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Rare Clyfford Stills Spark Bidding Wars at Sotheby’s $316M Sale

Much like the Frieze week auctions in London (ANL, 10/18/11), the last evening sale of the week saw the market reach a climax, only this time it was Sotheby’s, not Christie’s, that sent people home with the idea that the value of art is untouchable.

NEW YORK—Much like the Frieze week auctions in London (ANL, 10/18/11), the last evening sale of the week saw the market reach a climax, only this time it was Sotheby’s, not Christie’s, that sent people home with the idea that the value of art is untouchable.

Sotheby’s part one sale on Nov. 9 took $315.8 million which, even without the premium ($278 million), was in excess of the high end of the pre-sale $192 million/271 million estimate—a rare event these days. And the total was Sotheby’s third highest ever, just about even with November 2007 when the house realized $315.9 million for 65 lots. Of the 73 lots in this sale, 62, or 85 percent, were sold, half of which reached mid-estimate or higher hammer prices.

Sotheby’s had the two highest-value collections including a collection of four works by Clyfford Still, which had belonged to the artist’s widow, and were being sold by the City of Denver to benefit the Clyfford Still Museum. Still’s work is rare because he gifted most of it to Denver. Only 27 paintings have appeared at auction since 1990, according to an auction database. Of these, the highest price was $21.3 million, set in November 2006. Sotheby’s, which had agreed to a $15 million cap on the commission it would receive on the sales, had estimated the four works to fetch at least $51 million—they sold for $114.1 million including premium.

The top lot was 1949-A-N o. 1, 1949, which had been used to illustrate the cover of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s retrospective exhibition in 1979-80. It sold for $61.7 million (estimate: $25 million/35 million) to a phone bid through Sotheby’s Americas chairman and former Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum director, Lisa Dennison, after a lengthy bidding contest against dealer Christopher Eykyn, seated in the saleroom and speaking to his client via cell phone.

Asked whether there was Middle Eastern bidding action on the painting, auctioneer and Sotheby’s head of contemporary art Tobias Meyer told ARTnewsletter, “everyone looked at it.” Interestingly, Still’s widow had offered the painting at auction before, at Christie’s New York in 1990, when it went unsold with what was then considered a very high $3.5 million/4.5 million estimate.

Another work, the slightly earlier 1947-Y-N o. 2, 1947, was estimated at $15 million/20 million and sold for $31.4 million to a phone bid from Sotheby’s specialist Gabriela Palmieri, who works with Latin American clients. San Francisco dealer John Berggruen was the underbidder. Dennison, bidding for a client on the phone, then bought the later PH-1033, 1976, for $19.7 million (estimate: $10 million/15 million).

A further $74.3 million, compared with a high estimate of $36.7 million, was contributed by eight abstract works by Gerhard Richter from a private collection. The largest, Abstraktes Bild, 1997, sold for a record $20.8 million (estimate: $9 million/12 million) to a commission bid placed with Meyer.

The three, next largest works were sold to a buyer bidding through Sotheby’s Paris representative Grégoire Billault. He bought the colorful Gudrun, 1987, last sold at Sotheby’s London in June 2001 for $783,000, for $18 million (estimate: $5.5 million/7.5 million), a 1992 Abstraktes Bild, acquired by the seller at Sotheby’s New York in May 2005 for $1.2 million, for $14.1 million (estimate: $5.5 million/7.5 million), and Möhre, 1984, for $6.2 million (estimate: $2.5 million/3.5 million).

Until this sale, it appeared that Richter’s photo paintings, and in particular his spiritual candle paintings—one of which set the previous $16.5 million record at Christie’s London in October—were his most valuable. But, according to Meyer, the abstracts have been gaining ground since 2008. “People love color, and this collection was full of different colored Richters. We knew the market was there to put so many of them on the market, though we might not have done so if they were from different collections. The bidding came from everywhere, from America, Europe and Asia.”

In fact, abstract painting was the major strength of the sale. A ca.1960, vibrant Untitled canvas by Joan Mitchell, last sold at Christie’s in May 2007 for $3.2 million, set a new $9.3 million record for the artist (estimate: $4 million/6 million). Embraceable You, 1994, an abstract by Albert Oehlen, who was recently signed to the Gagosian Gallery, sold for a record $698,500 (estimate: $350,000/450,0000) to a U.S. collector. Meanwhile, records for abstract works on paper fell for Sam Francis, Sigmar Polke and Ellsworth Kelly.

Figurative painting was led by Francis Bacon’s triptych, Three Studies for a Self-Portrait, 1967, that sold for $19.7 million (estimate: $15 million/20 million). Two other Bacons sold comfortably within, or just above, estimates, but two early works by the artist were withdrawn because the British Government had put an export restriction on them because they are considered of national importance.

A group of mainly late works by Andy Warhol were sold, most at prices near the low estimates. Supporting the market, Jose Mugrabi snagged Diamond Dust Shoes, 1980, for $2.1 million including premium (estimate: $1.8 million/2.5 million). And Dollar Sign and Mickey Mouse from the “Myths” series, both sold at hammer prices below estimates realizing only small gains on the prices paid in 2006 and 2004, respectively.

Other buyers in the room included: private dealer, Mark Fletcher, who bought John Chamberlain’s Blue Flushing, 1975, for $1.5 million (estimate: $1.5 million/2 million); Mugrabi, who bought Polke’s Untitled work on paper, 1999, for a record $2.2 million (estimate: $250,000/350,000); Dominique Levy of L&M Arts, who bought David Smith’s Agricola XII, 1952, for $1.4 million (estimate: $1.2 million/1.6 million); and Andrew Fabricant of the Richard Gray Gallery, who bought Francis’s Untitled, watercolor, 1958, for a record $722,500 (estimate: $400,000/500,000), part of a sale of works from the UBS Art Collection.

John Elderfield, independent curator and art historian, as well as chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, bought Donald Judd’s Untitled (DSS 155), 1968, for $4.7 million, compared with an estimate of $5 million/7 million.

Of the works by younger-generation artists, the standout results included a record $2.3 million for a sculpture of African masks, Untitled, 1996, by David Hammons (estimate: $1.5 million/2 million) paid by U.S. collector, Adam Lindemann. Most notably, a record $6.6 million was paid for Oozewald, 1989, a play on the famous image of Lee Harvey Oswald shot at point-blank range, by conceptual artist, Cady Noland (estimate: $2 million/3 million).

Noland’s market is driven by U.S. conceptual art collectors, Meyer told ARTnewsletter, and two underbidders, bidding through dealers Larry Gagosian and David Zwirner, got locked in a battle for this iconic work, before it was sold to a buyer on the phone with a Sotheby’s representative. Noland’s previous record was just $1.76 million.

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