In its biggest postwar and contemporary sale in years, Christie’s sold all but three of its 71 lots on offer en route to a $448.1 million finish in New York Wednesday night, eschewing flashy fireworks in favor of cutting the fat and ably finding buyers for works. The sell-through rate by lot was 96 percent, remarkably solid for an overstuffed sale, and the sell-through rate by value was nearly perfect, at 99 percent.
“If we needed a proof of the strength of the art market, we have it, and if we needed proof of the strength of Christie’s, we have it,” said Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti in the press conference after the sale.
Cerutti is weathering his first New York sales week as chief executive, after a shake-up at the top of the ranks last December put him at the helm, and the results should quell any uneasiness about his leadership. While the anchoring lots may not have gone too far past their low estimates—and despite the surprising withdrawal of a Willem de Kooning that was estimated to go for between $25 million and $35 million—the number of blockbusters was more than enough to best last November’s postwar and contemporary total at the house by more than $170 million, and nearly reached the high estimate of $462 million.
(That’s slightly lower than the $500 million high estimate previously put out by the house, due to the withdrawal of the de Kooning as well as the loss of a work by Bruce Nauman estimated to sell for between $2 million and $3 million).
It was also the house’s first New York contemporary sale without longtime department head Brett Gorvy, who departed in December, leaving a vacuum of experience among the ranks and forcing the young team members to rebuild.
“I had a lot of people saying to us, ‘Are you going to make it without Brett?’ ” said Loic Gouzer, who last month was named postwar and contemporary chairman, sharing that title with Alex Rotter, a rainmaker Christie’s poached from Sotheby’s last year. “We miss him a lot, but we’re also very happy that we can do it by ourselves.”
The night’s top lot was Cy Twombly’s Leda and the Swan (1962), which sold for $52.9 million to the late artist’s longtime dealer Larry Gagosian, who was seated on an aisle and talking on a very large cell phone. The sale capped an exhausting saga of securing the piece—detailed in the current issue of ARTnews—that involved flying into Kyoto, Japan, to cajole its consignor into parting with the work over a four-hour feast of local delicacies.
(Sources tell ARTnews the consignor was the Japanese art collector Koji Itakura, who in the 1980s commissioned Diller and Scofidio to design a vacation house on Long Island, which was never completed and is known as the Slow House. Asked for comment Wednesday night, a representative for the auction house said, “Christie’s does not comment on the identities of its consigners unless given express permission.”)
Other top lots included Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (1963), which just breached its low estimate of $50 million by going for $51.8 million to a buyer on the phone with Henry Pettifer, head of Old Masters and British paintings at Christie’s London, after a quick smattering of bids from specialists. The consignor of that work was the French collector Francis Lombrail, who is building a theater in Paris.
There were a number of artist records for the night, including high marks for David Salle, Robert Gober, Rudolf Stingel, and Mark Grotjahn. Selling to a client on the phone with Gouzer for $16.8 million, Grotjahn’s Untitled (S III Released to France Face 43.14), from 2011, smashed his previous record by more than $10 million and inaugurated a new member into the clique of living artists who can sell into the upper eight figures.
The Grotjahn was consigned by the Paris collector Patrick Seguin, who took it off the wall of his apartment in the Marais to let Christie’s sell it.
“It was a very good price,” Seguin told me when I ran into him outside the salesroom. “Now, that’s no surprise for me, as it was guaranteed. But I’m building a big house with Jean Nouvel, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect, so I sold it for that.”
The sale began with the news of the withdrawn de Kooning, but unlike last night at Sotheby’s, when the last-minute loss of a $30 million Egon Schiele put a serious dent in the sale total, losing an eight-figure lot at Christie’s was just a flesh wound. Things started cooking quickly after the opening gavel rapped, as clients, advisors, and dealers bid often from inside the packed room. Even someone in the Siberia of the Woods Room, which pens in overflow attendees, bid hard enough to nab a Donald Judd for over $800,000. “It’s been a while since we had a purchase from the Woods Room,” auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen said, dryly.
Even if there were no fireworks, the night was carefully orchestrated, without a single pass until a Steven Parrino failed to find a buyer 44 lots into the auction. The only picture to work bidders into a frenzy was Andy Warhol’s Last Supper (1986), which sold to a buyer on the phone for $18.7 million, way over its high estimate of $8 million. The flurry of bids was edged up by Jose Mugrabi, the patriarch of the family that already owns more Warhols than anyone else on earth.
None of the star lots would see their total go so far beyond the top estimate or inspire any rush of raised paddles. Gagosian won the Twombly after just a few stray bids from three clients on the phone with Christie’s staffers on the rostrum: Sara Friedlander, head of the postwar and contemporary evening sale in New York, international postwar and contemporary director Andy Massad, and Gouzer. Bidding on the Bacon came from just Gouzer, Pettifer, and Rotter, and it advanced only from the opening bid of $41 million to a hammer of $46 million. Rotter’s client won Warhol’s Big Campbell’s Soup Can with Can Opener (Vegetable), 1962, for $27.5 million after beating just one other bidder, and Massad was the lone bidder when he secured for his client Roy Lichtenstein’s Red and White Brushstrokes (1965) for $28.2 million.
Some blamed the lack of oomph that failed to push bidding sky-high on slight imprecision with the estimates.
“It was a great sale, just the prices were too high,” said Hauser & Wirth partner Marc Payot as he walked out of the Christie’s flagship building and into a muggy-hot Rockefeller Center.
Richard Gray Gallery director Andrew Fabricant said that the day’s market turmoil—which occurred after a perfect storm of White House scandals further derailed business-friendly legislation that would allow billionaire art collectors to get massive tax cuts—affected bidding among American taxpayers, even if just unconsciously.
“The sale did extremely well, but when it comes during a down day in the market, it affects people psychologically,” said Fabricant, who was the underbidder on an untitled Robert Gober work that was won by Jeffrey Deitch for $5.3 million. “When it comes to the Twombly or the Bacon, I don’t think anyone who’s bidding is worried about when their next car payment is coming in—but it does have an effect, just psychologically.”
Gouzer touched upon the same point in the press conference—but, as per his style, he was much more blunt.
“Some works didn’t sell, and I’m going to blame that on Donald Trump,” Gouzer said.
Sarah Douglas contributed reporting.