Christie’s netted a total of $277.5 million at its postwar and contemporary sale in New York Tuesday night, a haul healthily over its low estimate of $216 million, though just shy of the high estimate of $296 million. By selling 54 out of its 61 lots, the auction house secured a sell-through rate of 89 percent despite a sale that appeared, at first, to have some bloat.
“I was quite surprised to see 89 percent,” Christie’s global president Jussi Pylkkanen said at the press conference following the auction, echoing the sentiment of many bidders leaving the room just days after the disruptive results of the presidential election.
“It was a long sale, and a very interesting sale—especially given the last week,” said Brett Gorvy, Christie’s head of postwar and contemporary art.
And yet, sales were down from years past—last November’s postwar sale, with just a few more lots, netted $331.8 million, indicating a drop of 16 percent. But that auction was considered a disappointment, and if you compare Tuesday’s sale to that of November 2014, which brought in $852.9 million over 72 lots, you’d see a two-year dip of 67 percent. The market contraction continues apace.
There were still a few highlights, included new records for five artists, most notably Willem de Kooning. His Untitled XXV (1977) hammered at $59 million, or $66.3 million with the buyer’s premium, well over its pre-sale estimate of $40 million. That figure crushed the previous record of $32.1 million achieved when Untitled VIII, also from 1977, was sold at Christie’s in 2013.
The demand for the de Kooning was enough that its seller declined a guarantee, but there were 17 other lots were guaranteed by Christie’s, or guaranteed by a third-party. Of those, only Roy Lichtenstein’s Double Mirror (1970) failed to sell.
Christie’s also pulled off records for John Currin, Giuseppe Gallo, Christopher Wool, and Jonathan Horowitz, who was given the opening slot to showcase Obama ’08 (2008), a recreation of 43 presidential portraits hung in four rows, with the final spot left open. No doubt many specialists had thought, when assembling the sale, that Hillary Clinton would fill out the work. With a former reality television star ready to have his picture there instead, perhaps there would not be so much desire to bid.
“We start with the, eh, topical Jonathan Horowitz,” Pylkkanen said at the onset of the auction, and after some hesitation on behalf of the sale room, the crowd lit up and bids started coming in, before hammering to a bidder on the phone at $180,000, or $223,500 with the buyer’s premium.
A few lots later, dealer David Nahmad picked up an untitled Alexander Calder from the Nelson Rockefeller collection for the hammer price of $3.7 million, or $4.39 million with premium, after a quick battle with the Christie’s evening sale head, Sara Friedlander. Nahmad would flap his arm in the air when bidding, so much of a presence that Pylkkanen, briefly breaking with sale politesse that frowns upon outing bidders on a hot mic, referred to the billionaire collector as “David.” When he sprang back in for the final bid, Pylkkanen burst out, “He’s come to life!”
The fun did not end there. Just two lots later came the de Kooning, which was hanging in all its enormity on the side wall of the salesroom. Pylkkanen began the proceedings at $30 million and then spit out some chandelier bids, reaching $38 million with no bidders materializing. Panic set in. Then, Gorvy threw his hat in the ring at $40 million, only to be challenged immediately by Conor Jordan, deputy chairman of Impressionist and modern art. They went back and forth from across the salesroom, both phone-in-hand from different risers, inching the figure up by $2 million, then another $2 million, before scaling back to $1 million increments. This went on for a few minutes until Gorvy batted back a strong bid by going up to $59 million—at which point there was a pause.
“Are we all done?” Pylkkanen asked Jordan.
He nodded dejectedly, the hammer slammed, and the new de Kooning record was greeted with a smattering of applause.
(Who exactly was it who just dropped $66.3 million on a de Kooning? It’s unclear, but after the sale Gorvy said that it was an “international” buyer, and added that whoever was on the other end of the phone with him was “a citizen of the world who has homes in many countries.” Doesn’t exactly narrow it down.)
After Christie’s Asia deputy chairman Li Xin outbid Princess Eugenie of York (who works as an associate director of Hauser & Wirth in London) for Calder’s John Graham (1931)—securing it for $2.53 million—and Imp-mod private sales head Adrien Meyer picked up Jean Dubuffet’s Les Grandes Arteres (1961) for his client to the tune of $23.8 million, the sale reached the second of two works by Adrian Ghenie. After Ghenie’s Nickelodeon, (2008) hammered for a quite crazy price four times its high estimate last month in London, the artist has become this season’s inscrutable market darling, and Christie’s bet big that New York sales would go gaga for him too. After his Flight into Egypt (2008) went for just over its high estimate early in the sale, up came The Bridge (2015), estimated to sell for $2.5 million on the high end. It looked like it wouldn’t come close to that goal when, out of nowhere, came a bid from the very back of the sale room—in the standing area, if you can believe it!—from a very young-looking man in wacky glasses and a black bandana, a white headphone cord dangling by his neck. Apparently he had just arrived at the sale for that lot, and he managed to snag the Ghenie for a hammer of $3.3 million, or $3.94 million with fees.
The crowd burst into bewildered applause, and I split from the salesroom because the mystery buyer was trying to escape much like he came in: stealthily, and in a bizarre fashion. I managed to catch him on the stairs, but after asking him for any information, he just said his name was Andrew.
“I come here enough,” he said. “You’ll see me around.”
Gorvy later suggested that both Ghenies where bought on behalf of Asian collections but said he couldn’t really elaborate—he was just as surprised as anyone.
The last big lot of the evening was Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (809-2), 1994, which was bought years ago by Eric Clapton in a legendary deal. Just weeks after the 9/11 tragedy in 2001, the guitarist acquired, in a single lot at Sotheby’s, three Richters that all debuted at Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London. The price tag for all three was $3.4 million. After the sale tonight—where Abstraktes Bild (809-2) was bought by Chicago dealer Paul Gray for $22.1 million—those three works have netted Clapton $77.3 million. Think about that the next time you hear “Layla.”
The sale was long, and collectors and dealers started to trickle out around lot 40. The reviews were mixed, though generally people agreed that it certainly could have gone worse.
“I mean, it was fine,” David Mugrabi told me as he walked outside. He was going to dinner with his brother Tico, who earlier was seen chatting up Gorvy for a long time—despite it being the middle of a live lot—and then proceeding to high-five every specialist even as they tried to work a sale.
“The good stuff did well, and the worst stuff didn’t do so well,” David Mugrabi said.
“It was a lot stronger than I thought it was going to be,” said collector Mera Rubell, who was coming down from the skybox with her husband, Don. “They had like, what, two passes? Three passes?”
“There were six passes,” Don Rubell said. (Seven, actually).
“We live in uncertain times,” Mera Rubell said. “We’ve had a big few weeks, wouldn’t you say?”
Pace Gallery’s president, Marc Glimcher, said that, in the current political climate, the sale did a pretty good job of not imploding.
“I’m defining it as ‘perfectly fine,’ ” Glimcher said after the last lot hammered. “I mean, what’s the problem? For a few days after the zombie apocalypse, we did pretty well.”
The fall sales in New York continue Wednesday with the Impressionist and modern sale at Christie’s and the 20th century and contemporary sale at Phillips.