in California in the 1960s, are now considered ahead of their time. But these early paintings rarely appear for sale. Another, titled “Smash,” from 1963, sold at auction in 2014 for $30.4 million.
“He did very few of these clamped pictures where the letters are torqued,” said Todd Levin, a New York-based art adviser. “It was an early painting with a great provenance in excellent condition. If you are a Ruscha collector it ticked all the boxes.”
David Hockney’s rediscovered canvas, “Sur la Terrasse,” showing the artist’s then-lover, Peter Schlesinger, on the balcony of the couple’s room at the Hotel La Mamounia in Marrakesh in 1971, had been the most highly-estimated lot of the night, at $25 million to $45 million.
With the painting being from an unnamed European collection, and last seen in public in 1973, the seller might have hoped to capitalize on the interest generated by the $90.3 million price at Christie’s last November for Mr. Hockney’s 1972 “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)”. But bidding was measured, two telephones slowly pushing the price to $29.5 million, just above estimate.
Demand was similarly sluggish for other highly valued lots of the night. Gerhard Richter’s 1967 photo-based painting of a ship, “Vogelfluglinie,” brought $20.5 million against a low estimate of $18 million and Yves Klein’s 1960 abstract “Barbara (ANT 113),” painted using a female body as the brush, sold for $15.6 million against a low estimate of $12 million.
As ever, Christie’s hoped to energize bidding by front-loading the sale with on-trend younger artists who have waiting lists of buyers. Dana Schutz’s 2016 canvas, “Shooting on the Air,” inspired by the on-air murder of two television journalists, sold for $1.1 million against an estimate at $600,000 to $800,000. It had been purchased just three years earlier at a gallery in Berlin, in the same exhibition as “Open Casket,” whose evocation of the body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955, which caused a furor at the 2017 Whitney Biennial.
That controversy has not hampered the artist’s auction prices. In May, a large painting by Ms. Schutz titled “Civil Planning” sold for $2.4 million, her best price.
At least there’s something to look forward to. Next year the auction houses will compete to sell the collection of Harry and Linda Macklowe, whose divorce proceedings have dragged on for several years as they battle over assets that include an art collection valued at $700 million.
“It will be better next season, quite apart from the Macklowes,” said Evan Beard, the national art services executive at U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management. “There are bigger estates in play at the moment, and people will want to take advantage of the last auction season before the election.”
As ever, death, divorce, debt and demand dictate numbers in the art market.