Secret ConsignmentsAhead of Major Spring Auctions, ARTnews Digs Up Some of the Secrets Behind the Works on Offer

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Last year was a rocky one for the art market, and dealers and collectors are hopeful that the slate can be wiped clean come auction season. This year, the annual May sales in New York, which are always a barometer of the market’s health, appear to carry added weight. And perhaps some pearl-clutching, too: an anonymous insider told Artnet News that the art market is all but ready to collapse.

Even so, auction performance almost always comes down to the material, and this May’s sales are conspicuously lacking in major estates, apart from the Rosa de la Cruz collection, which goes on offer at Christie’s on May 14 ahead of its 20th/21st Century Art sale. Perusing the provenance of the major evening sales indicates that a great many of the works are fresh to market or close to it, with quite a few having spent a fair amount of time within one collection after having been bought from a gallery, estate, or directly from the artist. The general composition of the lots suggests hard work on the part of the specialists, who no doubt had to comb through their Rolodexes for novel material that could get collectors excited in an iffy market—after all, that freshness may be just the salve the market needs.

At Phillips, the Modern and Contemporary evening sale on May 14 is full of works being sold by the descendants of deceased collectors. There are, of course, the two early Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings that were in the collection of anthropologist Francesco Pellizzi, who bought them from Basquiat’s first dealer, Annina Nosei, in the early ’80s. The most valuable among them—with an estimate of $40 million–$60 million—is Untitled (ELMAR), a monumental 1982 painting that Pellizzi sold to another collector who is now selling it at Phillips. But Untitled (Portrait of Famous Ballplayer), a 1981 painting estimated at $6.5 million to $8.5 million, comes directly from the Pellizzi family.

Then there are two works, Henri Matisse’s Portrait de femme (1917) and Marc Chagall’s Fleurs chez Bella (1935-1938), being sold by the descendants of Ruth Mae Morris Bakwin and Harry Bakwin, two New York–based pediatricians, who died decades ago. Their sons, Edward Morris and Michael Bakwin both died in 2019. The descendants of Jeanne and Joseph Sullivan, founders of the chemical company Vigoro and noted Chicago philanthropists, are selling Jean Dubuffet’s 1957 work Paysage à la vache (Le rendez-vous)—estimate $700,000–$1 million—while the descendants of the late Los Angeles doctor Jacob Terner and his wife, Sandra, have put up Jules Olitski’s Boyar Time (The Small Painting), a 1962 work with a $400,000–$600,000 estimate.

But while those consignors were known by a glance at the provenance, ARTnews had to dig through the listings to reveal some others.

First up is the Noah Davis 2010 painting Untitled (Boy with Glasses), which is being sold by Aryn Drake-Lee, the ex-wife of Grey’s Anatomy star and rising collector Jesse Williams. While the painting was listed as in the couple’s collection when it was last exhibited at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum in 2016, a spokesperson for Williams told ARTnews that it went into Drake-Lee’s possession after their divorce in late 2020. The Davis work will hit the block at the Phillips May 14 sale with an estimate of $150,000–$200,000.

Williams has become a notable young collector of art from the African diaspora, holding 250 works, many of them by emerging artists. Of Davis, Williams once told ARTnews, “He was my brother—a very good friend of mine … Being able to live with his work and have it right by my doorway when everybody comes in and out—and gets washed over by it—is critical for me.”

Barkley Hendricks’s Vendetta, a 1977 oil and acrylic painting of a Black woman in a tank top that reads BITCH, is set for the same Phillips Modern and Contemporary Evening Sale on May 14 with an

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