LONDON—At $348.3 million, the total for Christie’s evening postwar and contemporary art sale on May 13 was its second-highest, but was achieved with just 57 lots on offer, of which all but three (or 5 percent) sold, producing an average price of $6.4 million per lot sold. The previous high was $384.6 million in May 2007, when 78 lots were offered.
The sale was led by a glowing Mark Rothko, No. 15, 1952, estimated at $40 million, which sold for $50.4 million to a phone bidder. The painting was from California collector Richard Evans, who had bought it in 1999 for $11 million. Christie’s had been proactive in gathering works for this sale to meet anticipated demand, and had approached Evans to consign the work along with three others; all four were guaranteed.
The other works from Evans’ collection were Susan Rothenberg’s Recoup, 1975-76, which went unsold (estimate: $2.5 million/3.5 million); Sam Francis’s Black, 1955, which had been bought in 1999 for $2.4 million and was sold for a record $5.2 million (estimate: $4 million/6 million); and Adolph Gottlieb’s Cool Blast, 1960, which also set a record at $6.5 million (estimate: $2 million/3 million).
Christie’s had also approached international collectors Guy and Marion Naggar for Lucian Freud’s large painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995. “We made a list of Freud’s best five paintings, and this is the one we got,” said Brett Gorvy, Christie’s deputy chairman, Americas. “There was no competition involved, but we still put our money on the table.” Estimated at $25 million/35 million, and with Christie’s financial interest declared in the catalogue, the painting sold to a phone bidder for $33.6 million, a record for a living artist at auction. After the sale, Christie’s CEO Edward Dolman said that “Russians had had a strong presence” at the auction, and trade sources whispered that the buyer of the Freud had been London-based Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.
Reports have subsequently stated this as fact, though Christie’s has refrained from commenting. Gorvy told ARTnewsletter that no one from his list of potential buyers was active in the bidding, and that the eventual buyer had not been anticipated. It is thought that Abramovich, who has not been known previously as an art buyer, may have been advised by Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, a director of the Gagosian Gallery in London until very recently, when she became international director of a Moscow arts project in a former bus garage supported by Daria Zhukova, the girlfriend of Abramovich. Dent-Brocklehurst and Abramovich were recently spotted together at a London gallery looking at Picassos. But while she has confirmed to the ARTnewsletter that she has left Gagosian and is working on the bus-garage project, Dent-Brocklehurst would not comment on whether she was advising Abramovich on building a collection.
Another British painting Christie’s tracked down for the sale and guaranteed was Francis Bacon’s small triptych Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1976, which had been bought in 2005 for $5.2 million by Andrew Fabricant, director of the Richard Gray Gallery. Owned by U.S. collector Richard Hedreen, it sold for $28 million (estimate: $25 million/35 million) to a phone bidder, thought by trade sources to hail from Sri Lanka.
Most of the other record prices were for U.S. artists. Of the postwar works, Barnett Newman’s ink on paper, Untitled, 1969, sold for $5.2 million (estimate: $4.5 million/6.5 million) to art adviser Philippe Ségalot; Tom Wesselmann’s Smoker #9, 1973, sold for $6.8 million (estimate: $4 million/6 million); and Robert Indiana’s USA 666, The 6th American Dream, 1964-66, sold for $1.8 million (estimate: $1.5 million/3 million).
Among the contemporary American artists, records were broken when Richard Prince’s Man-Crazy Nurse #2, 2002, from the collection of Douglas Cramer, sold for $7.4 million (estimate: $6 million/8 million) to dealer Christophe van de Weghe, and Peter Halley’s Dream Game, 1994, from the collection of Michael and B. Z. Schwartz, sold for $457,000 (estimate: $90,000/120,000). Following Freud among the top prices for European artists was Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (625), 1987, which sold in 2003 for $3.7 million, and sold here for $14.7 million (estimate: $7 million/10 million) to the same phone buyer who bought the sale-topping Rothko. It was the second-highest auction price for Richter, and the highest for an abstract painting by him.
The sale was marked once again by a high percentage of guaranteed works (53 percent, or 30 of the sale’s 57 lots), which together carried a low estimate of $195 million, compared with the low estimate for the entire sale of $280 million. Four works from the Schwartz collection, guaranteed with a combined low estimate of $12 million, sold for $15 million, including Jeff Koons’s Jim Beam-Box Car, 1986, which sold for $1.9 million (estimate: $1 million/1.5 million) to Haunch of Venison’s Harry Blain, bidding for Damien Hirst.
Three works from Cramer’s collection, including the record-breaking Prince, were guaranteed, together carrying a low estimate of $9.8 million and realizing $12.3 million. But 14 of the guaranteed works sold at hammer prices at or below their low estimates, and two went unsold. The most conspicuous unsold guaranteed lot was Roy Lichtenstein’s Ball of Twine, 1963 (estimate: $14 million/18 million), sent for sale by U.S. collector Peter Brant, who had bought it in 2001 for $4.1 million.
The hammer-price total for the guaranteed works was $178.75 million, $22.25 million dollars short of the combined low estimate. However, Christie’s calculated that they made a profit on 95 percent of the guaranteed property, according to Gorvy. In spite of the faltering U.S. economy, 70 percent of the buyers at the sale were from the Americas, while 26 percent were European (including Russian), and 4 percent Asian.
Other buyers in the room included private dealer Christopher Eykyn, who bought David Smith’s Widow’s Lament, 1942, for $2.4 million (estimate: $1.5 million/2.5 million); van de Weghe, who bought Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Victor 25448, 1987, for $3.5 million (estimate: $4.5 million/6.5 million); David Zwirner, who bought On Kawara’s Untitled (Decade), 1990-99, for $2 million (estimate: $1.8 million/2.4 million); Larry Gagosian, who bought Prince’s joke painting Shot Salesman, 1987, for $1.2 million (estimate: $1.2 million/1.8 million), as well as Mike Kelley’s installation Nativity Play, 2004-5; and Alberto Mugrabi, who bought Basquiat’s Untitled (Car Crash), 1980, last auctioned in 2003 for $724,000, for $2 million ($2.8 million/3.5 million), as well as Warhol’s small Four Jackies, 1964, for $4.3 million (estimate: $4 million/6 million).
The sale was also notable for the inclusion of the first example of modernist architecture to be held in an art, as opposed to design, auction. Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, CA, sold after only two bids, which had to be registered before the sale with Christie’s real estate department, for $16.8 million (estimate: $15 mil¬lion/25 million).
After the sale, Gorvy commented that the market was, if anything, stronger than ever. “There are a number of new and younger collectors coming in,” he said. “We had targeted masterpieces and commercial works of top quality. In some cases, as with the Freud, we achieved prices way over ¬private-sales levels. The new buyers are not held back by memories of prices fetched years ago. They have advisers and are following the trajectory of prices achieved in the last few sales.”