Earlier tonight Christie’s hosted an impressive $705.8 million auction that set a new world record for a single work of art at auction with Pablo Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) (1955), which went for $179.3 million. The evening also set six new auction records, for the artists Peter Doig, Cady Noland, Jean Dubuffet, Diane Arbus, Chaim Soutine, and auction-favorite Alberto Giacometti, whose L’homme Au Doigte (1947) also sold in the three-figure millions, for $141.2 million, making it the most expensive sculpture ever sold at auction. That was just $1.2 million shy of the former record holder for the highest-ever price at auction, Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud, which sold at Christie’s in November 2013. The total for the sale, which was titled “Looking Forward to the Past,” soared over a high estimate of $607.5 million.
At the press conference after the auction, Christie’s president Jussi Pylkkänen, who had served as auctioneer, called the Picasso sale “one of the greatest moments in auction history” but said that bidding on each of the evening’s top ten lots—which included another Picasso, a red portrait of a woman from 1938, which sold for $67.3 million, and Dubuffet’s Paris Polka (1961), which sold for $24.8 million and decimated his previous record of $7.4 million, achieved just last fall—showed the strength of new markets and collectors. Each of the top ten, Pylkkänen said, featured bidding by a collector who’d only started collecting in the last “five or six years.”
Despite the strong numbers, the evening was relatively subdued, with very little bidding in the room—perhaps a result of the new buyers Pylkkänen mentioned, or perhaps because 18 of the 35 lots carried some form of guarantee, which takes a certain spontaneity out of the mix. Les femmes d’Alger, the seller of which received a “guaranteed minimum” from Christie’s, saw no bidders in the room, just four Christie’s representatives on the phone, bidding million-dollar increments over 11 minutes from an opening bid of just below $100 million. The audience applauded at $150 million, but the bids, as if unconcerned with the audience, continued to the hammer price of $160 million. Bidding on the Giacometti was similarly low-key, and finished in only four minutes.
A few familiar faces joined in the fray on other lots. David Zwirner bought a Max Ernst from 1924 for $9.1 million, Dominique Lévy was the underbidder on a Picasso Dora Maar portrait that sold for $4.3 million, and Larry Gagosian was the underbidder on the $25.9 million Peter Doig swamp scene. Steve Wynn could be overheard after the sale asking the woman accompanying him if she wanted to change her shoes, but could not be observed bidding. (His ex-wife Elaine Wynn was the buyer of the formerly record-holding Bacon.)
It was the sort of evening where it like nothing could lose. A Jean-Michel Basquiat portrait sold for $13.6 million, despite being a work on paper, surpassing an already formidable high estimate of $12 million.
The evening was all the more remarkable because it was not even the house’s big spring contemporary auction, which takes place on Wednesday, merely a new kind of themed sale that Christie’s tried for the first time last Frieze Week, this time merging older and newer works.
Specialist Loic Gouzer, who organized both special sales, said after the auction that the conceit had worked, and that the person who bought the 1926 Piet Mondrian usually only bought “Christopher Wools, things like that.”
On his way outside, the former head of Phillips auction house Simon de Pury praised Gouzer’s idea as “a great way to see art,” and spoke to the quality of the Dubuffet record-breaker.
“It’s a strong Dubuffet,” he said, adding that the result “should elevate his price point across all kinds of works.”
Lock Kresler, Dominique Lévy’s senior director of Europe said that more than any one figure, it was the number of bidders on each lot, even as they climbed, that impressed him.
The sales continue tonight with Sotheby’s contemporary auction.
Update, 10:45 a.m.: An earlier version of this post stated that David Zwirner was an underbidder on the Max Ernst that sold for $9.1 million. In fact, he won the lot. The post has been updated to reflect this.