ARTnewsletter Archive

Warhol’s $71.7M Crash Crowns Christie’s Contemporary Auction

Christie’s had promised a record- breaking postwar and contemporary art sale the evening of May 16 and duly obliged with a premium-inclusive $384.6 million total, exceeding its presale high estimate of $300 million. The auction, slightly larger than Sotheby’s, offered 78 lots, and all but four found buyers. (Combined with $93.1 million in day sales

NEW YORK—Christie’s had promised a record- breaking postwar and contemporary art sale the evening of May 16 and duly obliged with a premium-inclusive $384.6 million total, exceeding its presale high estimate of $300 million. The auction, slightly larger than Sotheby’s, offered 78 lots, and all but four found buyers. (Combined with $93.1 million in day sales on May 17, Christie’s contemporary-sale total was $477.7 million.)

The number of lots selling for more than $1 million outnumbered Sotheby’s by 65 to 41. Four works fetched more than $20 million, compared with Sotheby’s two. These included two Mark Rothko paintings, one from dealer Robert Mnuchin, a partner of L&M Arts, the other from the family of entertainment attorney Lee V. Eastman, which stayed close to estimates, selling for $26.9 million and $22.4 million, respectively; and two Andy Warhol paintings.

Had Lemon Marilyn, 1962, from the collection of Pace Prints director Richard Solomon, come up before Green Car Crash, 1961, it would have claimed a record for Warhol, however brief, when it generously surpassed the unpublished $18 million estimate to bring $28 million. The buyer was a phone bidder, who had to compete with a legion of dealers, including Manhattan’s Larry Gagosian; Andrew Fabricant, director of the Richard Gray Gallery; and Alberto Mugrabi.

Nevertheless, the picture was preceded by the most eagerly anticipated lot of the evening, Warhol’s Green Car Crash, which carried an estimate of $25/35 million—far ahead of Warhol’s record $17.4 million achieved in November for the large Mao, 1962 (ANL, 11/28/06, p. 7). Christie’s justified the estimate by referencing several Warhols sold recently on the private market for amounts from $23/28 million.

Among them were two early comic-strip paintings, Superman, 1961, which was sold to hedge- fund manager and collector Steve Cohen and Dick Tracy, which fell to Henry Kravis. Also, the private sale of Four Race Riots was brokered by London dealer Harry Blain, director of London’s Haunch of Venison gallery (now effectively part of Christie’s private sale division) and New York’s Acquavella Galleries.

But Green Car Crash, said Christie’s department head Brett Gorvy, was “in another league.” One of the most sought-after paintings on the market, it was the only one of four large versions from Warhol’s “Car Crash” series not in a museum collection. The owner had received offers in the $30 million range but chose instead to send it to auction.

idding from dealers on the floor took the painting to $26 million; then two phone bidders raised it to $60 million. At that point, just as the hammer was about to fall, Gagosian began getting orders to bid over his cellphone. This forced the eventual buyer, relaying bids in Chinese to Ken Yeh, Christie’s deputy chairman, Asia, up to $71.7 million. Observers guessed that Yeh was bidding for Hong Kong businessman Joseph Lau, who announced he had bought Mao last November; and Gagosian for Cohen. But this time the buyer’s name was not announced.

The price was one of 36 records achieved that night, with the strongest showing for American postwar classics. Sneaking past a 19-year-old record, Jasper Johns’ small Figure 4, 1959, fell to Gagosian for $17.4 million, above the unpublished estimate in excess of $14 million.

Donald Judd’s ten-unit stack Untitled, 1977 (77-41 Bernstein), raced past both the $5/7 million estimate and his previous $4.6 million record to sell to the Citigroup Art Advisory Service for $9.8 million. Records also fell for a work on paper by Barnett Newman ($2.9 million), a sculpture by Eva Hesse ($4.5 million) and paintings by Agnes Martin ($4.7 million), Richard Diebenkorn ($6.7 million), Hans Hofmann ($2.1 million), Morris Louis ($2.9 million) and John Baldessari ($4.4 million)—each one an artist’s classic.

