ARTnewsletter Archive

Sotheby’s Contemporary Sale Sounds a New Art Boom

Sotheby’s contemporary art sale the evening of May 15 scored a record for any contemporary art sale to date with a total of $254.9 million, near the top of its presale estimate of $265 million. This figure about doubled the takes from last year’s May and November auctions—$128.7 million and $125 million, respectively. (Combined with

NEW YORK—Sotheby’s contemporary art sale the evening of May 15 scored a record for any contemporary art sale to date with a total of $254.9 million, near the top of its presale estimate of $265 million. This figure about doubled the takes from last year’s May and November auctions—$128.7 million and $125 million, respectively. (Combined with $89.7 million in day sales on May 16, the house’s contemporary sales totaled $344.6 million.)

Of the 74 lots offered in the evening, only nine failed to sell. Hammer prices for 34 lots exceeded their high estimates, and 15 records were broken.

The sale will long be remembered as the one that heralded a new art boom in the auction room, with two paintings breaking the previous $27.6 million record for a postwar artwork and exceeding $50 million—a first in a contemporary sale.

The first of these, with an unpublished estimate above $30 million, was Francis Bacon’s Study From Innocent X, 1962, owned by Mona Ackerman, daughter of financier Meshulam Riklis, who bought the painting in 1975. The highest prices for works by Bacon had been $27.6 million at Christie’s, London in February (ANL, 2/20/07, p. 5-6), and $33 million in a private deal brokered earlier for dealer/collector Desmond Corcoran by Acquavella Galleries, New York—both for Pope paintings once in the collection of film director Carlo Ponti.

Dealers Doris Ammann and Ivor Braka were among the early bidders but faded away as at least three phone bidders took the painting up to $40 million. Two of them stayed in pursuit until it fell to Roberta Louckx, of Sotheby’s private client division, for a premium-inclusive $52.68 million.

The result made it more likely that the star lot of the sale—Mark Rothko’s White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950, from the collection of David Rockefeller, philanthropist and chairman emeritus of the Museum of Modern Art—would achieve its unpublished estimate of $40 million. According to reports, the painting was guaranteed by Sotheby’s for $46 million, more than double the previous record for a Rothko. Sotheby’s head of contemporary art Tobias Meyer also cited Rothko’s private sales, nearing the $40 million mark, as factors in setting the estimate.

Although the Rothko oil sparked less bidding than the Bacon, two phone bidders took the price, in $1 million increments, from $44 million to $65 million, where it sold—for $72.8 million with premium—again to Louckx, this time waving a different paddle number. Informed sources suggest the buyer is from the Middle East.

A $14.6M Record for Basquiat

The third extraordinary price was the $14.6 million given by a phone bidder for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled, 1981, an early self-portrait in acrylic, oilstick and spray paint, which had been sent for sale by The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, to fund acquisitions of contemporary art. Acquired in the year it was painted for $3,150, the work carried what seemed to be a very high $6/8 million estimate, above the standing $5.5 million record.

However, Sotheby’s knew that a similar early work by Basquiat recently had fetched $9.5 million from casino mogul and collector Steve Wynn, and was confident enough to give the work a guarantee. Bidding was taken up by two New York dealers—first by dealer Alberto Mugrabi, a longtime supporter of the Basquiat market, then by gallerist Christophe van de Weghe—before falling again to competition among phone bidders.

The rest of the sale underscored the strength of established postwar American artists. Among the highest-selling lots were two works by Roy Lichtenstein: His Still Life with Green Vase, 1972, fell to gallerist Larry Gagosian, bidding against art adviser Kim Heirston, for $4.3 million; and his enamel-on-steel Girl in Mirror, 1965, from an edition of eight, landed with New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch, bidding against former Christie’s Impressionist and modern art department heads and now private dealers Christopher Eykyn and Nicholas Maclean, for more than a double-

estimate $4.1 million.

Andy Warhol completed a clean sweep, with six works all selling close to or above their high estimates. Mugrabi took the 1964 Four Jackies for $2.8 million (estimate: $2/3 million); Eykyn and Maclean bought a 24-inch Flowers, 1964, for $2.4 million (estimate: $1.6/2 million); and private dealer Rory Howard claimed a Large Campbell’s Soup Can, 1965, for $5.5 million (estimate: $3.5/4.5 million).

