ARTnewsletter Archive

Sotheby’s Holds Its Own With Solid Contemporary Sale

The contemporary art market powered on at Sotheby’s on May 9 when $266.6 million was garnered, well within the $216 million/304 million estimate, establishing another batch of record prices.

NEW YORK—The contemporary art market powered on at Sotheby’s on May 9 when $266.6 million was garnered, well within the $216 million/304 million estimate, establishing another batch of record prices. The total was a vast improvement on last May’s $128 million, and the company’s fourth highest for a contemporary evening sale.

Of the 57 lots offered, 46, or 81 percent, were sold. A higher percent by value was sold as all the top lots found buyers. Here the emphasis was less on Abstract Expressionism, as at Christie’s, and more on American Pop.

Roy Lichtenstein’s classic Sleeping Girl, 1964, from the Phil and Bea Gersh collection, just tipped the previous $43.2 million record to sell for $44.9 million, to a phone bid taken by Sotheby’s Lisa Dennison.

Auctioneer and head of contemporary art, Tobias Meyer, said that bidding had come from China, North and South America, and Europe, though the location of the buyer was not identified.

Another Lichtenstein, Sailboats II, 1974, from the Theodore Forstmann collection, was among the top lots, selling for $11.8 million against a $6 million/8 million estimate. Forstmann bought the painting at Christie’s in 1998 for $1.4 million. The other big Pop art sale was Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis (Ferus type), 1963, which sold for $37 million, against a $30 million/40 million estimate, to New York dealer Jose Mugrabi. Another Warhol, Ten Foot Flowers, 1967–68, sold for $10.7 million, against a $9 million/12 million estimate, but two lesser Warhols struggled. A nine-part portrait of Jan Cowles, 1971, from the sitter’s collection, only fetched $842,500, half the low estimate, while a late, soup can painting, Campbell’s Soup, 1986, went unsold with a $1 million/1.5 million estimate.

A record was set when Cy Twombly’s wax crayon on gray canvas, Untitled (New York), 1971, sold for $17.4 million against a $15 million/20 million estimate. The buyer was West Coast collector Stavros Merjos.

Sotheby’s top Abstract Expressionist works were inferior to those offered by Christie’s, experts said, and were unsold. These included two works by Willem de Kooning—a 1961 collage, Untitled, estimated at $4 million/6 million, and a 1970–74 oil on paper, Untitled, estimated at $5.5 million/7.5 million—as well as a late Joan Mitchell painting titled South, 1989, estimated at $3.5 million/4.5 million. The bargain of the sale was probably an early Arshile Gorky painting, Khorkhom, 1938, bought by Forstmann at Christie’s in May 2007 for $4.2 million and now sold to dealer Jack Tilton for $2.8 million, against a $3 million/4 million estimate.

As at Christie’s, the market for Alexander Calder works was on fire as a 1952 mobile, SUMAC VI, sold to Robert Mnuchin of L&M Arts for $5.9 million, against a $2.5 million/3.5 million estimate, and a small stabile, Red Tooth, 1942, sold for $2.9 million to New York dealer, Nancy Whyte, against a $500,000/700,000 estimate.

European art was led by Francis Bacon’s Figure Writing Reflected in a Mirror, 1976, which shared the top-lot space by selling to a phone bidder for $44.9 million, against a $30 million/40 million estimate. The price was the highest for a single canvas (as opposed to a triptych) by the artist. A small Bacon portrait, Study for Portrait, 1978, however, had been on the market recently at Sotheby’s in London, in February 2008, where it sold for $4 million, and produced no change for the buyer after it sold to US collector Donald Bryant for $4.3 million, against a $4 million/6 million estimate.

Still riding the market wave was Gerhard Richter with one of the top-selling lots—a relatively large Abstraktes Bild, 1992, which sold for $16.9 million (estimate: $8 million/10 million) through Sotheby’s private clients director Roberta Louckx, bidding against L&M Arts. As a reminder of how steeply these abstracts have climbed in value, a smaller Abstraktes Bild, 1991, which had been bought at Christie’s in London in June 2008 for $2.3 million, now sold for $4.9 million.

Over a longer period, an equally good return was had for a small red slashed canvas titled Concetto Spaziale, 1962, by Lucio Fontana. Last sold at Sotheby’s London in 1992 for $64,000, it now fetched $3 million, against a $1.2 million/1.8 million estimate.

The Sotheby’s sale had a much stronger emphasis on more contemporary works than Christie’s and posted several records here: Glenn Ligon’s 80-inch-high Black Like Me, 1992, sold to collector Peter Brant for $1.3 million, against a $600,000/800,000 estimate; Mark Grotjahn’s large Untitled (Yellow Butterfly), 2009, was underbid by Larry Gagosian before selling for $2.1 million against a $1.5 million/2 million estimate; and Mark Bradford’s large canvas titled GRRR…, 2003, sold for $868,500, against a $450,000/650,000 estimate. Also fetching a record was Ai Weiwei’s one-ton carpet of ceramic sunflower seeds, Kui Hua Zi, 2008–10, from an edition of ten, which sold for $782,500 against a $600,000/800,000 estimate. Priced by weight, though, the seeds were less expensive than the 100 kilogram sunflower seed installation sold at Sotheby’s London last year for $563,215.