Christie’s pulled off a dramatic evening sale of postwar and contemporary art on Thursday, thanks in large part to a David Hockney masterpiece that sold for the princely sum of $90.3 million, which helped drive the auction’s total to $357.6 million, right in the middle of its $314.1 million-to-$409.5 million estimate.
Seven of the 48 lots offered failed to sell for a trim buy-in rate by lot of 15 percent. Of the 41 lots that sold, 37 made over a million dollars, and eight of those hurdled past $10 million, with five going over $20 million.
Four artist records were set, including for David Hockney, whose cover-lot painting also set a record for the most expensive work by a living artist ever sold on the block.
The result fell far short of last November’s record $785.9 million tally over 49 lots sold, but more than half of that huge haul had come from Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500), which went for $450.3 million.
On the financial guarantee front, Christie’s fully backed nine lots on Thursday night, and third-party guarantors covered eight lots.
The evening got off to an auspicious start with stellar property from the collection of San Francisco–based Harry W. “Hunk” Anderson and Mary Margaret Anderson, starting with Philip Guston’s powerhouse graphite on paper Window (1969–70), depicting a hooded Ku Klux Klansman stoking on a cigar, which made a staggering $3.13 million (est. $300,000–500,000). It graced the cover of the Museum of Modern Art’s 1998 exhibition “The Drawings of Philip Guston.”
Another Anderson entry, Vija Celmins’s jewel-like, photo-realist-styled composition Star Field 1 (1981–82), also graphite on paper, sold to the telephone for $2.41 million (est. $800,000–$1.2 million).
Back in the various owners’ playing field, Bruce Nauman’s widely exhibited neon-tube sculpture Run from Fear, Fun from Rear (1972), number one from an edition of six, failed to sell at a chandelier bid of $3.2 million ($3.5 million–$5.5 million). Nauman’s massive retrospective just opened at MoMA and MoMA PS 1, garnering critical praise and enormous square footage, but that wasn’t enough to close a sale. Perhaps it was the taboo subject matter.
Alexander Calder’s delicate 21 Feuilles Blanches (1953), a wide-wingspan mobile in sheet metal, wire, and white paint, floated skyward to $18 million (est. $5 million–$8 million). Private dealer Neal Meltzer and Upper East Side gallerist Christophe van de Weghe were underbidders. The leaf-shape array of stacked elements is an engineering marvel, though Calder’s handmade artistry always cloaks those mechanical feats.
Switching visual gears, Francis Bacon’s searing and distorted portrait Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing (1969), a 14-by-12 inch oil being sold from the collection of the late publishing magnate S. I. Newhouse, was won by a telephone bidder for $21.7 million (est. $14 million–$18 million). Greek collector Dimitri Mavrommatis was the reluctant underbidder for the depiction of Moraes, a hard-living bohemian artist’s model who had an affair with Lucian Freud. (He painted her in Girl in a Blanket, 1953, and they remained great friends with Bacon in that alcohol-infused atmosphere of Soho in London.)
Bacon painted Moraes at least 23 times between 1959 and 1969, according to Christie’s. She died of a drug overdose in 1999.
The Bacon last appeared in public in the Gagosian Gallery exhibition “Isabel and Other Intimate Strangers: Portraits by Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon” in New York in 2008, a year after Newhouse acquired it from the Richard Gray Gallery, according to the Christie’s catalogue. Other paintings of Moraes are currently on view in “Bacon’s Women” at the Ordovas Gallery in New York (through January 11).
“I thought it could go a bit higher,” Pilar Ordovas said as she exited the salesroom, “because it’s an extraordinary painting.”
Though Frank Stella’s regimentally striped Gray Scramble (1968) was painted just a year apart from the Bacon, one can hardly believe it is from the same century. The alkyd on canvas work, stretching 69 by 138¼ inches, sold to the telephone for an under-estimate $4.81 million (est. $5 million–$7 million).
The evening’s blockbuster was David Hockney’s sublime composition Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972, in which you can almost hear a Beach Boys tune in the background. Trophy-sized at 84 by 120 inches, it sold for a rollicking and record-setting $90.3 million, the most ever paid for the work of a living artist at auction.
Listed in the catalogue as “property from a distinguished private collector,” art-market sleuths have identified the seller as the Bahamas-based currency trader and billionaire Joe Lewis, who acquired the painting privately from Hollywood mogul David Geffen in 1995 for an undisclosed price understood to be in the five-million-dollar range but not higher (the auction record for Hockney at the time was $1.1 million).
The painting came to market without any form of guarantee, or even a reserve price (meaning, theoretically at least, a very modest bid could have taken it home)—a structure perfectly encapsulating Lewis’s gambling nature.
The discreet collector became much better known in 2016 when documents from the leaked Panama Papers revealed that, while he was a major stakeholder in Christie’s (then a publicly traded company), he was the actual seller of much of the storied Ganz collection of contemporary at Christie’s New York in November 1997, and that he earned a cut for serving as middleman.
