Exploring Christie’s vault, jam-packed with US$200m in art (VIDEO)

Screengrab of one of the paintings found inside Christie's underground vault.
Screengrab of one of the paintings found inside Christie's underground vault.

NEW YORK, Nov 14 — Every November, often for no more than a day or two, some of the most valuable of art in the world sits unseen, frame against frame, in the bowels of Christie’s Auction House in New York’s Rockefeller Center.

It’s there as part of New York’s annual November auction bonanza, which begins next week, when Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips will sell (or at least, try to sell) more than US$1.5 billion (RM6.3 billion) worth of art over the course of five days.

The paintings in Christie’s vault were shipped from private collections around the globe, often just days in advance of the formal previews.

Even as Alexander Rotter, the co-chairman of Christie’s Postwar & Contemporary department, toured the vault (which is air controlled and accessed via an elevator that operates only with a digital key), upstairs in the auction house’s public galleries, much of the Eppler collection, a US$60 million trove of modernist works by such giants as Alexander Calder, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning, was already on display.

The majority of the works—both on display and in the vault—will appear in Christie’s postwar and contemporary day sales, which, together, are expected to bring in a total of US$479 million. ”The market is unusually strong,” said Marc Porter, the chief executive officer of Christie’s Americas at an event co-hosted by Bloomberg Media Group on Wednesday night. “It’s largely driven by estates coming onto the market, and some discretionary selling.”

Inside the vault

Much of the art in the approximately 500-square-foot vault is hung on sliding wire racks that can be rolled back and forth, while others, including a 1957 painting by the artist Mark Rothko, was displayed on wheeled stands.

Art handlers scurried in and out of the space, taking paintings up to private viewing rooms for particularly important clients, but even with several masterpieces from the show missing (the US$100 million Leonardo, for instance, was still on its way from London at the time of the visit), the art casually hanging on wire racks totalled hundreds of millions of dollars. Pull one rack, and out pops a white painting by Twombly estimated to sell around US$20 million. On another is a painting by the contemporary artist Kerry James Marshall, whose almost universally lauded exhibition at the Met Breuer earlier this year drew crowds for months. (Estimated to sell between US$1 million and US$1.5 million, the work, in comparison with everything else on view, is a comparative bargain.)

Other pieces in the vault included a painting by Philip Guston estimated to sell in the range of US$5 million to US$7 million, a US$25 million-to-US$35 million 1982 work by Jean Michel Basquiat, whose market has recently seen a single work crest at US$100 million, and a work by John Currin, an artist represented by the powerful Gagosian gallery, which carries the ambitious estimate of US$6 million to US$7 million.

Blockbuster sale

Since 2015, the auction market has been comparatively subdued, particularly on the highest end, so the extraordinary number of US$20 million-plus artworks in Christie’s upcoming sale represents something of a comeback for the auction house. “You can definitely get a general read of the art market” from the sale, said Rotter. “After the results are in.” — Bloomberg

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