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Christie’s $325M Contemporary Sale Hits Overdrive, with Rothko Out Front

Coming in with a presale estimate of $271/373 million, Christie’s Part One contemporary sale on Nov. 13 rose to $325 million, its second-highest total in the postwar and contemporary art field. The top lot was an oil on canvas by Mark Rothko, Untitled (Red, Blue, Orange), 1955, which fetched $34.2 million, well above the

NEW YORK—Coming in with a presale estimate of $271/373 million, Christie’s Part One contemporary sale on Nov. 13 rose to $325 million, its second-highest total in the postwar and contemporary art field. The top lot was an oil on canvas by Mark Rothko, Untitled (Red, Blue, Orange), 1955, which fetched $34.2 million, well above the $30 million high estimate.

The contemporary art series was widely viewed as a major test of the art market in the wake of increasing financial gloom in U.S. bond and stock markets. The auction went straight into overdrive, as if investors were abandoning stocks for art.

Eight records fell with the first 11 lots, all above their estimates. Thomas Struth’s cibachrome print Pantheon, Rome,1990, which last sold in 2000 for $236,750, fell to dealer David Zwirner for $1.05 million. Yoshitomo Nara’s acrylic-on- canvas Princess of Snooze, 2001, went to Nicholas Maclean of Eykyn Maclean for $1.5 million.

A 1989 oil by Rudolf Stingel, an artist rarely seen at auction before last year but now enjoying the fruits of his recent solo exhibition at Manhattan’s Whitney Museum of American Art (June 28-Oct. 14), flew to $1.2 million, comfortably above the $700,000 high estimate. Fred Tomaselli’s Gravity in Four Directions, 2001, took $937,000, more than double the $450,000 high estimate. And then Richard Prince, as if his market were not already high enough, doubled his previous auction record when Piney Woods Nurse, a painting from the 2002 “Nurse Paintings” that had originally sold at Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York, for less than $100,000, earned $6.1 million. The sellers were California collectors Nora and Norman Stone; the buyer, London dealer Jay Jopling.

The pace was breathtaking. It was immediately followed by a record $3.96 million (broken the following night) for a 1993 “Bloodline Series” work by Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang; and, if only briefly and in dollars rather than sterling terms, a $19.36 million record for a living artist, claimed by Lucian Freud’s portrait Ib and Her Husband, 1992.

But the momentum slowed. After that, only 13 more lots in the 67-lot sale were sold at hammer prices above estimates. Among them: Ed Ruscha’s 1960s classic Burning Gas Station, sent for sale by collector Kent Logan, which was bought by dealer Larry Gagosian for a record $6.98 million (estimate: $4/6 million); and Andy Warhol’s 40-by-40-inch portrait Muhammad Ali, 1978, once in the collection of Ali’s family, which soared after a bidding battle between U.K. collector and Graff jeweler owner Laurence Graff and a phone bidder, who eventually won out at $9.2 million, more than triple the $3 million high estimate. However, Graff had already claimed two major works—Warhol’s Elvis 2 Times, 1963, acquired for $15.7 million (estimate: $15/20 million); and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Sugar Ray Robinson, 1982 (which might have made a fine pair with Warhol’s Muhammad Ali)—for $7.3 million (estimate: $6/8 million).

Another major buyer at the sale was L&M Arts, which bought three lots—Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XXIII, 1977, for $19.9 million (estimate: $16/19 million), as well as his less-appealing Untitled XVII, 1977, for $7.3 million (estimate: $7/9 million); and Joan Mitchell’s Atlantic Side, 1960, for $5.1 million (estimate: $2.5/3.5 million).

A set of seven date paintings by On Kawara also took off to set a record $2.4 million (estimate: $1.4/1.8 million), but other record-producing prices fell with bids that were on or below the low estimates. Gerhard Richter’s fighter plane Düsenjäger, 1963, claimed a record at $11.2 million, with commission, but did so with a bid on the $10 million low estimate against only one other bid. Jeff Koons’ Diamond (Blue), 1994-2005, sold to Gagosian for a record $11.8 million, but had been estimated at $12 million. And Martin Puryear’s circular Thylacine, 1982, fell to his dealer David McKee on a $600,000 bid ($713,000 with commission) right on the low estimate.

Several top lots realized big profits for their owners but struggled to meet estimates. Warhol’s Liz, 1963, bought for $3.6 million in 2001 by dealer Gerard Faggionato on behalf of actor Hugh Grant, sold below the $25 million low estimate for $23.6 million. Two works by Rothko had been sent for sale by fashion designer Valentino: No. 7 (Dark over Light), 1954, bought in 1998 for $1.7 million, sold with commission for $21 million (estimate: $20/30 million); and Untitled (Black and Gray), 1969, similarly took $10.7 million (estimate: $10/15 million).

Altogether 26, or 39 percent, of the lots sold at hammer prices on, or below, their low estimates or, like Donald Judd’s stack Untitled, 1979 (79-40 Bernstein), estimated at $7/9 million, and Robert Ryman’s monochrome Untitled, 1966 (estimate: $8/12 million), went unsold.

Christie’s also appeared to have had a close call in covering its guarantees—31 lots had been guaranteed, with a combined low estimate of $173.5 million. Although all but one were sold, the total of the hammer prices came to just $175.75 million.

Much was made of the number of American buyers at the sale (51%). But in retrospect, that figure was way below consistent figures of 63-82% from 2002-06. European buying, at 26%, was the highest it has been since 2001.

Allan Stone Trove Yields $52.4M

Christie’s kicked off the Nov. 12 auction with 71 lots from the collection of dealer Allan Stone, who died in December 2006. The selection reflected his wide-ranging tastes—from Abstract Expressionism (Franz Kline and de Kooning), to West Coast Pop (Wayne Thiebaud), and from Tribal African Art to turn-of-the-century Art Deco.

Estimated to fetch $40/60 million, the solid, if not spectacular, auction brought $52.4 million, with 64, or 90 percent, of the lots selling and contemporary works earning $46.4 million of the total.

Records tumbled for some of the artists Stone had long supported and, in some instances, closely befriended. Several Thiebaud works sold over-estimate, with Seven Suckers, 1970, winning a record $4.5 million (estimate: $1.4/1.8 million). Prices for John Chamberlain pieces also reflected the recent revival of interest in his works, with Hatband, 1960, snagging a record $2.8 million (estimate: $2.5/3.5 million) from Citigroup Art Advisory Services.

Other records were set for more neglected figures from the 1950s—John Graham ($1.6 million), Alfred Leslie ($385,000) and Michael Goldberg ($205,000). However, the de Koonings that figured at the top of the sale—such as his Untitled, 1942, which sold below the $6 million low estimate for $5.3 million—all struggled before finding buyers.

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