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Art-World Stars Provide Sizzle at Christie’s $300M Postwar Sale

Christie’s evening contemporary art sale on May 11 had much the superior selection and told a different story when it hit the $300 million mark for the fourth time in the house’s history —the other three being during the last market peak of 2007 and 2008.

NEW YORK—Christie’s evening contemporary art sale on May 11 had much the superior selection and told a different story when it hit the $300 million mark for the fourth time in the house’s history —the other three being during the last market peak of 2007 and 2008. Sixty-two lots, or 95 percent of the works, were sold, 43 at hammer prices above the low estimates, and five for over $10 million.

Records were tumbling again, as previous highs were beaten for Cy Twombly, Richard Diebenkorn, Urs Fischer, Cindy Sherman, and for a portrait by Andy Warhol. The $301.7 million total, including buyers’ premium, compared favorably with the total estimate of $215 million/299 million. In sharp contrast to Sotheby’s, 13 lots had been guaranteed, 11 through third parties (five of which were among the top 10 lots), and all sold.

The sale also had a higher concentration of works by Warhol than the Sotheby’s event. The eight Warhol works fetched a cumulative $91 million, led by his earliest known self-portrait, the four-part Self-Portrait, 1963–64, from the collection of the Brooks Barron family, which had owned it since 1964. Dealer Larry Gagosian dropped out of the bidding at $20 million (perhaps as the third-party guarantor), and it was left to a private European phone bidder to slug it out in minute increments with art adviser Philippe Ségalot, until it fell to the former for $38.4 million (estimate: $20 million/30 million).

Buyers Wary of Estimate on Warhol ‘Fright-Wig’

The estimate of $30/40 million on a very large Self-Portrait, 1986, from the artist’s “Fright Wig” series and offered from the collection of Norah and Norman Stone, was based on the sale of Tom Ford’s similar-size painting of the same subject for $32.5 million at Sotheby’s in May 2010 but proved, however, to be overoptimistic. The work was bought by Jose Mugrabi for $27.5 million. Mugrabi also bought Warhol’s Most Wanted Men No. 3, Ellis Ruiz B., 1964, for $4.8 million (estimate: $4 million/6 million), and was the seller of Warhol’s single, red, photo-booth Self-Portrait, 1963–64, which he had bought at Sotheby’s New York in May 1998 for $376,500, and which now fetched $6.8 million, against a $6 million/8 million estimate.

However, recent Warhol investments have not proved so profitable. Hammer and Sickle, 1976, which had been bought by a European collector at Christie’s New York in November 2007 for $3.85 million, sold against no competition for $3.9 million (estimate: $3.5 million/5 million). Collector Richard Weisman, had also come down considerably in his asking price for his complete series of Warhol’s “Athletes.” Offered in London through dealer Martin Summers in 2007 for a reported $28 million, it sold for $5.7 million (estimate: $4 million/6 million) to an Asian buyer.

The major discovery of the sale was a previously unrecorded painting, Untitled No. 17, 1961 by Mark Rothko. Consigned from an American estate and authenticated by David Anfam, the large, colorful painting had an estimate of $18 million/22 million and sold to a private European buyer for $33.7 million.

The sale was also marked by the appearance of two works by Francis Bacon, whose market seems to have sprung back to life. Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1974, was sent for sale by a dealer, according to trade sources, and sold to a phone bid by Christie’s former chief executive, now chairman of Christie’s International, Ed Dolman, for $25.3 million against an unpublished estimate of about $20 million; and the 1952 Untitled (Crouching Nude on Rail), which had come originally from the artist’s estate, sold below estimate for $9.6 million (estimate: $10 million/15 million).

