Earlier this evening Christie’s hauled in an impressive $658.5 million at its contemporary art evening sale in New York, bringing the house’s total sales for the week to $1.4 billion, following a $705.8 million night on Monday that included a new world record for the most expensive artwork ever auctioned.
The mood in the room ranged from sleepy to enthusiastic, both those characteristics seen in bidding on the top lot, a dark orange Mark Rothko from 1958 that hovered around its estimate of $45 million for some time but kept a good number of bidders as it rose to its hammer price of $73 million, Jose Mugrabi among them until $59 million. The eventual winner entered the bidding via telephone only at $62 million. Despite being a more subdued Rothko, its price with buyer’s premium, $81.9 million, came remarkably close to the $86.8 million Rothko record achieved at Christie’s spring sale in 2012.
In a tie for second-highest lot of the evening, Andy Warhol’s Colored Mona Lisa (1963) had dealer Amalia Dayan battling it out until the end with her former boss Larry Gagosian, who won the piece for $56.2 million (all totals include premium, unless noted), well over its high estimate of $35 million. After the sale Dayan said she was disappointed to have lost the work for her client. “It’s a masterpiece,” she said. “Great year, great subject, it’s everything he’s about, plus great provenance.”
In all, eight artists records were set this evening, for Giovanni Anselmo, Robert Rauschenberg, Carroll Dunham, Lucian Freud, Hans Hofmann, Robert Ryman, Sturtevant, and Rudolf Stingel.
The first three records were set during the particularly enthusiastic first portion of the evening, 20 lots from the collection of Ileana Sonnabend and the estate of her daughter Nina Castelli Sundell. The Anselmo sculpture sold for $6.44 million, about eight times its high estimate, while the Rauschenberg, Johanson’s Painting (1961) went for about triple its high estimate, finishing at $18.6 million. Another standout was a Jean Dubuffet sculpture that hammered at $1 million (about three times its high estimate estimate) despite the dealer Philippe Ségalot raising his hand at the hammer and keeping it up, snapping it through preparations for the next lot.
“I didn’t see your bid,” Christie’s president and auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen told Ségalot from the rostrum. Ségalot was formerly the head of the contemporary art at Christie’s and instead of accepting this got out of his seat and walked to the phone bank to speak with the man who currently holds that title, Brett Gorvy. The auction stalled as Pylkkänen announced he would reopen the lot, but then decided to settle it after the auction. (From the piece’s listed final price with premium, $1.21 million, it seems Ségalot still missed out. Had another bid been registered that sum would likely have been higher.)
“Every piece from that collection had quality you just don’t see anymore,” collector Don Rubell said after the sale.
“The market really responds to the quality of a collection,” his wife Mera concurred, “and it doesn’t get better than Sonnabend.”
Lucien Freud’s fleshy Benefits Supervisor Resting (1994) sold to Pilar Ordovas, of the eponymous London gallery, for $56.2 million, tying for the second-place spot. She declined to say anything about its purchaser. The sale of another top work of the evening, Francis Bacon’s Portrait of Henrietta Moraes (1994) was more low-key, selling with just two bids in one minute to a phone buyer for $47 million.
At a press conference after the sale Pylkkänen said the results showed taste on behalf of the buyers.
“Until now I think that we’ve talked about new emerging buyers coming into the market, but the Ryman”—Bridge (1980), which sold for $20 million despite the failure of a similar Ryman one night prior at Sotheby’s—”was a sophisticated painting,” he said. “The Rothko was sophisticated. What we’ve seen in our market is a very knowledgable market.”
The New York auctions end tonight, with a contemporary sale at Phillips and an Impressionist and modern one at Christie’s.