The May sales in New York kicked off with “Bound to Fail,” a specialty auction at Christie’s that directly referenced the difficulties facing the market but became a runaway success, selling all but one of the 39 lots, including Maurizio Cattelan’s Him (2001), a sculpture of a kneeling, penitent Hitler, which went for $17.2 million, a record for the artist. With a sell-through rate of 97 percent by lot, the sale netted $78.1 million, well over the low estimate of $59.4 million. The sale’s title, Christie’s chairman and head of postwar and contemporary art, Brett Gorvy, joked after the auction, should have been “Bound to Sell.”
“This morning I had estimated the rate would be 87 percent,” said Christie’s global president, Jussi Pylkkanen, grinning. “I have to admit I was wrong.”
Apart from the record-setting Cattelan sculpture that closed the sale, other high points included new records for works by Paola Pivi, Neil Jenney, Olivier Mosset, Daniel Buren, Rebecca Horn, and John Armleder. Additionally, Richard Prince’s car-hood piece Anyone Can Find Me (1989–90) set a record for a sculpture by the artist, and Bruce Nauman’s No, No, New Museum (1987) set a record for a video work by the artist.
Buyers came from over over 30 countries, but more than half were from the U.S., said Pylkkanen. He also revealed that “three or four” institutions acquired works, but declined to say which institutions or which works.
The house’s deputy chairman, Loic Gouzer—who organized the sale, as he has a number of specialty auctions at Christie’s in the last few years—explained that the title “Bound to Fail” was chosen because the included works all relate to the theme of failure, but it could also have been a self-fulfilling prophesy if the market didn’t respond to such difficult works.
“We had artists who weren’t market darlings,” Gouzer said after the sale. “When something was too easy, or a definite winner, we said, ‘No, no, no.’ ”
To temper this, the price points were noticeably lower than a typical evening sale. It’s not so often that you see works with high estimates in the five figures at such events, and no sale Sunday came remotely close to approaching the record-breaking heights of Gouzer’s curated sale a year ago, “Looking Forward to the Past,” when Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version “O”) became the most expensive work ever sold at auction, at $179.4 million.
“There’s certainly a cautiousness in the market, but with the right estimates, we can encourage bidding,” Gorvy said.
Another sign of the cautiousness was that, though eleven of the lots were guaranteed, all were guaranteed through a third party, to limit Christie’s risk. The only lot to not sell, thus denying Christie’s a coveted “white glove” sale, was a Sigmar Polke installation of potatoes in a wood-and-steel grid, and it was not one of the guaranteed lots. (A quite-pleased Gouzer assured the press room, post sale, that “this is not a sign of a downturn in the potato market.”)
And so with this in mind, the sale began with a Jim Shaw work that breached its high estimate of a mere $40,000 by getting bid up to $52,000 (or 0.028 percent of what the Picasso sold for last year.)
The sale chugged along, with Gouzer and his fellow specialists snapping up nearly every lot—though not without competition from bidders in the room, as the low price points often encouraged paddles to go up early and often, and also led to rogue would-be buyers entering the fray late in the bidding. This kind of breakneck escalation could be seen when Pivi’s Untitled (Donkey), 2003, swiftly ran by its $80,000 high estimate en route to a hammer price of $185,000, or $227,000 with the premium, to a buyer in the room.
Next up was Neil Jenney’s Threat and Sanctuary (1969), which, after pinballing between two women bidding in person, went for $965,000, well over the $500,000 high estimate, causing Tony Shafrazi to scream out “Nice price!” After outlasting multiple bidders in the room, collector Bill Bell snatched up a Marcel Duchamp glass ampoule for $845,000.
But the sale all seemed to lead to Cattelan’s sculpture of Hitler, who had his back facing the bidders all night. (“A rather odd feeling having him staring at me,” Pylkkanen said afterward.) After bidding in the room and on the phones edged the price past its low estimate of $10 million, Gouzer began to battle with Marianne Hoet, international head of postwar and contemporary, inching the figure upward and upward by a few hundred thousands until Hoet hit $15.2 million, and Gouzer backed off, ending the bidding and securing a new record for Cattelan.
Besides the Cattelan, the night’s other big sale was Jeff Koons, One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J Silver Series), 1985, which went for $15.3 million.
“It was very good, and an extremely well-curated sale,” said auction veteran Simon de Pury after the action (he was also the underbidder for Glenn Ligon’s Malcolm X [version 1] #1, 2000, which went for $1.03 million). “Every one of Loic’s curated sales have worked so well, in different ways. It’s a great start to the week.”
Because the sale had started so early, at 5 P.M., the crowd had been a little slow to fill the room, as many had been coming from events closing out Frieze Week, such as the biannual opening and luncheon at the Brant Foundation in Greenwich, Connecticut. (Disclosure: Peter Brant, the foundation’s founder, is a majority shareholder in ARTnews’ parent company.) And so it was a shock to see it light out when the Nahmads, Mugrabis, and other collecting clans mingled outside of Rockefeller Center as they always do (though Paris Hilton, who was in attendance, is not as common of a presence). The odd timing of the sale also made it so that, after the final lot, many collectors had to rush a few blocks away to Phillips, where that house was set to begin its 20th-century and contemporary art evening sale at 7 P.M.
The auctions continue tomorrow with the Impressionist and modern art evening sale at Sotheby’s.