A raw, twisted steel 1958 John Chamberlain sculpture, Nutcracker, sold for $4.8 million last night at Sotheby’s in New York. The price achieved an auction record for the artist, selling to a Gagosian Gallery representative who paid more than double the presale $1.8 million high estimate. Gagosian recently signed on the 84-year-old artist, following a two-decade partnership with Pace Gallery.
Nutcracker was the most coveted artwork on offer in a single-owner sale from the estate of Upper East Side dealer Allan Stone, who died in 2006 at the age of 74. The sale included 42 lots totaling $54.8 million, topping the $46.8 million high estimate. The lure of estate material and low estimates resulted in a healthy 93 percent of lots finding buyers.
While results were steady, the mixed quality of works on offer was more suited to a day sale than an evening sale. Nevertheless, Sotheby’s gave the Stone estate the royal auction treatment, having snatched the business away from Christie’s, where a first round of works were sold in 2007.
Stone was a compulsive buyer who filled his suburban home with whatever caught his eye. His daughter, Olympia Stone, directed and produced a 2006 documentary about her father, The Collector: Allan Stone’s Life in Art. Two skyboxes filled with Stone family members and friends watched the proceedings, snapping photos and sipping champagne.
This sale launched a weeklong series of contemporary art auctions at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury, stocked with big-money paintings by Warhol and Rothko.
Last night’s sale included a group of 18 works by painter Wayne Thiebaud. Sotheby’s strategy, offering a large pool of work by a single artist, can risk flooding the market. In this case the gambit paid off. Seventeen sold, totaling $27.5 million, above the $18.3 million high estimate.
“The work that was really great sold very well,” San Francisco dealer Gretchen Berggruen told A.i.A. “[Thiebaud has] a much broader following than people think because he’s always been labeled a California artist.” Berggruen purchased Various Cakes for $3 million, above the $1.8 million high estimate.
Stone originally met Thiebaud in 1961, a year after he founded his gallery. They continued to work together until Stone’s death. Thiebaud’s 1961 still-life painting of rows of symmetrical Pies, thickly painted on a cream background and in step with a then-emerging Pop style, sold for $4 million, above the $3.5 million high estimate.
International phone bidding from Europe, Israel and Asia helped propel Thiebaud’s prices. An 11-inch-tall 1962 work, Four Pinball Machines (Study), soared over a $900,000 high estimate, selling for $3.4 million.
The sale also featured Abstract Expressionist artists, including nine pieces by Willem de Kooning, who is the subject of a major survey at MoMA this autumn. “The quality of the De Koonings weren’t very good, and they didn’t generate much enthusiasm,” noted dealer David Nash, of Mitchell Innes & Nash, after the sale. The most significant de Kooning, a 1947 greenish-yellow and raspberry painting on board titled Event in a Barn, missed a $5 million to $7 million estimate, selling for $4.8 million.
The most hotly pursued de Kooning was the pink and flesh-toned painting on newsprint, Woman in a Landscape (1965–66). Estimated to sell for $700,000 to $900,000, more than four bidders pushed the price up to $1.1 million. It eventually sold to an unnamed phone bidder.
“The sale was a good warm-up for the week, but many of the key players didn’t show up,” observed dealer Edward Tyler Nahem. “Tuesday night will be packed.”
TOP: Wayne Thiebaud, Pies, 1961. Oil on Canvas, Est. $2,500,000–$3,500,000. Sold: $4,000,000
ABOVE: Willem de Kooning, Event in a Barn, 1947. Oil, enamel and paper collage on board. $5,000,000–$7,000,000. Sold: $4,800,000.