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Pent-Up Demand Fuels Record Prices at Sotheby’s Contemporary

Sotheby’s sale of Postwar and contemporary art on Nov. 11, in which all but two of the 54 lots were sold, brought in $134.4 million, the house’s highest total for a part-one contemporary sale in New York since 2006.

NEW YORK—Sotheby’s sale of Postwar and contemporary art on Nov. 11, in which all but two of the 54 lots were sold, brought in $134.4million, the house’s highest total for a part-one contemporary sale in New York since 2006.

Following the soaring prices achieved for Andy Warhol’s 200 One Dollar Bills and Untitled (Roll of Dollar Bills), other works by the artist in the auction included Diamond Dust Oxidation Painting, 1978, which had last sold in November 2004 for $209,600, and which sold now to dealer Ed Tyler Nahem for $458,500 on an estimate of $350,000/500,000, and the small Tunafish Disaster, 1963, consigned by Larry Gagosian, which sold to Jose Mugrabi for $1.2million, below the estimate of $1.5million/2million.

Richard Prince’s Doctor’s Nurse, 2002, a small work from a series that has brought prices of up to $8.5million, looked cheaply estimated at $1million/1.5million, and would probably have sold for more 18 months ago, but it sold for $1.7million to Alberto Mugrabi.

Although there was a great deal of talk about reduced estimates, some works were coming back to market at much the same level as before. Jasper Johns’s Gray Numbers, 1957, bought by Seattle collector Richard Hedreen for $5.3million on a $5million/7million estimate in 2003, returned with the same estimate, and sold for $8.7million. Donald Judd’s ten-part vertical wall stack Untitled, 1980, had sold at Sotheby’s in New York in May 2004 for $1.1million against an estimate of $800,000/1.2million; it returned with the same estimate to sell for $1.2million. And Jean Dubuffet’s Trinité-Champs-Elysées, 1961, which had sold for a record $5.2million against a $3million/4million estimate at Sotheby’s in New York in May 2006 to Dutch financier Louis Reijten­bagh, had a slightly higher estimate of $4million/6million, and sold for a new record price of $6.1million.

As at Christie’s the evening before (see story, next page), Gagosian was helping to protect prices for his artists, and when no one else was bidding he bought John Currin’s Old Couple, 1993, for $842,500 (estimate: $800,000/1.2million). Representatives of museums were also active in the bidding, and set a number of records. The Reina Sofía Museum, Madrid, bought Juan Muñoz’s installation Five Seated Figures, 1996, for a record $1.2million (estimate: $800,000/1.2million), and the Cleveland Museum of Art acquired Alice Neel’s Jackie Curtis and Rita Red, 1970, for a record $1.65million (estimate: $400,000/500,000).

The Neel was one of a group of 20 Postwar works from the collection of Mary Schiller Myers and Louis S. Myers, which brought a total of $24.5million. Other works from the Myers collection to fetch record prices were bronze sculptures by Germaine Richier—whose tall figure La Feuille, 1948, sold for $842,500 (estimate: $250,000/350,000)—and Willem de Kooning’s Large Torso, 1974, which sold to a U.S. collector for $5.7million (estimate: $4million/6million).

Other buyers in the room included fashion designer Valentino Garavani—who with his partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, bought David Hockney’s California Art Collector, 1964, for $5.5million (estimate: $5million/7million) and Jean Dubuffet’s polyurethane sculpture Cloche­poche, conceived in 1973 and executed in 1988, from the Reijtenbagh collection, for $1million (estimate: $550,000/750,000)—and dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who bought Alexander Calder’s standing mobile Extreme Cantilever, 1940, for $842,500, below the $1million/1.5million estimate.

Bruce Nauman’s neon installation Violins Violence Silence, 1981–82, was reportedly acquired by retired London dealer Anthony d’Offay, who bid for it over the phone. Estimated at $2.5million/3.5million, it sold for $4million.

After the sale, Tobias Meyer, the auctioneer and worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, said that with last May’s sale still fresh in everyone’s minds, estimates had been “very conservative.” The estimates, combined with the recovery of Wall Street, which was bringing back more buyers, helped the market to “start working again,” Meyer said.

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