Christie’s Nets $412.3 M. at Record Contemporary Art Sale

The fall’s auction season in New York is turning out to be a record-breaking one. Tuesday night Sotheby’s made its highest-ever total with a postwar and contemporary auction that came to $375.1 million. And earlier this evening, a Christie’s sale in the same category brought in $412.3 million, the highest total ever for an auction of contemporary art. Led by house auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen, the lively sale, which topped its high estimate of $411.8 million, saw new records for Richard Serra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Franz Kline, Richard Diebenkorn, Donald Judd, Mark Grotjahn and Jeff Koons. Mr. Koons is now the second most expensive living artist at auction, after Gerhard Richter.

At a press conference after the sale Koji Inoue, head of evening sales for the postwar and contemporary department, called the auction, “four aces across the board.”

“It’s very difficult to have a strong grouping of Pop Art, cutting edge contemporary, Abstract Expressionism, sculpture and other media,” Mr. Inoue said, of the accomplishment.

The sale had an impressive sell-through rate of 92 percent by lot, with just six pieces failing to sell and only five failing to sell within or above their presale estimates. Taken together with the Sotheby’s results of the previous evening, the sale would seem to confirm the strength of the contemporary art market. In setting the highest-ever total at a contemporary auction, Christie’s breaks its own record, set this spring at a sale that netted the house $388.5 million. Tonight’s sale becomes the second highest in the house’s history—its $491 million Impressionist and Modern sale back in November 2006 continues to hold the top spot. Christie’s made $112.9 million over its low estimate of $289.4 million—and that’s all the more impressive in an auction season where neither of the major houses’ Impressionist and Modern auctions met their respective low-end estimates.

The top lot, at $43.8 million, was the artwork that graced the catalogue’s cover, Andy Warhol’s Statue of Liberty, a two-tone silk screen from 1961 that the house had cheekily marketed with 3-D glasses that came with the catalogue.

The new Basquiat record achieved this evening—$26.4 million for an untitled painting of a fisherman—is the third for the artist this year, indicating his ever-climbing prices. It made $6 million over the latest record set at Christie’s London this summer, and represents a 2,600 percent price increase from when the picture last came up at auction at Christie’s New York in 1988. The painting sold this evening to Christie’s Chairman of Postwar and Contemporary Development Amy Cappellazzo. Bidding for a client on the phone, she impatiently gestured at Mr. Pylkkänen to bring down the hammer, adding, “Thank you,” when he did. Phone bidders won most of the big earners tonight, including the record-setting Jeff Koons Tulips (1995–2004) sculpture positioned outside the house, which sold for $33.7 million with premium. Mr. Koons’s previous record was a balloon sculpture that sold at Christie’s London for $25.7 million in 2008.

Another of the major lots, a 1981 Andy Warhol silkscreen of Marlon Brando on a motorcycle in The Wild One, saw a spirited 8 minutes of bidding that included Joseph Nahmad and, on the phone with a client, Christie’s Chairman Bret Gorvy, who at one point threw out a sheepish $100,000 over $20 million, a bid that elicited a disappointed look from Mr. Pylkkänen and laughter from the room. Mr. Gorvy continued to bid against the Nahmad family, who eventually bought the work for their collection at $23.7 million, with premium.

“It’s an absolutely iconic work,” said Joseph Nahmad after the sale. “It’s such a sexy pose.”

And a sexy investment! When the work came up at auction in 1997, at Sotheby’s New York, it sold for just $1.7 million, and when it did again in 2003 at Christie’s New York it went for $5 million.

An Anselm Kiefer saw bidding from both Larry Gagosian and Thaddaeus Ropac, who both show the artist, playing out on a micro level a larger competition the two had last month in Paris, when they both opened new spaces there with Kiefer shows. Dealer Jack Tilton offered some spirited bidding on a Cy Twombly that eventually sold for $4.4 million at hammer and a Jasper Johns that nearly doubled its high estimate at $1.7 million.

A notable failure was lot 31, a Gerhard Richter from 1983 from the collection of Steven A. Cohen, which failed to sell at $8.8 million. It was notable because the Richter market has been red hot in the past year or so, but also because the sale, overall, was a roaring success.

“Most of the important lots saw five or six or seven or eight bidders,” Mr. Pylkkänen said at the post-sale press conference. “This was an exceptional sale.”

The fall auction season finishes tomorrow night at Phillips de Pury & Co. All auction research courtesy of Artnet, all images courtesy of Christie’s.

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