An enormous round of applause rang out in the Sotheby’s salesroom following its contemporary art evening sale tonight in New York, as the auction house wrapped perhaps the first solidly positive sale of the past week, totaling $294.9 million, over a low estimate of $254 million, and securing a new auction record for Cy Twombly at $70.5 million. It was a communal sigh of relief after a shaky week in the art market.
With a sell-through rate of 81.5 percent, 24 out of 54 lots going for above their high estimates, and a healthy number of active bidders actually seated in the room—even until the doldrums of the final lots—the sale had a more upbeat mood than the uneven curated and contemporary sales at Christie’s over the past few days, and atoned for the $500 million swing-and-miss gamble that Sotheby’s took with the guaranteed sale of the estate of A. Alfred Taubman, its former chairman turned jailbird.
“It was a better price point—things were within reach,” said Kim Heirston, an art advisor who picked up an Ed Ruscha at $3.3 million for a client on the phone. “It was a good feeling, and definitely a good mood.”
The Sotheby’s brass shared that opinion, naturally, and also attributed that buoyant spirit to their judicious estimates.
“We had a guarantee on our sale last week, and we wanted to price these in a way that would encourage bidding,” said Oliver Barker, deputy chairman, Europe, and the auctioneer for the night. “We had great bidding overall, and an infectious salesroom.”
The bidding came fast and furious from the curtain-open of the first lot, an untitled 1961 Frank Stella painting, as a cascade of phone bids and in-room bids—“A plethora of bids!” Barker screamed—dotted the sea of chairs, as CEO Tad Smith looked on from a side pocket with a delirious grin. Perhaps spurred on by the record-breaking Stella in this same room during the Taubman sale, or the gigantic retrospective of his work at the Whitney, bidders such as dealer Christophe Van de Weghe and Elizabeth Szancer, art advisor to Ronald Lauder among others, fought for the lot until it hammered over the high estimate at $1 million, $1.21 million with the buyer’s premium, with Szancer as the victor.
Next up was a Mike Kelley “Memory Ware” piece from 2001 that went for $3.07 million, earning a new record for the artist. (Just hours earlier a similar work had sold at Christie’s for $2.85 million.) It was followed by a Rudolf Stingel that elicited what was possibly the most intense flurry of bids during the entire sales week before getting down to phone bidders and selling for $5.5 million.
After small works by Cy Twombly and Alexander Calder that went for over their high estimates, and passes on Louise Bourgeois and Cady Noland didn’t even really temper the excitement in the room, up to the block came Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale, Attese, a breakthrough slit-laden work by the in-vogue Italian master that was influenced by Antonioni’s Red Desert. It couldn’t sniff the $29.9 million Fontana off-loaded at Christie’s last night and sold for $16.2 million, though that was within its $15 million to $20 million estimate with premium included.
The Fontana was followed by a relatively small Jackson Pollock—the first of the night’s guaranteed lots—that averted a blow to the house by selling for $22.9 million, above its low estimate of $20 million. The Christopher Wool up next was bought by, of all people, dealer and art-world zelig Tony Shafrazi, who would prove to be quite active in the sale, bidding on the Pollock and a Jean-Michel Basquiat and even buying a Nate Lowman for $514,000.
“He’s a great artist, don’t you think so?” Shafrazi said of Lowman. “I’ve been wanting to get one for a while, and now I’ve got one.”
Then came the biggest guaranteed lot of the evening, Andy Warhol’s Mao, last owned by billionaire Steve Cohen. Lots like this used to be easy sells, but this week has seen the Pop art guru’s market evaporate: at Christie’s, two eight-digit Warhols were left high and dry before a baffled crowd, and his Four Marilyns sold for a price lower than what it went for at Phillips in 2013 and a full $24 million below its high estimate.
But the week’s worst fears were assuaged, as they were at multiple times during the evening, as the gigantic Mao went for $47.5 million, making it the most expensive Warhol of the week.
And then another Stella—with colorful concentric squares, from 1974—stirred the room into a frenzy, as paddles fought with landline-in-hand specialists to get on top, if just for a split second. After extended bidding, it hammered at $4.6 million, or $5.4 million with the premium.
Cy Twombly’s Untitled (New York City) was one of the few works with the bloated estimates seen at Christie’s these past few days, and there was concern it could drop like a sack of bricks—especially after the Twombly last night barely inched past its low estimate. But the bidding began at a sky-high $54 million and soon was in the hands of Alex Rotter, head of the contemporary department, who secured the lot for his client at $70.5 million, a new record for the artist.
One curiosity was the dismissal by the crowd of Basquiat’s Hannibal, which passed despite being featured on the back of the catalogue. It was followed by the wild embrace of two subsequent Basquiats that both went for well over their high estimates. The first to come up, an untitled work completed in 1987, the year before his death, drew bidding from family patriarch Jose Mugrabi, who drove the price higher and higher while in combat with a specialist on the phone. He dropped out after it hit $6.8 million, but then his aisle-mate, Shafrazi, jumped into the bidding with a nonchalance that suggested he just wanted to get in on something. He eventually gave up against the specialist, and it ended up at $8.3 million, triple its high estimate.
“There are many people bidding, and there were a lot of people bidding on the Basquiat,” Jose Mugrabi said after a genuflecting Smith came over to whisper a sweet nothing in the collector’s ear. “All that matters is that you like something. And if you like something—that’s it! It’s not science.”
And then, as one of the last lots of the night, another Basquiat came up, a big sparse canvas called Masonic Lodge. The Nahmad clan—brothers Joe and Helly and father David—quickly emerged at the top of the heap, before a woman in a grey fur stole in the back of the room decided to hop in, forcing the Nahmads, who seemed quite intent on getting this piece, to go back and forth with her until they secured the lot at $5.1 million.
What follows is a bit of speculation: immediately after the hammer on that Basquiat, the curtain of the far-left skybox was swooped closed. And who was in that skybox but Leonardo DiCaprio, the actor and collector who started buying art when he purchased a Basquiat drawing. Perhaps the Nahmads, who are well-documented members of DiCaprio’s continent-hopping entourage, bought the work for him? Or, because Wednesday was DiCaprio’s birthday, maybe they bought it for him. You know, like as a birthday present, for five million beans?
Regardless, DiCaprio was standing with the Nahmads outside of Sotheby’s following the sale, along with DiCaprio’s Wolf of Wall Street co-star and fellow skybox occupant Jonah Hill, who had just had the pleasure of meeting Tico Mugrabi.
“Holy shit, we’re neighbors!” Hill exclaimed to Mugrabi, before passing along his numbers and insisting that “we have to get dinner sometime.”
Then Hill, who had mentioned he’s not a usual auction attendee, turned to Helly Nahmad, whom he wrapped in a big bro hug.
“Helly,” Hill said. “It was so much fun watching you…do that tonight.”
The week’s New York evening sales conclude tomorrow with the the Impressionist and modern auction at Christie’s.