It took until day three of the New York sales for a lot to pass the $50 million mark, and when bidding reached that magic number on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (1982) at the $318.4 million postwar and contemporary evening sale at Christie’s tonight, the sales room burst into cathartic, relieved applause.
The bidding eventually crept up to a $51 million hammer, or $57.3 million with premium—easily a new record for a Basquiat at auction—as specialist Koji Inoue battled with chairman Brett Gorvy, both on behalf of clients on the phone, going back and forth by a million here, half a million there, until Inoue eventually won out and the room returned to clapping.
The collector on the other end of the phone was Japanese, Inoue confirmed to ARTnews following the sale, and one who was clearly in the mood to spend: just two lots later, the same collector snatched up Richard Prince’s Runaway Nurse (2007) for $9.7 million, also an auction record for the artist.
Other records were achieved for Mike Kelley, Agnes Martin, and Kerry James Marshall. But the even better news came from the healthy sell-through rate of 87 percent, which suggested that the lackluster Impressionist and modern sale at Sotheby’s the night prior, at which just 66 percent of works sold, was not necessarily a sign of trouble across the market. (Regardless of financial conditions, Imp-mod remains a tougher field these days.)
“We had to deal with the trepidation of last night’s results,” Gorvy said at the press conference after the sale. “But I woke up this morning and told my team, ‘We have to have a sale that has over 85 percent.’ And I’m glad the team actually listened to me, because we’re at 87.”
The press conference took place in front of the nine-foot-long Basquiat, a devil’s head glowing at its center. As ARTnews reported last month, the work has spent the last 12 years in the collection of dealer Adam Lindemann and his wife, the dealer Amalia Dayan, where it was kept in their David Adjaye–designed house at 77 East 77th Street. Now, it goes off to Japan, a testament to Christie’s efforts to attract Asian buyers.
“We had a Chinese collector fly into New York just an hour ago, make a remarkable purchase, and now he’s being followed around by a documentary film crew,” said the house’s global president, Jussi Pylkkanen. He pointed to the film crew that had been stalking around all night; it was explained later that they were making a documentary about Christie’s for the BBC.
When stopped a few minutes later in front of the Basquiat, Pylkkanen added that he’s very pleased to see the Basquiat placed in an Asian collection, and that this kind of match-making happened throughout the night.
“We just didn’t have works that people didn’t want to chase,” he said.
To call the sale a complete market rebound would be a bit much, however. The price points were still far lower than the corresponding sale in May of 2015, which featured a $81.9 million Rothko, a $56.2 million Warhol, and a $56.2 million Freud, and which rang up a total of $658.5 million. Pylkkanen said that for tonight’s sale Christie’s priced the works at 80 percent of what they usually would have.
This cautiousness extended to the guarantees: there were only ten, minimizing risk for Christie’s, though one of the guaranteed lots did fail to sell: Gerhard Richter’s Venice (Island), 1986, which was priced at $7 million to $10 million, meaning the house had to take a bit of a hit.
The sale started strongly enough, with the first seven lots selling for well above their low estimates, which was followed by a long stretch of nine works by Alexander Calder that saw bidding sputter out toward the end and resulted in the first pass of the night. There were also two more Calders elsewhere in the sale.
“There must have been a lot of demand for Calder?” said Joshua Roth, the head of the fine art division at the Hollywood talent agency UTA, who happens to be married to Christie’s Southern California director, Sonya Roth, echoing the sort of puzzled feeling in the room.
The night’s first eight-figure lot was Rothko’s No. 17 (1957)—lot number 17, as it happens—and after Pylkkanen hung onto a bid at the low estimate of $28 million, specialist Barrett White notched it up to $29 million and the hammer came down there, leading to a price of $32.6 million with premium.
A few lots later, the Chinese collector mentioned by Pylkkanen bought Yves Klein’s Untitled Blue Monochrone (IKB 108), 1956, for $3.3 million (“I don’t know what I’m going to do with it!” he was overheard telling the film crew), and then Agnes Martin’s Orange Grove (1965) attracted some of the most in-room bidding of the night. It seized a new record for the artist when the client on the other end of the line with Gorvy got it for $10.7 million.
After the excitement of the dueling phone bidders who bid up the Basquiat, and the swift anointing of a new auction record for Richard Prince—and the buzzkill of a pass on a Warhol Liz (1964) that was estimated at $10 million to $15 million—collectors began to leave the room, knowing that more auctions were to come in the days ahead.
“It was a very, very strong sale, very encouraging,” said Richard Gray Gallery partner Andrew Fabricant as he walked out.
“It just shows that the difference in the material makes all the difference,” he added, referring to Christie’s arch rival, Sotheby’s. “Christie’s has a much bigger outreach program, and it shows in the consignments. People feel like this is where the people are going to gravitate, and where there are experts.”
Dealer David Nash said it’s wrong to compare a contemporary sale to an Impressionist sale, like the one at Sotheby’s the night before, as the price points and demand are apples and oranges.
“It was very strong, but we have to wait and see what happens at the contemporary sale tomorrow,” he said, and then, without missing a beat, he greeted a collector by saying, with a grin, “Did we spend a lot of money tonight?”
The New York sales continue tomorrow, as Nash noted, with the contemporary art evening auction at Sotheby’s.