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Estate Works Fuel Enthusiasm At Christie’s $93M Postwar Auction

Christie’s was given a head start in this season’s sales of contemporary art with the consignment of 20 works from the collection of Betty Freeman, the West Coast arts patron who died last January at the age of 87.

LONDON—Christie’s was given a head start in this season’s sales of contemporary art with the consignment of 20 works from the collection of Betty Freeman, the West Coast arts patron who died last January at the age of 87. “The fact that we had good estate property was an attraction for other consignors,” said Laura Paulson, senior international director and deputy chairman of Christie’s Americas, explaining the altogether superior selection of works obtained for the sale.

In its evening sale on May 13, Christie’s sold 49, or 91 percent, of the 54 lots, 35 of which went at hammer prices within or above estimates. The auction brought in a total of $93.7 million, easily hitting its target of $71.5 million/104.5 million, but the euphoria that surrounded this upbeat result was tempered somewhat by comparing it with the $348.3 million the evening contemporary sale brought a year ago (ANL, 5/27/08).

Christie’s wisely kicked off the sale with the Freeman property, which yielded a series of record prices. Untitled, 1968, a rare neon-light work by Los Angeles artist Douglas Wheeler, sold for $290,500 to New York art adviser Mary Hoeveler (estimate: $90,000/150,000); Claes Oldenburg’s outsize Typewriter Eraser, 1976, was bought by Jonathan Binstock, senior vice president of Citi Art Advisory Service, for $2.2 million (estimate: $1.4 million/1.8 million); and David Hockney’s portrait of Freeman, Beverly Hills Housewife, 1966–67, sold to a phone bidder for a record $7.9 million (estimate: $6 million/10 million).

Altogether, 19 works from the Freeman collection sold for a total of $31.6 million, with a sell-through rate of 90 percent by lot. Other top-selling Freeman works included Roy Lichtenstein’s Frolic, 1977, which sold to dealer Larry Gago­sian for $6 million (estimate: $4 million/6 million), and Sam Francis’s large painting Grey, 1954, which sold for $3.67 million to Joanne Heyler, director and chief curator of the Broad Art Foundation, Los Angeles (estimate: $2 million/3 million).

The latter work, however, is now the subject of a legal dispute, as auctioneer Christopher Burge had brought his hammer down on a $3 million telephone bid before he was alerted to another bid in the room from Heyler. Burge reopened the bidding, saying, “You all saw it, except for me.” Two days later, the telephone bidder, Greek collector Gregory Callimanopulos, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court claiming the painting.

For the rest of the sale, Christie’s followed the Sotheby’s model of concentrating on Postwar artists with a traditional collector base and a smattering of younger contemporary artists. Alexander Calder’s extraordinary performance continued, with multiple bids on several works, led by an untitled 1943 wall relief, which sold for $2.8 million against an estimate of $1.2 million/1.8 million.

Hans Hofmann’s colorful Wild Vine, 1961, attracted competition from four bidders before selling to art adviser Kim Heirston for $1.2 million (estimate: $600,000/800,000). Willem de Koon­ing’s Woman, 1953, which had been in the estate of Evelyn Annenberg Hall, was the best example of the artist’s work on offer all week. The painting sold for $3.7 million, double the estimate of $1.4 million/1.8 million.

A classic Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park No. 117, 1979, did far better than another work by the artist that had gone unsold at Sotheby’s the night before: the painting went to a phone buyer for $6.6 million on an estimate of $4 million/6 million. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Mater, 1982, sold for $5.9 million (estimate: $5 million/7 million) to art adviser Todd Levin.

As at Sotheby’s, five works by Andy Warhol were on offer and all five sold, though only two of them went for prices within their estimates. The top seller was The Last Supper (Camel/57), 1986, which is even larger than the 33-foot-long Camouflage that sold at Sotheby’s the night before. The Last Supper sold to Jose Mugrabi for $4 million, at the bottom of the estimate of $4 million/6 million. (A slightly bigger, colored version sold at Sotheby’s New York last May for $9.6 million.) Estimates had clearly been revised for Warhol’s portrait Brigitte Bardot, 1974, which had been bought in at Christie’s in London in June 2007 with a $4.9 million/6.9 million estimate and a guarantee. Offered now with a half-price $2.5 million/3.5 million estimate, it found a buyer at $2.8 million.

Estimates for Jeff Koons also appeared to have been lowered. A large “Popeye” painting, Beach House, 2003, sold for $2.7 million against bidding from Mugrabi (estimate: $1.5 million/2 million). The artist’s proof of Jim Beam–J.B. Turner Engine, 1986, was offered with a $700,000 low estimate, in contrast with recent sales from the edition of three, which carried estimates above $1 million. The work attracted competition from a number of bidders, including Peter Brant and Tony Shafrazi, before selling to a phone bidder for $2.3 million.

There were also strong prices for figurative painting from the 1980s and ’90s. Eric Fischl’s large Dog Days, 1983, attracted at least four bidders before selling for $1.87 million (estimate: $800,000/1.2 million). Night Fishing, 1993, one of Peter Doig’s signature works of the period, was thought to be another consignment from hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb. Estimated at $3 million/4 million, the painting sold to Larry Gago­sian’s Russian-speaking director, Victoria Gelfand, for $4.67 million—a price beaten only by the extraordinary $11.3 million paid by a Russian collector for the artist’s White Canoe, 1990–91, at Sotheby’s in London in 2007 (ANL, 2/20/07).

Gagosian appeared to be the only bidder for Richard Prince’s bronze Untitled (Upstate), 2007, which he bought for $1.1 million (estimate: $1 million/1.5 million). He also bought Untitled, 1951, a small Jackson Pollock drip drawing, for $506,500 (estimate: $400,000/600,000).

Our Town, 1995, a painting by Kerry James Marshall, stood out among the works by younger artists scattered through the offerings, selling for a record $782,500 (estimate: $500,000/700,000).

After the sale, Christie’s reported the renewed strength of U.S. bidding, with 69 percent of lots falling to U.S. buyers—a figure creeping back toward the level of 2003 to 2006, when the percentage of U.S. buying rose as high as 82 percent before falling off again.

Brett Gorvy, Christie’s international co-head of Postwar and contemporary art, said there was “magic in the air. Fantastic presale viewing, great anticipation. The estimates were correct and we got extraordinary, deep bidding.”

Commenting on the artists who were at the forefront of the market boom—Warhol, Basquiat and Doig—he said that “sometimes there is a backlash against those artists, so we were pleased with the results.” .

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