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Bacon Painting Stars at Sotheby’s Highest-Ever Sale

Sotheby’s turned in its best sale ever in New York on May 14, with a total of $362 million for contemporary art, more than the presale high estimate of $356 million.

LONDON—Sotheby’s turned in its best sale ever in New York on May 14, with a total of $362 million for contemporary art, more than the presale high estimate of $356 million. The sale also comfortably surpassed the house’s previous high of $254.9 million for contemporary art last May, though Christie’s $384.6 million sale last May remains the biggest.

This spring, while Christie’s kept the number of lots low in its evening sale, Sotheby’s held one of its longest sales, selling 73, or 88 percent, of the 83 lots offered. The average price per lot sold was consequently lower than Christie’s, at $5 million.

Towering above everything in the two weeks of sales was Francis Bacon’s Triptych, 1976, from the Moueix collection, which sold for $86.3 million (estimate: $70 million), a record not just for Bacon, but for any contemporary work of art at auction, beating the $72.8 million paid for Mark Rothko’s White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) from the Rockefeller collection last year. Three phone bidders went after the painting before it fell to the swift bidding of London specialist Oliver Barker against more tentative bids from Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia. Sotheby’s described the buyer as “European private.” After initial theories had been dispelled that Barker had been bidding, as he did in November, for Damien Hirst, speculation fell again on the London-based Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who has since been widely reported to be the buyer.

Speculation also surrounded the identity of the buyer of the second- and third-highest-selling lots by Yves Klein, which both sailed past the French artist’s previous $6.7 million record, set in 2000. Coming from the collection of Helga and Walther Lauffs, the gold monochrome MG 9, circa 1962 (estimate: $6 million/8 million), saw bidding race to $12 million, where it turned into a duel between a bidder on the phone with Sotheby’s Paris expert Grégoire Billault and art adviser Philippe Ségalot in the room, who eventually won out at $23.6 million. The following lot, Klein’s blue monochrome, IKB 1, 1960, (estimate: $5 million/7 million) caused a repeat battle between the same two bidders; it, too, fell to Ségalot, for $17.4 million.

During the second bidding war Sotheby’s auctioneer and worldwide head of contemporary art Tobias Meyer openly described the two bidders as “archenemies.” Given that Ségalot was speaking French on his cell phone, it was naturally assumed that the adviser was bidding for François Pinault, who is known to be one of his clients, against his French luxury-goods business rival, Bernard Arnault. Although Ségalot would not be drawn to comment, ARTnewsletter has learned from informed trade sources that this assumption is correct.

Altogether, the works from the Lauffs collection, which had been guaranteed and given an estimate of $47 million/65 million, sold for $96 million, and set several more records. Piero Manzoni’s Achrome, 1958, sold to Ségalot’s business partner, Franck Giraud, bidding for a U.S. collector, for $10.1 million (estimate: $4.5 million/6.5 million); Carl Andre’s 36 Copper Square, 1968, sold to dealer Jeffrey Deitch for $2.6 million (estimate: $2.5 million/3.5 million); Joseph Beuys’s Bett (Corsett), conceived in 1949-50 and cast in the late ’60s, sold for $1 million (estimate: $750,000/950,000); and Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nude No. 48, 1963, sold to a bidder on the telephone with Billault for $10.7 million (estimate: $6 million/8 million).

Eighteen artist records, and five for artists by medium, were set in the sale. Those that far exceeded previous records were Takashi Murakami’s My Lonesome Cowboy, 1998, which won the first applause of the evening, selling for $15.2 million (estimate: $3 million/4 million) to an anonymous phone bidder against Ségalot; Robert Smithson’s painted-steel wall sculpture Alogon #3, 1967, which sold for $4.3 million (estimate: $1.5 million/2 million) to dealer David Zwirner; Georg Baselitz’s hero painting, B.J.M.C.–Bonjour Monsieur Courbet, 1965, which sold to dealer Thaddaeus Ropac for $4.6 million (estimate: $4.5 million/5.5 million); Robert Rauschenberg’s Overdrive, 1963, which sold for $14.6 million (estimate: $10 million/15 million); Hans Hofmann’s Gloria in Excelsis, 1963, bought in 1996 for $680,000 and now sold by the Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection for $4.3 million (estimate: $2 million/3 million); Lee Krasner’s Polar Stampede, 1960, which sold for $3.2 million (estimate: $1.8 million/2.5 million); and Jeff Wall’s The Forest, 2001, which brought $993,000 (estimate: $600,000/800,000).

Other sales of note included Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild, 1990, which came within an ace of the $15.5 million record set in London three months earlier, selling for $15.2 million (estimate: $5 million/7 million) to a European collector bidding through specialist Barker, and the first work by Indian artist Subodh Gupta to be included in an evening sale. Gupta’s painting, Saat Samunder Paar VII, 2003, sold to his new representatives, Hauser & Wirth, for a record $825,000 (estimate: $500,000/700,000).

Only ten works went unsold, most conspicuously Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow, 1956, in which Sotheby’s had a financial interest. Given an unpublished estimate in the region of $35 million, it was bought in at $33 million. Also unsold was Hirst’s medicine cabinet, Da Silvano’s, 1997-98, bought by the Mugrabi family in 2004 for $333,000 and now estimated at $900,000/1.2 million, and John Chamberlain’s White Thumb Four, 1978, bought in 2003 for $299,500 by U.S. collector Peter Brant and now estimated at $1.5 million/2 million. The Chamberlain was one of several works sent for sale by Brant that were guaranteed. Two works that fared better were Richard Prince’s Millionaire Nurse, 2002, which sold within estimate for $4.7 million to the Mugrabi family, and Mike Kelley’s Memory Ware Flat #2, 2000, which had been bought in 2005 for $587,200 and sold for $713,000 (estimate: $450,000/650,000).

Overall, Sotheby’s guarantee policy appeared to pay off. Of the 83 works in the sale, 49 were guaranteed, with all but three selling. Warhol’s Joseph Beuys, 1980, (estimate: $5.5 mil¬lion/6.5 mil¬lion) did not sell, nor did his Two Self Portraits, 1966–67 (estimate: $3 million/4 million). However, the cumulative low estimate on the guaranteed works was $111 million, and, including premium, they grossed $174.5 million. Sotheby’s did not offer a geographic breakdown of the buyers, saying only that buying had been “truly global,” according to Meyer.

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