Although not quite a record, the $6.5 million (estimate: $2.5/3.5 million) given for Philip Guston’s Head and Bottle, 1975, by London dealer Tim Taylor, was the highest price by a long shot for one of the artist’s later cartoon-style paintings.

As at Sotheby’s, postwar European classics were in shorter supply. Still, there were records for sculptures by Lucio Fontana ($1.8 million) and Georg Baselitz (his first at auction, selling for $1.1 million to art adviser Kim Heirston); and, most significantly, for a painting by Gerhard Richter, whose large Abstraktes Bild, 1992, last sold in 1999 for $467,000, fell to an Asian buyer for $6.2 million (estimate: $3/4.5 million).

Asian buying at the sale accounted for 18 percent of the lots—but far more, Christie’s said, in terms of value. Apart from the record Warhol and Richter, other lots to go East were Willem de Kooning’s Untitled I, 1981, which earned $19.1 million against an unpublished estimate of $18 million; Cecily Brown’s The Pyjama Game, 1997-98, from the Charles Saatchi collection, which set a record at $1.6 million (estimate: $400,000/600,000); and Wilhelm Sasnal’s Airplanes, 1999, also from the Saatchi collection, which sold for a record $396,000 (estimate: $200,000/300,000).

Damien Hirst’s pill cabinet Lullaby Winter, 2002, which fetched a record $7.4 million (estimate: $2.5/3.5 million), also went to an Asian collector; and his spot painting Notechis After Humphreysi (No. 0072), 2000, set a record for a painting by the artist when it fetched $2.4 million from Gagosian. Yet another contemporary record fell when L&M Arts, New York, paid $1.4 million for Lisa Yuskavage’s Night, 1999-2000.

Toward the sale’s end the photography market received a boost with consecutive records for three artists: Hiroshi Sugimoto, $1.9 million, given by Manhattan gallerist David Zwirner for the triptych Black Sea, Ozuluce; Yellow Sea, Cheju; Red Sea, Safaga, 1991-92, estimated at $900,000/1.2 million; Cindy Sherman, $2.1 million from Zwirner, again for Untitled No 92, 1981, from her centerfold series—four times the price another from the edition made just two-and-a-half years ago; and Richard Prince, $2.8 million for his Ektachrome print Untitled (Cowboy), 2001, against an estimate of $700,000/900,000.

Other sales of note included the $1 million record given by Gagosian for the before-1990 Pod of Drawers, by designer Marc Newson; and bidding by Alberto Mugrabi for works by On Kawara. Mugrabi has been building up his family’s holdings of “date paintings” by the Japanese artist; he bought May 1, 1987, painted that same day, for $1.8 million (estimate: $800,000/1.2 million).

Further bidding in the room came from private dealer Daniella Luxembourg, who outbid David Mugrabi to buy Tom Wesselmann’s Mouth #2, 1966, for $2.2 million (estimate: $1.2/1.8 million), and fought off competition from L&M Arts to buy Roy Lichtenstein’s Landscape with Column, 1965, for $4.7 million (estimate: $1.5/2.5 million). Fabricant bought Robert Gober’s leg sculpture, Untitled, 1992, for $734,400 (estimate: $450,000/650,000).

Hauser & Wirth, London and Zurich, bought Louise Bourgeois’ The Runaway, 1998, for $1.4 million (estimate: $900,000/1.2 million). Heirston acquired Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s lightbulb sculpture Forever, 1996, for $420,000 (estimate: $350,000/450,000) and outbid Gagosian to buy Mark Tansey’s Judgement of Paris I, 1982, for $1.8 million (estimate: $1.8/2.2 million). Gagosian meanwhile picked up Warhol’s 1965 portrait Miriam Davidson for $6.3 million (estimate: $4/6 million) and Eric Fischl’s Slumber Party, 1983, for $768,000 (estimate: $800,000/1.2 million). It was one of only three works that night to sell below the estimate.