NEW YORK—Christie’s opened the series of auctions of Postwar and contemporary art on May 11 with a selection of 31 works from the collection of the late writer Michael Crichton. All 31 lots sold, for a total $93.3million, comfortably above the $48million/70million estimate. The stars of Crichton’s collection were works from the 1960s by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, acquired directly from the artists, and an important later painting by Pablo Picasso.
Johns’s Flag, 1960–61, sold to the Avery Galleries, Bryn Mawr, Pa., bidding for a client, for a record $28.6million against an estimate of $10million/15million. Rauschenberg’s Studio Painting, 1960–61, sold for $11million—well above the estimate of $6million/9million—to Christie’s Paris-based director Florence de Botton. Dealer Larry Gagosian won another Rauschenberg, Trapeze, 1964, for $6.3million, within the $5million/7million estimate, and art adviser Megan Fox Kelley, who has reportedly served as an adviser to the Crichton family in the past, bought Picasso’s Femmes et fillettes, 1961, for $6.6million, within its estimate of $5.5million/7.5million.
Other dealers buying at the sale included Aquavella Galleries, New York, which bought Johns’s Study for a Painting, 2002, for $5.3million, at the top of the estimate of $3million/5million, and Pace Gallery, New York, which bought Agnes Martin’s small dark grid painting Untitled, 1961, for $962,500 on an estimate of $400,000/600,000.
The Martin was one of many works Crichton had bought at auction at the start of the last art-market boom, paying $441,600 for it at Sotheby’s New York in November 2003, so it was not a bad investment, achieving an annual growth rate of 12.7 percent. The best return, yielding an annual growth rate of 19 percent, was for Frank Stella’s Honduras Lottery Co. (Smaller Version), ca. 1962, which was sold for $698,500 (estimate: $300,000/400,000) after having been bought at Sotheby’s in New York in November 2003 for $240,000.
In one or two cases, however, it appeared that Crichton had overpaid. At Christie’s in November 2004, he paid a double-estimate $399,500 for Richard Prince’s unique photograph Untitled (fashion), 1980. The work was resold here for $362,500, just over the top of the estimate of $250,000/350,000. (In the day sale—in which 49 out of 50 more Crichton works were sold—Liza Lou’s small beaded cigar box Untitled, 1996, sold for $35,000, more than double the $10,000/15,000 estimate. But since the work had been bought at Christie’s New York in May 2004 for $45,410, it represented another poor return.) Nonetheless, the evening’s sale was a triumph, and another record was achieved, by Mark Tansey’s Push/Pull, 2003, which sold for $3.2million, nearly triple the $800,000/1.2million estimate. Not only had Christie’s winning the Crichton collection helped to bring other sellers to the sale, but it had got the evening’s auction off to a confident start.