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Sotheby’s Scores Its Highest-Ever $316M Contemporary Auction

Sotheby’s came close to overhauling the four-year dominance of rival Christie’s in the contemporary art field with a Part One auction of $316 million on Nov 14. Not only did the house bound past the presale estimate ($223/284 million), but the total was its highest for any category ever. Seventeen records were set, and only

NEW YORK—Sotheby’s came close to overhauling the four-year dominance of rival Christie’s in the contemporary art field with a Part One auction of $316 million on Nov 14. Not only did the house bound past the presale estimate ($223/284 million), but the total was its highest for any category ever. Seventeen records were set, and only six of the 65 lots offered went unsold—none of them among the higher-value lots.

The stars of the auction were Francis Bacon and Jeff Koons. Two paintings by Bacon, whose prices are now in the top league of 20th-century artists, headed the sale—the first time a British artist has done so at auction in New York. Bacon’s Second Version of Study for Bullfight No. I, 1969, sold for $46 million to dealer Philippe Ségalot, believed to have been bidding for hedge fund manager Steve Cohen; his 14-by-12-inch Self Portrait, 1969, fell to British artist Damien Hirst, bidding via phone, for $33 million. Cohen was the first to jump-start the Bacon market when he acquired an early painting from the artist’s estate for $15 million three years ago. Hirst also has been buying Bacon works on the private market and now owns four.

Koons’ Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold), 1994-2006, is one of four versions of the sculpture; it was being sold by U.S. collector Adam Lindemann, who had bought it from the Gagosian Gallery last year for a reported $4 million. Estimated at $15/20 million, it was sold back to Gagosian for $23.6 million. The sale made Koons the most expensive living artist at auction, surpassing British artists Hirst and Lucian Freud.

After Bacon, Warhol was the highest-selling artist at the Sotheby’s sale, with eight works bringing about $45.6 million. The 84 Warhols sold overall in the fall auctions fetched $142.2 million.

Warhol’s late Self Portrait (Green Camouflage), 1986, from the collection of Ralph and Helyn Goldenberg, sold for $12.4 million (estimate: $9/12 million); and the 1962 Campbell’s Soup Can (Pepper Pot), last sold in 2003 for $2.4 million to dealer Andrew Fabricant, went to U.K. collector Laurence Graff for $8.4 million (estimate: $7/9 million).

Other buyers of Warhol pieces included Ségalot, who bought the large Shadow, 1978-79, for $7.6 million (estimate: $4.5/6.5 million); Jose Mugrabi, who won the 1964 Four Jackies for $5.6 million (estimate: $4/6 million); and Gagosian, who took the 1962 drawing Campbell’s Beef Noodle (Crushed) for $2.4 million, way above the $1.8 million high estimate.

Despite the unusually large supply of works by Mark Rothko on the market at high prices (three at Christie’s), demand held up. A dark Untitled, 1969, bought in 1996 for $800,000 by U.S. collectors John and Mary Pappajohn, sold for $12.1 million (estimate: $12/18 million); and an untitled oil on paper from 1968 went to a private U.S. collector for $7.9 million (estimate: $3.5/4.5 million).

One of the largest consignments of postwar American material came from the Goldenbergs. (Helyn is a senior vice president of Sotheby’s who sits on the board of directors for Sotheby’s North and South Americas). The ten lots—including Ellsworth Kelly’s 13-part Spectrum VI, 1969, which sold for a record $5.2 million (estimate: $4.5/6 million), and two paintings by Robert Ryman (both bought by Ségalot)—were guaranteed, with a combined low estimate of $28.4 million, and fetched $37.7 million, including premium.

Another postwar American artist riding a crest is John Chamberlain. After the record set at the Christie’s sale of works from the collection of the late Allan Stone two days earlier, Chamberlain’s Big E, 1962, went to L&M Arts for a record $4.6 million (estimate: $2/3 million).

The market for Jean-Michel Basquiat also held steady, with all three works on offer selling despite rising estimates. Untitled (Electric Chair), 1981, sold to a European collector for $11.8 million (estimate: $8/10 million)—the second-highest price for a Basquiat at auction. Another untitled painting from 1981, consigned by U.S. collector Peter Brant with a guarantee, fell for $7.8 million (estimate: $7/9 million) to the same buyer.

Brant was also among the consignors to benefit from the rising market for Richard Prince, selling his joke painting He Ain’t Here Yet, 1988, bought two years ago for $587,000, for $1.4 million. Another Prince work, the large photograph Untitled (Cowboy), 2001-2, from the same edition as the print that sold for a triple-estimate record $2.8 million in May, earned $3.4 million.

Records fell for younger-generation artists at the sale: An untitled 1999 alabaster sculpture by Anish Kapoor made $2.8 million (estimate: $1.5/2 million); and Matthew Barney’s presentation video Cremaster 2, 1999, took $571,000 (estimate: $500,000/700,000). The Barney work was one of several by cutting-edge artists, including Hirst and Mike Kelley, which failed to attract much bidding. By sale’s end, 24 works had sold either on or below their low estimates, or not at all.

The few contemporary Chinese works on offer, however, all flew above estimates, with records falling for Fang Lijun ($4 million), Yan Pei Ming ($1.6 million) and Zhang Xiaogang ($4.9 million).

Overall, Sotheby’s very high level of guarantees for the auction—in which 36 guaranteed works estimated from $174/220 million realized $216 million before the buyer’s commission was charged—appeared justified.

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