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Past Records Crumble at Sotheby’s Contemporary Auction

Sotheby’s $128.7 million Part One sale on May 10 achieved its highest total ever, closing the gap on rival Christie’s. On an average price-per-lot basis, Sotheby’s $2.4 million for 66 lots offered was superior to Christie’s $1.72 million for 91 lots.

NEW YORK—Sotheby’s $128.7 million Part One sale on May 10 achieved its highest total ever, closing the gap on rival Christie’s. On an average price- per-lot basis, Sotheby’s $2.4 million for 66 lots offered was superior to Christie’s $1.72 million for 91 lots.

Mirroring Christie’s, Sotheby’s had guaranteed 27 of the better lots with a combined low estimate of $53.3 million. The tactic was seen to work as the lots that were sold brought in $74 million, including commission. However, two problematic lots pointed to the difficulties posed by overconfidence in the bull market:

In February an Andy Warhol 1981-82 Dollar Sign painting attained a huge $4.6 million price at Christie’s London (ANL, 2/28/06). On the basis of this one sale, Sotheby’s guaranteed another from the series, executed in 1981, which was shown recently at Christophe Van de Weghe’s gallery, where it was on loan from the Mugrabi family. Estimated at a punchy $3/4 million, it failed to sell. Nevertheless, two other Warhols flew above their estimates.

Ladies and Gentleman, 1975, an example from the artist’s series of drag- queen paintings, about quadrupled its high $900,000 estimate to sell for $3.26 million. And dealer Irving Blum, having sold his Warhol painting Small Torn Campbell’s Soup Can (Pepper Pot), 1962, at Christie’s the night before, now replenished his collection with Warhol’s late and much larger Gun, 1981, from the Froehlich collection, for $2.4 million, triple the high estimate of $800,000.

The other guaranteed lot to create problems was Roy Lichtenstein’s Sinking Sun, 1964. Consigned by dealer Joseph Helman, it carried an estimate of $18/22 million and a guarantee reportedly of $17.5 million. The expected price would have created a new record for Lichtenstein and for any work of pop art. But being essentially a landscape and not one of the artist’s most sought-after comic-strip character paintings, many thought it was overpriced. At the sale it was bought on a single bid by Dominique Levy of L&M Arts for $15.7 million. Tobias Meyer, the auctioneer and Sotheby’s worldwide head of contemporary art, told ARTnewsletter that it had gone to a “discriminating private collector.”

An unexpected rival to the Lichtenstein as top lot was Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XVI, 1975, which brought $15.7 million (estimate: $6.5/8.5 million) from L&M against competition from advisers Asher Guggenheim Associates. Enhancing what was a great week for de Kooning, his small Study for Woman IV, 1952-53, sold for $1.25 million, quite above its $700,000 high estimate.

Other postwar American art to impact on the sale included Robert Ryman’s large Untitled, 1962, from the collection of Mitchell Rales. Underbid by L&M Arts, it fell to a Sotheby’s Paris representative, on behalf of a phone bidder, after a long battle for $9.6 million (estimate: $4/6 million), four times the artist’s previous record. John Chamberlain’s early painted-steel sculpture Laro, 1962, more than tripled its high estimate of $300,000 to sell for a record $1 million to the Richard Gray Gallery.

And an early sculpture by Mark di Suvero, Bojangles, 1966-67, that was being sold by collector Martin Margulies to benefit the Miami-based Sundari Foundation, went for a record $968,000 (estimate: $200,000/300,000) to Dianne Vanderlip of the Denver Art Museum.

At this sale Vanderlip also paid a works-on-paper record for Clyfford Still when she bought Untitled (Fear), 1945, from the Mr. and Mrs. Jeffrey Zissu collection for $1 million (estimate: $500,000/700,000); and she gave $688,000 for Dan Flavin’s “Monument” for V. Tatlin, 1969-70 (estimate: $600,000/800,000).

The sale was light on postwar European classics. The top lot here was Jean Dubuffet’s circus-series painting Trinité-Champs-Elysées, 1961, which went to a private collector for $5.2 million (estimate: $3/4 million). The only record was the mid-estimate $800,000 given by dealer Paul Schönewald for Blinky Palermo’s 1965 painting Komposition Blau-Rot auf Weiss.

Most record prices, however, were paid for art made within the last two decades by artists in their 50s or under. Among works by American artists, David Salle’s Vagrant, 1989, continued his revival, selling for $576,000 (estimate: $250,000/350,000). Mike Kelley’s In Memory of Camelot, 2000, made a sculpture record when it sold, just above the low estimate of $450,000, for $464,000.

Christopher Wool’s Untitled (P80) Helter Helter, was purchased by L&M Arts for a mid-estimate $1.4 million. And Lisa Yuskavage’s Honeymoon, 1998, from the collection of her dealer Marianne Boesky, was acquired by Alberto Mugrabi for $1 million, well above the $700,000 high estimate.

Mugrabi also paid $800,000—above the $600,000 high estimate but not a record—for Richard Prince’s joke painting The Contest, 1992.

Gursky’s 99 Cent Makes $2.2M

From Europe Andreas Gursky’s 99 Cent, 1999, out of the collection of Peter Brant, fetched a record $2.2 million, doubling the low estimate and creating a new record for contemporary photography; and Neo Rauch’s Stunde, 1999, more than doubled the high $200,000 estimate, selling for a record $531,200 to collector Stavros Merjos. Of the British art on offer, Sean Scully’s Wall of Light Mountain, 2005, sold above its $650,000 high estimate for a record $912,000; and Cecily Brown’s High Society, 1997-98, from the Saatchi collection, pulverized estimates of $200,000/300,000 when it fetched $968,000.

The biggest buyer at the sale was L&M Arts. Apart from the Lichtenstein and the top de Kooning, the gallery paid a double-estimate $5.2 million for Jeff Koons’ New Hoover Convertibles . . ., 1981-87 (estimate: $2.5/3.5 million); and $1.75 million, over the top estimate of $1.6 million, for Agnes Martin’s Untitled No. VIII, 1984.

Other buyers at the sale: Aby Rosen, giving a below-estimate but works-on-paper record $688,000 for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Gringo Pilot (Anola Gay), 1981; Philippe Segalot, buying Carl Andre’s Post on Threshold (Element Series), 1960-71, from the Froehlich collection, below estimate for $520,000; and Matthew Marks, acquiring Ryman’s Meridian, 1971, for a top-estimate $2 million.

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