Lewis also tried to take over the company with former CEO Christopher Davidge but was outfoxed by François Pinault, whose holding company Artemis SA bought it and delisted it in 1998, for a then-whopping $1.2 billion.
Shareholder Lewis, of course, was enriched by that deal, as well, since it represented a 25 percent premium over the last-day traded share price of Christie’s stock.
Back to the monumental Hockney: one can’t gripe about its beauty or cool ’70s look, which appears straight out of Hollywood but is actually an amalgam of several poolside locales, not only in Southern California but also in the south of France. (The painting was done in London.)
The fully dressed standing figure poolside is Peter Schlesinger, Hockney’s younger, movie-star-handsome lover and muse who stares into the aquamarine blue water as if he were reading tea leaves at the bottom of a cup. A long-haired male swimmer is an underwater stroke away from the pool’s edge and Peter’s feet. The two seemingly unconnected figures form a sensually visual bond against a lush, breathtaking mountain landscape.
Bidding on the Hockney opened at $18 million and zipped along at $2-million-dollar increments before jumping higher, as at least six telephones entered the fray as well as bidders in the room, including Chris Ekykn of Ekykn Maclean.
At $74 million, auctioneer and Christie’s global president Jussi Pylkkänen calmly inquired, “Anybody else like to jump in?”
It was Christie’s U.S. chairman Marc Porter, who had entered the battle at $60 million, who persevered for the winning bid of $80 million, which topped up to a record $90.3 million once fees were added.
That price, reached after a nine-minute-long contest, obliterated the Hockney record set last May at Sotheby’s New York when Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica (1990) fetched $28.4 million against a $20 million–$30 million estimate.
It also crushed the record for a work by a living artist, held until tonight by Jeff Koons, whose Balloon Dog (Orange), 1994–2000, sold at Christie’s New York in November 2013 for $58.4 million.
“The record in May for Hockney was $50 million,” said Douglas Baxter, a partner at Pace Gallery which has represented the artist for years, “and I don’t know how the record got to $80 million [citing the hammer price] six months later. The world is mad now.”
A second Hockney pool image from the Anderson collection, executed in pressed paper pulp, Sprungbrett mit Schatten (1978), which is absent of any figures, brought a more normal $7.29 million (est. $6 million–$8 million). Altogether, the Anderson collection pulled in $34.4 million.
With sunny (not smoky) Southern California still in mind, Richard Diebenkorn’s masterful and grandly scaled Ocean Park #137 (1985) brought $22.6 million (est. $18 million–$22 million). It was sold by the late television legend Mary Tyler Moore and her husband, Dr. S. Robert Levine.
Back in the third-party-backed world, an untitled Christopher Wool wordplay standout, in enamel on aluminum panel, dated 1990 and scaled to 108 by 72 inches, wasn’t exactly hard to read from 20 feet away, thanks to its four rows of block capital letters:
It sold to another telephone bidder for $15.2 million (est. $14 million–$18 million).
Color, and lots of it, infused Sam Gilliam’s Lady Day II (1971), which went for an artist–record $2.17 million (est. $1 million–$1.5 million). The Gilliam last sold at Sloans & Kenyon auctioneers in Chevy Chase, Maryland, in September 2003 for $4,500 (yes, four thousand, five hundred bucks).
Heading back to mid-century, Joseph Cornell’s magical Medici Slot Machine: Object (1942) sold to another telephone bidder for $5.04 million (est. $4 million–$6 million). It was part of a small group of lyrical works from the collection of François and Susan de Menil that also included Mark Rothko’s mid-sized deep purple Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum), 1962, which sold to another telephone bidder for $35.7 million (est. $35 million–$45 million). The couple had owned the work since 1979.
In that dark-hued yet regal vein, Pierre Soulages’s abstraction Peinture 186 x 143 cm, 23 décembre 1959 realized an artist-record $10.6 million (est. $10 million–$15 million), and as Guillaume Cerutti, Christie’s CEO, proudly noted in remarks after the sale, it now ranks as the most expensive artwork sold at auction by a living French artist.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s text-rich jazz homage to Miles Davis, Discography Two (1983), executed in acrylic and oil stick on canvas, made $20.9 million (est. $20 million–$30 million). (Luckily, it came to market backed by a third-party guarantee.)
For his posthumous evening auction debut, Robert Colescott’s multi-figured and art-history-referencing composition Cultural Exchange (1987), mural like at 91 by 115 inches, sold for a record $912,500 (est. $250,000–$350,000), tripling the previous high mark set at Swann Galleries in New York last month when Down in the Dumps: So Long Sweetheart (1983) sold for $329,000. Tonight’s Colescott last sold at Bonhams & Butterfields in Los Angeles in April 2006 for $26,888.
The raucous fall auction season ends sometime tomorrow, following Christie’s postwar and contemporary day sale, after a long week that seemed to easily ignore gyrating stock prices and scary, geopolitical headlines.