The record prices of note were for Twombly, whose classic scribble painting, Untitled, 1967, sold for $15.2 million (estimate: $10 million/15 million); Diebenkorn, whose Ocean Park #121, 1980, came in with the highest estimate ever for the artist, at $7 million/9 million, and sold for $7.7 million to dealer John Berggruen; Fischer’s 20-foot Untitled (Lamp/Bear), 2005–6, sent for sale by the Mugrabi family, which sold for $6.8 million, against an unpublished estimate of $4 million/6 million, and Sherman’s centerfold series C-print, Untitled, 1981, which had the added bonus of a provenance from the collection of Robert and Jane Rosenblum and sold to Ségalot for $3.9 million (estimate: $1.5 million/2 million)—a world record for any photographic work.

All eyes are still on the Jeff Koons and Richard Prince markets, to see if they will recover their boom-time levels. Prince’s nurse paintings are clearly showing life, as Nurse on Horseback, 2004, sold to L&M Arts for $4.8 million (estimate: $3.5 million/4.5 million). A joke painting, Untitled (Cartoon), 1989–90, was bought by Gagosian for $722,500 (estimate: $700,000/1,000,000) against no other bidding, while another of the dealer’s offerings, Prince’s Untitled, (de Kooning), 2007, was passed with a $1.5 million/2 million estimate. The disappointing result for Koons at Sotheby’s was followed by a below-estimate $818,500 paid by Gagosian for the mirror work Little Girl, 1988 (estimate: $800,000/1.2 million). This work had last sold in November 2005 at Sotheby’s for $632,000.

Also showing minuscule returns, or even losses, were Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nude #21, 1961, which had fetched $4.2 million at Sotheby’s in November 2008, and now sold for $3.3 million (estimate: $3 million/4 million) or $2.9 million without the buyer’s premium, to Mugrabi, and Robert Ryman’s Untitled, 1962–63, which was bought at Sotheby’s London in February 2007 for a double-estimate $2.7 million by Georgian billionaire Boris Ivanishvili and now sold to New York’s Pace Gallery for $3.4 million (estimate: $2.5 million/3.5 million); the hammer price was $3 million.

Making a slightly better return was Mike Kelley’s photographic work Ahh…Youth, 1991, bought by hedge-fund manager David Ganek, at Phillips in May 2006 for a record $688,000, and now selling to Swiss based dealer, Blondeau Fine Art, for $1 million (estimate: $400,000/600,000). Also achieving a better return, but over a longer term, was Alberto Burri’s mixed-media Rosso Plastica, 1962, which had fetched $280,000 at Sotheby’s London in March 1998, and now sold for $2 million to the Nahmad family (estimate: $500,000/700,000). Best of all was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Job Analisis, 1982, which had sold at Christie’s in May 1999 for $244,500, has since changed hands, and now sold for $3.4 million (estimate: $2.5 million/3.5 million).

Adding to the depth of bidding and buying, which was unusually evenly spread between telephone and in the room, were dealers Christopher Eykyn, who bought works by Joan Mitchell and Agnes Martin; Eykyn’s business partner Nicholas MacLean, who bought works by Sam Francis and Andy Warhol; Christophe van de Weghe, who bought a small 1961 Twombly; and Daniella Luxembourg, who bought an early multipanel work in color by Gilbert and George, Bad Thoughts #1, 1975, for $1.5 million (estimate: $700,000/1 million), the second highest price on record for the British duo.

Among the sellers of more recent work was Charles Saatchi, who was disposing of a quantity of works from his American art shows held in 2006 and 2008 at Christie’s current Part One and Part Two sales, and at Phillips. Here, Mark Bradford’s large eight-panel work The Devil Is Beating His Wife, 2003, sold within estimate for $542,500 (estimate: $400,000/600,000), while Barnaby Furnas’s Hamburger Hill, 2002, attracted only one bid, selling for $422,500 (estimate: $400,000/600,000).

As usual, with so much American art dominating the proceedings, U.S. buyers were in the majority, accounting for 62 percent of lots and outnumbering Europeans (23 percent), Asians (3 percent) and “others,” which would include buyers from the Middle East and any other regions not covered by the first three categories, (13 percent).

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