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Christie’s Postwar Sale Hits Its Mark, but Top Lots Fail

Christie’s $74.2 million total for its sale of Post­war and contemporary art on Nov. 10 was its lowest for an evening sale of contemporary art in New York since 2003.

NEW YORK—Christie’s $74.2million total for its sale of Post­war and contemporary art on Nov. 10 was its lowest for an evening sale of contemporary art in New York since 2003. The result, however, fell within the overall estimate of $61.5million/88million, despite the failures of three of the top-estimated lots.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 16-foot-long oil-and-paper-collage Brother Sausage, 1983, from the collection of newsprint magnate Peter Brant, was featured on the cover of the artist’s catalogue raisonné. But the work, on six separate canvases, was simply too unwieldy and, with an estimate of $9million/12million, too expensive for the market, and it was passed with no bids at $7.5million.

Andy Warhol’s Tunafish Disaster, 1963, which had formerly also belonged to Brant—who was not the consignor—was also passed after no bid was made at $4.7million (estimate: $6million/8million). Another example from the same series had fetched $6.1million at Sotheby’s London sale last June, but that one was larger. The only other major unsold lot was Takashi Murakami’s nearly 21-foot-wide Magic Ball II, 1999 (estimate: $1million/1.5million). The painting had fetched a hammer price of $260,000 at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg in New York in May 2003.

Leading the field by no small margin was Peter Doig’s Reflection (What does your soul look like), 1996, a large canvas from the artist’s sought-after mid-1990s period. The work had been acquired by Puerto Rican collector César Reyes from Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York, in 1996 for a reported $24,000, and the estimate of $4million/6million was in line with recent high prices for Doig. After competition among at least five bidders, it sold to an anonymous phone buyer for $10.2million. In pounds sterling, the price (£6.1million) was just above the record £5.7million paid in London in 2007 for Doig’s White Canoe (ANL, 2/20/07), reportedly by Ukrainian collector Victor Pinchuk. Reflection was underbid by Jay Jopling, who was thought to be bidding on behalf of Pinchuk.

In an unexpected development, most of the other top-selling lots were guaranteed, either by a third party or directly by Christie’s. Jeff Koons’s sculpture Large Vase of Flowers, 1991, was one of three works by the artist consigned by publisher Benedikt Taschen, and carried a third-party guarantee and an estimate of $4million/6million. Bought at Christie’s in London in June 2000 for £663,750 ($995,000), the work sold for $5.7million to L&M Arts, New York.

The long-term rise in the Koons market was further underscored by the price of New Shelton Wet/Dry 5-Gallon, New Hoover Convertible Doubledecker, 1981–87, which Taschen had bought at Christie’s in New York in May 2000 for $358,000. The sculpture sold for $3.1million to private dealer Philippe Ségalot (estimate: $2million/3million). While prices have continued to rise for the artist, however, the estimates for the Koons works were quite tame compared with those of a year ago. A third Koons consigned by Taschen, Wishing Well, 1988, was number 3 from an edition of three and carried no guarantee. The artist’s proof from this edition had sold with a guarantee at Sotheby’s in New York in November of last year to Eli Broad, against competition from Larry Gagosian, for $2.15million on an estimate of $2.5million/3.5million. This time, there was no one to compete with Gagosian for this example, which he bought for $1.14million against a much lower estimate of $1.2million/1.8million.

Christie’s had a financial interest in a number of the lots on offer. These were works that had previously been guaranteed by Christie’s but not sold, thus becoming the property of the house. The reappearance of these works on the block confirmed how far some estimates have fallen since the boom. Alexander Calder’s Constellation with Red Knife, ca. 1943, had been bought in at $2.1million in November of last year against a $3million/4million estimate, and came back this time with a $1.5mil­lion/2.5million estimate, selling to a U.S. collector for $2.4million.

Willem de Kooning’s drawing Two Women II, 1952, had gone unsold in November 2006 with a $3.5million/4.5million estimate, and came back with a $1.5million/2million estimate, selling to L&M Arts for $1.9million. Luc Tuymans’s Maypole, 2000, unsold in London in June 2006 on a $1.6million/2.8million estimate, returned with a $500,000/700,000 estimate, and sold for $722,500 to the artist’s dealer, David Zwirner.

Further evidence of dealers supporting their artists’ prices came when Gagosian, having already rescued Koons’s Wishing Well, bought Marc Newson’s Pod of Drawers, conceived in 1987 and executed before 1990, for $458,500, below the $500,000/700,000 estimate. Another example from this edition had sold at Christie’s in New York in May 2007 for $1million, but the Asian owner of this Pod most likely still made a significant profit, since the work had been bought in 1990, before the market for design took off.

Fresh-to-Market Works Score High Returns

Other examples of long-term gains were plentiful. Joan Mitchell’s large abstract Untitled, ca. 1958, had been bought by the consignor in 1989 at Sotheby’s in New York for $506,000, and was sold with a third-party guarantee for $5.5million (estimate: $5million/7million). Roy Lichtenstein’s Collage for Nude with Street Scene Painting, 1995, had been bought at Christie’s in November 1999 for $288,500, and it sold here for $1.3million to private dealer Christopher Eykyn (estimate: $600,000/800,000). Basquiat’s imposing oilstick on paper Untitled, 1982, had fetched a record $255,000 when it was bought by dealer Leo Malca at Christie’s in November 1997. Estimated at $1.8million/2.8million and guaranteed by Christie’s, it sold to a U.S. collector for $3.1million, a new record for a work on paper by the artist.

Other records set for works on paper include the prices for Brice Marden’s ink drawing Untitled with Green, 1989, which sold with a third-party guarantee for $2 million against an estimate of $900,000/1.2million, and Philip Guston’s abstract ink drawing Untitled, ca. 1953, which sold for $542,500 on an estimate of $150,000/200,000. The latter was one of a group of six works from the collection of John Cage and Merce Cunning­ham, which sold for a combined total of $7.1million. The collection got the sale off to a racing start with an untitled 1961 mixed-media drawing dedicated to Cage by Robert Rauschenberg, which soared above the $100,000/150,000 estimate to sell for $938,500 to the Luhring Augustine gallery, New York. The Rauschenberg drawing was followed by Dancers on a Plane, 1980–81, a painting by Jasper Johns, which sold to an anonymous phone bidder for $4.3million, one of the top prices of the sale (estimate: $1.5 million/2million).

Other buyers at the sale included representatives of Pace Wildenstein, who acquired Untitled, 1968 (DSS 120), 1968, an early, rare-to-market vertical stack by Donald Judd, for $4.9million against a $2.5million/4.5million estimate, and London jeweller Laurence Graff, who bought a 1984 Warhol portrait of Michael Jackson for $812,500 (estimate: $500,000/700,000). The portrait, said by dealers to have been consigned by Jose Mugrabi, had gone unsold at Sotheby’s in London in July 2008, where it had a $490,000/687,000 estimate—and was a rare example of a Warhol work returning for sale with an unchanged, boom-time estimate.

Christie’s geographic breakdown of the buying revealed an unusually high proportion of buyers from the Americas, 82 percent, compared with 18 percent from Europe.

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