Sotheby’s capped its auction week yesterday with a respectable contemporary day sale that brought in $98 million. With 323 out of 418 lots finding buyers, 80 percent of the works that went on the block sold. Although some momentum was lost between the morning’s bidding frenzy and a sleepier afternoon, the sale had plenty of action and got off to an especially strong start.
Perhaps due to the free coffee and pastries on hand, the morning sale began with a bang, with Andy Warhol’s Chanel (from Ads), 1985, causing a bidding war. The screenprint of a Chanel No. 5 perfume advertisement had a high estimate of $350,000; it ended up selling for at $1.81 million.
The next eight Warhol lots would’ve felt like déjà vu—a number of similar works had come up on the block the day before at Christie’s—were it not for the fact that most overperformed. A screenprint of an Apple advertisement went yesterday at Christie’s for $173,000; a screenprint of an Apple advertisement went at Sotheby’s for $910,000, a whole $300,000 over its estimate. Warhol’s Rebel Without a Cause (James Dean) (From Ads), a screenprint of a still of the actor in 1950s film, also brought in $910,000. Later on, two more Warhols went big—a painting of Uncle Sam ended up costing $1.21 million, while another that read “Repent and sin no more!” hammered at $820,000.
The Warhol craze at the beginning of the sale set the tone for a slew of lots that significantly outdid their estimates.
The top lot of the morning was Roy Lichtenstein’s Modern Painting with Yellow Interweave (1967), which sold for $3.43 million, beating out out Kenneth Noland’s Heat (1958), which finished at $3.37 million, a new record for the Color Field artist.
But no lot garnered more competition than Jean Dubuffet’s Compagnonagge (1956), in which two blocky children stand next to each other. There was so much bidding that Andrea Fiuczynski, the morning’s first auctioneer, tried to rush along the process. By the time the work had crossed the $2 million mark, some audience members had even picked sides, rooting for one bidder or the other like sports fans cheering for their favorite team. When the painting finally sold at $2.83 million, there was applause, and Fiuczynski congratulated the winner on what she called a “hard battle.” A Gerhard Richter Abstraktesbild work wound up matching the Dubuffet price. Work by Adolph Gottlieb and Yayoi Kusama also earned more than $1 million.
In a sale with a number of surprises, some of the strangest moments happened when major works failed to sell. A Robert Indiana Love sculpture showed promise as it inched toward its low estimate of $1 million. One person bid $900,000, and Gabriela Palmieri, the morning’s second auctioneer, accidentally thought he had bid $9 million. After he looked confused, she apologized and said, “With the way this day sale is going, we could pass $9 million on one lot.” She was quickly proven wrong when, no more than 30 seconds later, she slammed the hammer down and told the audience that the work wouldn’t sell because it had not reached its reserve price. As she put it, “No love today.”
Work by Wayne Thiebaud also failed to impress, although, unlike Indiana’s sculptures, Thiebaud’s paintings found owners. Both works, initially estimated to be two of the morning’s top lots, went for close to the very bottom of their estimates. Sol LeWitt’s Minimalist sculptures performed similarly, hammering just above their low estimates.
As with yesterday’s Christie’s sale, works by Alexander Calder and Frank Stella continued to exceed their estimates. (Regarding the latter, Palmieri said, “The retrospective is up,” referring to Stella’s big Whitney show.) Expectations also ran high for works by Ed Ruscha—one painting by the Californian sold just below its low estimate, but another, titled Sunset to Pico, impressed. When the grainy, grayish painting hit the block, bids flew in so quickly that the Palmieri found herself accidentally bidding for people who hadn’t put their paddle up yet. The hammer fell when the work hit $2.77 million, exceeding its high estimate of $1.5 million.
Work by Jean-Michel Basquiat was also a hit at today’s Sotheby’s auction, where an untitled piece by the ’80s art star nearly doubled its asking price, finishing at $2.17 million. It was a slow crawl to get to that price, however, and bidders frequently asked to split bids. The increments became smaller and less sensical as the bidding went on. When one phone bidder asked for a $13,000 bid, Palmieri said, “So much for increments ladies and gentlemen. Just don’t say $.99 cents.”
By the time the morning session was over, it was clear that the audience was drained, and many chose not to return after the announcement that there would only be a 10-minute break between the sales. (The remaining pastries disappeared at an astonishingly fast rate as bidders raced to find food in such a short time.) With dwindling attendance and interest, the afternoon’s sale was slower, and, as a result, it also had fewer surprises. Most work sold comfortably within estimate, and many at the lower ends.
The exception was work by Yoshitomo Nara, the Japanese artist who has proven to have a major art-market presence in the past decade. Today Nara had two works sell for over $1 million, but in particular it was Portrait of Ae (2009), which shot $650,000 past its asking price, ultimately selling for $1.45 million, that made a strong impression. Richard Serra’s drawings also performed handsomely—Celan (2010) was taken home for $1.39 million, a comparable $640,000 over its high estimate.
Work by three “Forever Now” artists came up on the auction block yesterday afternoon, and each was met with a different response. There was Mark Grotjahn, who continued his winning streak at this week’s auctions with a psychedelic pink-and-green painting that was bid up to $1.03 million. There was Rashid Johnson, who had one work sell at the high end of its estimate. And then there was the much-hyped Oscar Murillo, whose work, estimated at $100,000 to $150,000, failed to sell all together.
It became harder and harder to predict what would or wouldn’t sell as the afternoon went on. Work by auction mainstays like Dan Colen, Andreas Gursky, Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, and Cindy Sherman received little or no interest. Gabriel Orozco exemplified the unpredictability of this sale—his most expensive work didn’t sell, another performed tepidly, and the third quadrupled its high estimate.
Among the established artists who had a surprising presence was Peter Halley, who makes what he calls “conceptual abstractions.” His Double Elvis (which looks nothing like the Warhol painting of the same name) nearly tripled its estimate, going for $262,000. Meanwhile, two female painters also wowed the audience—an Elizabeth Peyton portrait doubled its estimate, while a warmly colored Mickalene Thomas work wound up costing $175,000.
Hot emerging artists continued to find fans at the afternoon sale. A Kour Pour painting went for $112,500, while a Hayv Kahraman painting went for $68,750. A painting by Petra Cortright, one of the youngest artists in yesterday’s auctions, sold for $40,000—no small feat for an artist who has yet to turn 30. On the other hand, a Lucien Smith rain painting, despite the seemingly endless hype for the abstract painter, left the block without an owner.
As the afternoon sale waged on, Sotheby’s workers cleared away empty coffee cups and the audience grew smaller. Minor squabbles punctuated the final hour of the sale—a George Condo went back up for an auction after a faulty phone connection, while a Christian Boltanski photo-sculpture would have sold for more if the bidder spoke a millisecond earlier, just before the hammer went down. More than anything else, it was clear that everyone was fatigued from what had already been a too-long week of auctions.