05/31/2012 05:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Beyond the Scream: May Auction Highlights

The month kicked off with Sotheby's historic sale of Edvard Munch's The Scream, marking a new world record for a work of art sold at auction -- but the excitement in the auction houses did not stop there. Auction records were broken around the world with many other highlights throughout the month leaving us exhilarated as the Spring auction season comes to a close.

With a show-stopper like The Scream, Sotheby's May 2nd Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale in New York was the auction house's second-highest ever total sale of any category. Pablo Picasso's portrait of his lover Dora Maar titled Femme assise dans un fauteuil (pictured right) followed Munch, hammering down at $29.2 million.

 Christie's Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale a night before the Sotheby's sale was led by Henri Matisse's Fauvist still life Les Pivoines (below left)and the recently rediscovered study for Paul Cézanne's Card Players, each selling for $19.1 million. Excitement for the latter was generated after the royal family of Qatar purchased a version of Card Players in February for a whopping $250 million, setting the highest price ever paid for a work of art.

Buyers' enthusiasm heightened the following week, when it was Christie's turn to shine with its highest ever Post-War and Contemporary auction. Mark Rothko's Orange, Red, Yellow shattered the record for any Post-war and Contemporary work sold at an auction, selling for $86.9 million. Yves Klein work FC1 (pictured at top) stunned the room selling for $36.4 million, breaking the artist's previous auction record. In fact, 21 new world auction records were set at Christie's May 8th sale, and a total of 50 lots sold above $1 million.

Confirming the strength of the market for blue-chip contemporary art, Sotheby's followed on May 9th with their contemporary art sale raking in $266.6 million in total sales. Roy Lichtenstein's iconic Sleeping Girl was fought over by six buyers before hammering down at $44.8 million, setting a new auction record for the artist. Francis Bacon matched Lichtenstein's sale with $44.8 million for his figurative work Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror (below right). Excitement continued to soar as many other artists shattered their own records that night, including Cy Twombly (Untitled (New York City) -- $17.4million), Glenn Ligon (Black Like Me #1 -- $1.3million), Mark Bradford (Grrr... -- $886,500), Ai Weiwei (Sunflower Seeds -- $782,500) and Isa Genzken (Kinder Filmen I -- $386,500).

Philips de Pury & Company proved a strong contender with its Contemporary Art Sale following on May 10, netting $86.9 million, led by a work on wood by Jean-Michel Basquiat (Untitled, 1981) soaring to $14.5 million, breaking the artist's record from 2008. Nevertheless, there was one disappointment that week with Bonhams New York Contemporary Sale closing with 12 out of 22 lots unsold.

The rage over Modern and Contemporary spread to Asia, including a new auction record for Indonesian modernist Affandi setting a new record on May 26th at Christie's Hong Kong with his work At the Cockfight selling for $713,552 nearly four times its estimate. Zhang Xiao-Gang held his reputation as one of China's hottest Contemporary painters, with Bloodline-Big Family: Family No. 2, 1993 (pictured left), selling for $6.7 million, twice its pre-sale estimate, proving a fierce fight among buyers for this increasingly hard-to-find series. Brand name Yue Minjun overshadowed Christie's Hong Kong Asian Contemporary Art Day Sale on May 27th with his anxiety-ridden paintings depicting the grotesque and hysterical, totaling sales of $646,284.

Also prevailing over the headlines, Sotheby's London two-day auction of photographer and notorious playboy Gunter Sachs' collection included about 300 paintings, photographs and furniture totaling more than $65.5 million. Andy Warhol led the evening sale, with Self Portrait (Fright Wig) 1986, selling for $8.5 million, more than double its pre-sale estimate, and Flowers 1976 hammering down at $6 million. One of Sachs' own photographs called Ascot sold for $323,495, a record for the photographer.

Photography auctions consistently exceeded expectations -- with outstanding lots such as Helmut Newton's Sie Kommen (Naked) (below left) nearly tripling its pre-sale estimate on May 17 at Philips de Pury. Newton's Self-Portrait with Wife and Models (pictured right) from 1980 and portraiture by Patrick Demarchelier and Peter Beard were stars of Christie's King Street Photography sale on May 16th, attesting to buyers' affinity for the nude.



Other highlights throughout the month reflected the confidence of buyers, including Edward Hopper's Bridle Path which led Sotheby's American Art sale on May 17th and was the third-highest sale ever for the artist. A rare early work by Natalia Goncharova's Still Life (Bluebells) (pictured below right) was the top-seller at Sotheby's Russian Art Sale on May 28th, raking in $4.6 million. Yet the week was not without disappointment, with Diego Rivera's piece Girl in Blue and White failing to find any buyer at the Latin American Sale on May 23rd, even after Sotheby's boasted it was the artist's most important work to be auctioned in decades. Instead, Chilean artist Roberto Matta was the star of Latin America, setting a new record with the sale of La Revolte des Contraires at Christie's on May 22nd for $5 million.

This record-breaking month of May closes the strongest annual Spring auction season since the 2008 recession started. The art market has bounced back strongly as the world's super rich seek blue-chip artists, particularly seduced by modern and contemporary works. In the first ten days of May, while auction houses held their Impressionist & Modern and Post-War & Contemporary nights, Forbes reported total auction sales reached almost 1.5 billion dollars (at Sotheby's, Christie's, and Phillips de Pury combined). Highlights continued throughout the month in all categories, leaving us on the edge of our seats anticipating the next auction season.

Written by MutualArt's Christine Bednarz

Was The Scream worth its price tag?  Which record-breaker surprised you the most this month?  Is Hong Kong here to stay as an art market hub?  Which auction are you most anticipating in June?