ARTnewsletter Archive

A Wonderful Week for Warhol at Fall Auctions

“It was a good evening,” remarked one man to another as the crowd filtered out of Sotheby’s New York saleroom following its $134.4 million evening sale of Postwar and contemporary art on Nov. 11.

NEW YORK—“It was a good evening,” remarked one man to another as the crowd filtered out of Sotheby’s New York saleroom following its $134.4million evening sale of Postwar and contemporary art on Nov. 11.

“Yeah—that is, if you’re selling Warhol,” replied the other man, referring to the $55.8million that five works by Andy Warhol had pulled in that evening—including a stunning $43.8million for the artist’s silk-screen ink and pencil on canvas 200 One Dollar Bills, 1962.

The classic Warhol painting, which made the largest contribution of any single lot to Sotheby’s total, had been consigned shortly before the sale by U.K. collector Pauline Karpidas. She had bought the work with her late husband, Constantine Karpidas, at the Robert Scull sale at Sotheby’s in 1986 for $385,000. Estimated conservatively at $8 million/12 million, the painting attracted at least five bidders over the high estimate before selling to an anonymous phone bidder for $43.8million—the ­second-highest auction price on record for a work by Warhol after Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I), 1963, which sold for $71.7million at Christie’s in May 2007 (ANL, 5/29/07).

After a year of falling prices, it was a great evening for Warhol all around. The artist’s Self-Portrait, 1965, also conservatively estimated at $1million/1.5million (another example from this series had sold for $3.6million at Phillips de Pury & Company in London in June 2007), sold to London collector Laurence Graff for $6.1million. This work had the advantage of freshness, both in its condition and in its rarity on the market, having been kept in storage for more than 40 years by the consignor, Cathy Naso, a former receptionist at Warhol’s Factory, who had received it as a gift from the artist in 1967.

The Warhol prices were “extraordinary,” said New York dealer Neal Meltzer, who was the underbidder for a 1962 Warhol drawing of a roll of dollar bills that eventually sold to dealer Larry Gagosian for $4.2million at Sotheby’s (estimate: $2.5million/3.5million). “They were equal to, if not greater than, what anyone would have expected them to make in 2007,” at the height of the market, Meltzer told ARTnewsletter. “Clearly there is a great deal of competition when it comes to rare and important works.”

Even more-moderately priced Warhol works drew intense demand and competition, including those at Swann Galleries’ sale of Ameri­can and contemporary art on Nov. 20 (see story, page 7), where eight lots, including color screenprints and lithographs featuring pop images such as Howdy Doody, Geronimo and Flowers, took in a combined $119,520 against a $81,000/119,000 estimate.

Sotheby’s sale far exceeded the $68million/98million overall estimate, yielding a strong sold-by-value rate and one of the highest sold-by-lot rates for an evening contemporary sale in two decades, according to Sotheby’s officials. All but two of the 54 lots on offer found buyers. The result helped spark renewed confidence in the market for contemporary art, which, having experienced the most dramatic escalation in prices during the boom, has been among the sectors hardest hit by the global economic downturn.

Although Christie’s $74.2million contemporary sale the previous evening did not achieve quite the same fireworks, it also produced competitive bidding, and yielded strong prices for works by artists including Peter Doig, Jeff Koons and Joan Mitchell.

In all, Sotheby’s realized a total of $178.5million in its evening and day sales of contemporary art, an improvement on the $161million contemporary total of last fall. Christie’s contemporary sales took in $118million, down from the $152.7million achieved last fall.

Phillips de Pury & Company sold $11.9million worth of contemporary art in evening and day sales held on Nov. 12–13, down from last fall’s $17.2million total.

Sotheby’s was this season’s leader by far, taking in a total of $391million for the two-week series of Impressionist and modern and contemporary sales, while Christie’s comparable sales brought in $206.4million. Including Phillips, which no longer holds sales of Impressionist and modern art, the autumn 2009 season realized a total of $609.4million, a drop from last fall’s $803million, but considerably higher than last spring’s $421.2million result.

During the market boom, sale volume for contemporary auctions surpassed that of the historically dominant Impres­sionist and modern category. This season, sale volume was relatively evenly divided between the two categories, with Impres­sionist and modern sales accounting for $301million of the overall total, while Postwar and contemporary sales accounted for an only slightly higher $308million.