Clyfford Still Painting Sells for $61 M. at Booming Sotheby’s Contemporary Sale

An abstract painting by Gerhard Richter sold for $20.8 million, a new auction record for the artist

There was an impressive result for a Sigmar Polke work on paper from 1985, which sold for $2.2 million, over a high estimate of $350,000, to collector Jose Mugrabi, nearly quadrupling the artist’s previous record for a work on paper.  Polke died last year; Mr. Meyer announced before the sale of the Polke that it would be included in the artist’s upcoming catalogue raisonne. There has not yet been a catalogue raisonne for Polke and these books are important tools in establishing a secondary market for an artist’s work. There is also believed to be a Polke retrospective in the works at a major U.S. museum, something that would potentially stoke market interest in his work.

A surprise bidder came in the form of MoMA curator emeritus John Elderfield, who bought Donald Judd’s Untitled (DSS 155) (1968) for $4.7 million. (The collector selling the sculpture—a “distinguished American collector,” according to the catalogue—bought it at Christie’s New York in November 2004 for $2.6 million.) Mr. Elderfield, who curated the blockbuster Willem de Kooning show currently on display at MoMA, said he bought the work for a private collector.

“No, I bought it for myself,” Mr. Elderfield joked after the sale. “I plan to pay it back over two lifetimes.”

But this wasn’t just a sale for blue-chip classics. The records for living artists started early, with an untitled 1996 David Hammons piece made from African masks, mirror and wire, which sold for $2.3 million to collector (and Observer contributor) Adam Lindemann. The previous Hammons auction record was for a similar piece, which sold at Phillips de Pury & Co. in May 2007 for $1.5 million.

Soon after that, a 1989 artwork by Cady Noland set a new artist record of $6.5 million. Oozewald, from the collection of Paris-based Marcel Brient, is a silkscreen ink on aluminum plate with two flags depicting Lee Harvey Oswald with a flag in his mouth, sprayed with bullet holes. It sold to an anonymous bidder bidding over the phone with a Sotheby’s representative. The previous  auction record for Ms. Noland’s work was the $1.8 million achieved at Sotheby’s New York in November 2010 for another bullet-hole piece.

Dealer David Zwirner was an underbidder on the record-setting Noland, as was another dealer, Larry Gagosian. Two lots later, an installation piece by Ms. Noland from 1988 (Bloody Mess, containing, among other things, beer cans, handcuffs, rubber mats and carpet) sparked another bidding war between the two dealers, with the piece finally selling to Mr. Gagosian for $422,500.

Albert Oehlen, who recently joined the stable of Gagosian gallery, earned a record near the end of the sale, with the painting Embraceable You (1994), which sold for $698,500. His previous record was $608,944.

The one major disappointment in the sale was a Mark Rothko from 1962 in which Sotheby’s has a ownership stake. The work, Untitled (Plum and Dark Brown), was estimated to sell for $8 million to $12 million, but was bought in at just $6.75 million.

Speaking after the sale, most of the dealers and collectors were extremely pleased with the results. “The Clyfford Stills were impressive, the Gerhard Richters were impressive,” said Larry Gagosian. “The art market is impressive right now.” He waved away any concerns about the world economy at large, as they might pertain to the art market. “I don’t think it matters. I don’t think it really matters, if the confidence is there. There’s obviously a lot of money in the world, and art’s become a focus.”

Pace Gallery president Marc Glimcher had a not entirely dissimilar theory about art’s place in the broader economy. “Clearly if these things are related, they are related inversely,” he said.

Clyfford Still Painting Sells for $61 M. at Booming Sotheby’s Contemporary Sale