ARTnewsletter Archive

$43M Lichtenstein Crowns Christie’s Contemporary

Christie’s mixed-owner part one sale on Nov. 8, totalled $220.8 million including buyers’ premium, against a pre-sale estimate of $215 million/298 million excluding the premium, so, technically, the sale fell below the estimate.

NEW YORK—Christie’s mixed-owner part one sale on Nov. 8, totalled $220.8 million including buyers’ premium, against a pre-sale estimate of $215 million/298 million excluding the premium, so, technically, the sale fell below the estimate.

While all but nine of the 65 lots were sold, and seven records were broken, half of the sold lots reached hammer prices on or below their low estimates. Four of the top 12 lots—estimated to fetch $4.5 million or more— were unsold. Six of the top ten selling lots in this sale sold on or below low estimates at hammer prices, all indicating a resistance to compete at the top level. Even combined with the Peter Norton sale lots, the total $247 million was the lowest part one sale for Christie’s since November 2009, ceasing the upward trajectory that had taken place since then.

Still, overall results were healthy, especially considering the state of the global economy. Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop art classic, I Can See the Whole Room, 1961, fetched a new record when it sold to private dealer Guy Bennett for $43.2 million, compared with an estimate of $35 million/45 million. The painting was being sold by Courtney Ross, the widow of the late Time Warner CEO, Steven Ross, who bought it at the Emily and Burton Tremaine sale at Christie’s in 1988 for $2.1 million.

However, most of the American Postwar classics that dominated the sale attracted less competition. Mark Rothko’s White Cloud, 1956, had a top-of-the-range estimate at $18 million/25 million, and only found one bidder at $16.5 million, or $18.6 million including premium. Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XI, 1975-6, had a bullish $7 million/9 million estimate but, an American collector secured it on a $6.5 million bid, or $7.4 million with premium. And Cy Twombly’s faintly scribbled Untitled (Lexington Virginia), 1959, estimated at $5 million/7 million, was rescued by Larry Gagosian with a $4.6 million bid, or $5.2 million with premium. Gagosian also won a Twombly sculpture, Untitled (New York), 1955/2002, estimated at $1.5 million/2 million and guaranteed, with a $1.4 million bid, or $1.6 million with premium, prompting speculation that he was the guarantor.

And then there was Andy Warhol, for whom there was another guarantee on the top work, Silver Liz, 1963. It was consigned by Peter Brant, and given an estimate of $16 million/19 million. That price proved too high for everyone except London jeweller, Laurence Graff who claimed it with a $14.5 million bid, or $16.3 million with premium. Since Graff has guaranteed auction lots before, observers wondered whether he was the guarantor on this lot as well.

A small Warhol Mao, 1973, that was consigned by the Tokyo News Service, just hit the low estimate, selling to L&M Arts head, Robert Mnuchin, for $3.4 million including premium (estimate: $3 million/5 million). There was more competition for Warhol’s Four Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962, which was acquired by a European collection since 1971 and had not been exhibited since. It was underbid by dealer/collector Jose Mugrabi, and sold for a premium-inclusive $9.8 million (estimate: $7 million/10 million).

Evidence that mid-range Warhols might be coming back a bit, was seen in the price for his small 5 Deaths, 1963, last sold in London in June 2008 for $3.2 million, and sold now for $4.3 million. However, that bid was also on the low estimate of $3.8 million and it was guaranteed.

It was a fairly strong evening for sculpture, which claimed three records: Alexander Calder’s mobile, Sumac, 1961, sold to a U.S. dealer for $4.8 million (estimate: $4 million/6 million); Jean Dubuffet’s Canotin môche oeil, 1967, sold, albeit on a bid below estimate, for $1.2 million (estimate: $1.1 million/1.3 million); and Louise Bourgeois’s large bronze Spider, 1996, sold for $10.7 million (estimate: $4 million/6 million) to a U.S. collector.

It was an up and down evening for Jeff Koons. First, his 1985 classic, Two Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, 1985, soared over estimate to sell to dealer David Zwirner for $4.2 million (estimate: $2 million/3 million). However, his stainless steel Baroque Egg with Bow (Orange/Magenta), 1994–2008, sold on the low $5.5 million estimate to fetch $6.2 million, compared with the blue version which sold at Sotheby’s amid the art market downturn, in May 2009, for $5.5 million.

But down was the only signal for the Damien Hirst market as his spot painting, Strontium 500, 1997, which sold at Sotheby’s in 2007 for $1.5 million, now sold for $1.2 million (estimate: $1 million/1.5 million).

The major disappointments of the sale were Francis Bacon’s rarely-exhibited Study of a Man Talking, 1981, which was unsold, with a $12 million/18 million estimate, and Gerhard Richter’s photo painting, Frau Niepenberg, 1965, last auctioned at Sotheby’s London in December 1996 for $938,000, which was also unsold with an estimate of $7 million/9 million.

New York buyers seem to prefer Richter’s abstract paintings, as Sotheby’s was to discover, and here, a smallish example, Abstraktes Bild (724-5), 1990, bought by a U.S. collector at Sotheby’s London in October 2007 for $1.8 million, was claimed by art adviser Kim Heirston for $3.4 million (estimate: $2 million/3 million).

Other buyers in the room included: dealer Iwan Wirth, who paid a record $902,500 (estimate: $500,000/700,000) for Vija Celmins’s ca. 1969 graphite drawing, Sea Drawing with Whale; London and New York dealer Harry Blain, who bought a small Robert Ryman, Untitled, 1965, for $1.6 million (estimate: $400,000/600,000); Zwirner, who bought Richard Tuttle’s Green Triptych, 1965, for $422,500 (estimate: $300,000/500,000); and Alberto Mugrabi, who snapped up a Richard Prince joke painting, The Other Guy, 1990, for $2.7 million, compared with an estimate of $2.5 million/3.5 million.

In all, Christie’s offered 15 guarantees with a combined low estimate of $83.3 million and sold 13 of the respective lots for $90 million including premium. The only one that appeared to have offered a decent upside to the guarantor was Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II, 1999, which sold for a record $4.3 million (estimate: $2.5 million/2.5 million)—and also set a record for any photograph at auction. ARTnewsletter has learned it was acquired by Inigo Philbrick, director of London’s new Modern Collections Gallery, a secondary market gallery in which Jay Jopling’s White Cube gallery is said to have a major stake.

Additional reporting by Eileen Kinsella