Entertainment

Hockney, Hopper chase headlines at NY art sales

A year after the art market was changed forever by the eye-watering $450.3 million sale of a Leonardo da Vinci, fall auction season is back, looking to crack new records for artists, albeit from less illustrious heights.

A painting by US artist Edward Hopper named "Chop Suey" is expected to be one of the headliners at the fall art auctions in New York
A painting by US artist Edward Hopper named "Chop Suey" is expected to be one of the headliners at the fall art auctions in New York (AFP)

A year after the art market was changed forever by the eye-watering $450.3 million sale of a Leonardo da Vinci, fall auction season is back, looking to crack new records for artists, albeit from less illustrious heights.

The headliners next week in New York, the capital of the international art market, are an Edward Hopper, America's most popular modernist, valued at $100 million, and British living legend David Hockney, whose iconic swimming pool picture painted after a break-up is estimated to fetch $80 million.

In the spring, Christie's sale of the iconic Rockefeller art collection for $832 million set a new benchmark for billionaires and millionaires who might be looking to offload their own collections.

This fall, several other collections will go under the hammer, as the wealthy who amassed art in the mid-20th century either die off or look to pass the baton to a new, increasingly international generation.

Chief among them is the remarkable collection of 20th century American art of US entrepreneur Barney Ebsworth, who made his fortune in travel and cruises. He died in April this year.

The highlight of his holdings is 1929 canvas "Chop Suey" by Hopper, which Christie's will be auctioning for an estimated $70-100 million.

That would be a whopping profit.

Ebsworth bought the work in 1973 for $180,000 and the painting should easily set a new auction record for the artist -- currently $40.4 million paid in 2013 for "East Wind Over Weehawken."

Several other works this season could also cross the symbolic threshold of $100 million, which these days won't even necessarily make the top 10 works of art sold at auction.

The Rockefeller sale "proved that the market is deep enough to absorb a vast quantity of works of art when they are offered at the same time," says Adrien Meyer, Christie's co-chairman of impressionist and modern art.

"If we managed to pass that test, anything is possible," he added.

Generational shift

Hockney is also in the running with his "Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)," valued at $80 million.

It is likely to set a new record for work by a living artist, until now held by Jeff Koons and his "Balloon Dog (Orange)," which sold for $58.4 million at Christie's in 2013.

"We rarely can say 'This is the one opportunity to buy the best painting from the artist'," said Ana Maria Celis, vice president of post-war and contemporary art at Christie's. "This is it."

Advertising more than 1,000 works expected to fetch a billion dollars in sales, Christie's is once again expected to out-dazzle old rival Sotheby's across town.

Sotheby's might not be chasing the same kind of headlines, but it's still offering buyers dozens of lots in the $10 million plus category.

One leading light is 1913's "Pre-War Pageant" by Marsden Hartley, one of the prominent American painters in the first half of the 20th century.

Valued at $30 million, the canvas is also likely to set a new auction record for Hartley.

Records could be broken for Rene Magritte, Wassily Kandinsky and Willem de Kooning, in what dealers call evidence of the strong market.

"If you don't want to overflow the market, you have to curate," says Gregoire Billault, head of the contemporary art department at Sotheby's.

"We tried to be different and be relevant," he said, "and what the younger generation is telling you is that they want to buy."

The biannual marquee art auctions offer a chance to see works often not viewed in public for decades and theatrical displays of purchasing power by a new generation of buyers, spread more widely around the world than ever.

"Great collections which were formed in the '50s, '60s, '70s are now owned by collectors who are no longer with us or are about to move on to the next generation," explained Meyer.

"The art market is indeed going to see major collections coming up in the very near future. We've only seen the tip of the iceberg, I think, of what's going to happen," he added.

The New York art auctions run from Sunday to Thursday.