A record was set for Robert Rauschenberg when art adviser Barbara Guggenheim paid $10.7 million, albeit at the low end of Sotheby’s estimate of $10/16 million, for the 1959 combine painting Photograph. Private dealer Daniella Luxembourg gave a record $1.8 million for Morris Louis’ classic Beta Delta, 1961 (estimate: $500,000/700,000); and a record $5.8 million was paid by the Asian trade for Tom Wesselmann’s 1975 painting Smoker #17 (estimate: $2.5/3.5 million).

Kiss/Panic, a 1984 photographic work by veteran West Coast conceptualist John Baldessari, was purchased by Manhattan gallerist David Zwirner for a record $992,000 (estimate: $350,000/450,000). Further postwar American records fell for Hans Hofmann ($2 million) with his oil Jardin d’amour, 1959; and for Dan Flavin ($1.4 million), whose tripartite Untitled, 1969, was the first work by the minimalist light artist to break a million dollars at auction (estimate: $1.2/1.8 million).

Although it did not break records, Larry Rivers’ Little French Money, 1962, came close with $432,000, more than double the $200,000 high estimate, given by dealer Rachel Mauro.

A Gerhard Richter photo-painting of two Spanish prostitutes, Zwei Spanische Atke (Osterakte), 1967, had an estimate of $9/12 million, far above the previous record of $5.5 million, but failed to sell. Coupled with the buy-in of a classic 1950 painting by Jean Dubuffet (estimate: $1/1.5 million), the postwar European schools lost some sparkle but revived when Richter’s 1982 landscape Waldstück sold to Deitch within estimate for $3 million. However, his 1970 cloud painting Wolken (Rosa), an oil on canvas in three parts, sold to L&M Arts for $2.4 million, under its low estimate of $2.5 million. The other German painting of note was Anselm Kiefer’s The Women of Antiquity, 1991-2000, which rose over its $650,000 high estimate to capture $992,000 from Madrid art adviser Edmund Peel.

Contemporary European painting was modestly represented with a nondescript Luc Tuymans oil, Focus, 1996, which did not sell (estimate: $500,000/700,000). But Daniel Richter’s symbolic narrative painting Those Who are Here Again, 2002, captured a record $824,000 (estimate: $350,000/450,000).

Contemporary British artists, mostly those represented by Gagosian, performed well. Cecily Brown’s erotic Guys and Dolls, 1997-98, fetched a record $1.1 million (estimate: $400,000/600,000) from an Asian buyer; and Glenn Brown’s The Marquess of Breadlabane, 2000, sold to a phone buyer, bidding against collector Stavros Merjos, for a record $734,400 (estimate: $400,000/600,000).

Doig Still on a Roll

Peter Doig, who is represented by Victoria Miro in London, saw his painting The Architect’s Home in the Ravine, 1991, double its $1.8 million high estimate to sell for $3.6 million. Originally bought by the accounting firm of Arthur Anderson for about $10,000, the work was acquired at Sotheby’s five years ago for $418,000 by British collector Charles Saatchi. More recently, Sotheby’s bought it from Saatchi as part of an $11 million deal for seven paintings by Doig, including White Canoe, 1990-91, which sold for a staggering $11.3 million at Sotheby’s in February (ANL, 2/20/07, p. 4).

The sale also included its fair share of younger- generation American artists. Among the buy-ins was John Currin’s Nude, 1994. But there was solid demand for Jim Hodges’ evocative small installation No One Ever Leaves, 1992, which nearly doubled the $350,000 high estimate to sell for $689,600. Christopher Wool’s Fuckem, 1992, last sold four years ago for $500,000, now brought $1.2 million; and Richard Prince’s painting Dude Ranch Nurse #2, 2002, crept over the $2 million high estimate to sell via phone for $2.5 million, against bidding from Mugrabi and Gagosian.

Despite the failure of a handful of highly priced works, the sale clearly showed the market had moved into another gear and set the tone for sales to follow.

Four of the unsold works were either guaranteed, owned or partially owned by Sotheby’s and carried a combined low estimate of $42.5 million. These included three works by Jackson Pollock, with estimates ranging from $3.5/18 million, which were either overestimated or too well- known to the trade.