Earlier this evening in New York, Sotheby’s held a contemporary art sale that brought in $379.7 million, well within its presale estimates of $322.1 million to $420.7 million, and that saw new records for seven artists—Christopher Wool, Mark Bradford, Mark Grotjahn, Danh Vō, Thomas Struth, Helen Frankenthaler, and Sigmar Polke, whose 1967 Dschungel (Jungle) sold for $27.1 million, replacing an earlier record it had held until tonight, which was set when it sold at Sotheby’s London in 2011 for $9.2 million. That jump in price is perhaps indicative of both the booming market for contemporary art and a newfound respect for the late artist following his impressive recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Tate Modern in London, and the Museum Ludwig in Cologne.
It was Christopher Wool’s Untitled (Riot) (1994), however, that saw some of the most spirited bidding of the evening. A great example of his two-line, four-letter works, the painting had four bidders even at $17 million, among them Larry Gagosian and Philippe Ségalot, who was the underbidder on the piece, which sold for $29.9 million to a phone bidder. This occurred over the course of seven minutes. “It took forever to take off,” said auctioneer \Oliver Barker after the sale, “but when it took off, boy did it take off.”
Many of the other top lots failed to attain the same excitement. The highest seller of the night, a 1954 yellow and blue Mark Rothko once owned by Bunny Mellon, attained $46.5 million, on the low end of its $40 million-to-$60 million estimate. Roy Lichtenstein’s The Ring (Engagement) (1961) sold for $41.6 million, below its estimate “in the region of $50 million.” That work also only received two bids, one in the room for $36 million, from Larry Gagosian, and another from a phone bidder who won the work (the work carried a guarantee so it’s possible that one of those parties had a financial interest in it). A Gerhard Richter abstract work from 1992 sold for $28.3 million, but had just one bid over the phone (it carried an irrevocable bid—that one, then). Those four works—from Rothko, Lichtenstein, Wool, and Richter—comprised the top four lots of the evening, in that order.
Still, only 7 of the 63 lots on offer failed to sell, for a solid sell-through by lot rate of 87 percent, though there were significant passes, among them a Robert Ryman expected to sell for $5 million to $7 million, an Ed Ruscha expected to sell for $3.5 million to $5 million, and a Cy Twombly expected to sell for $5 million to $7 million.
There was not much by way of surprises, though a guaranteed Andy Warhol Superman silkscreen from 1981 sold for $14.4 million, well above its $8 million high estimate. “Someone really likes Superman,” Barker announced after selling the lot.
At the press conference at the end of the sale Alex Rotter, Sotheby’s co-head of contemporary art worldwide, said the artists who attained records represented the “full spectrum of contemporary art” and showed the market’s depth.
After the sale, dealer David Nisinson said the Richter result didn’t show an over-saturation of the market, as some have suggested. It’s just that “no one interested in Richter thinks that this is their last opportunity.” There’s an abstract one in almost every contemporary sale.
As for the Lichtenstein, he said, “It’s a little subdued for people who are going to pay big money for an early Pop picture.”
I caught up with Gael Neeson, who sold the Lichtenstein with her husband, Chicago plastics mogul Stefan Edlis. Were the two happy with the price? “Oh, I think we are,” she said, then excused herself to dinner.