Christie’s Scores $495 M. at Postwar Sale, Highest Auction Total Ever, With 12 Artist Records

Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen: 'We are in a new era of the art market'

Christie’s broke auction records this evening with a contemporary art sale that brought in $495 million for the house across 70 lots, the highest total ever earned in a single art auction.

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The auction saw seven lots over $20 million with buyer’s premium, among them those that led to new auction records for Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Philip Guston, a list that reads “like an art history book,” said specialist Koji Inoue at the press conference after the auction. The sale set a total of 12 artist records.

Many of the lots blew past their high estimates, two by at least $10 million (the Guston and the Pollock), and some surpassing their high estimates by a factor of at least two, like an Alexander Calder from 1958, consigned by the estate of Andy Williams, which hammered at $4 million, over a high estimate of $1.8 million. In addition, a Julie Mehretu painting hammered for the same over the same high estimate, and a Joseph Cornell from 1940 hammered at $4.2 million over a high estimate of $700,000.

Just two of the lots failed to sell, a Clyfford Still and a Jeff Koons, and the grand total put the house well over its estimates for the evening, which were $288.9 million to $401.4 million, before premium.

Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen of Christie’s London led a spirited night of bidding, with most lots garnering a healthy number of bids. The record-breaking Pollock, Number 19, 1948 (1948), which eventually sold for $58.3 million with premium, saw three bidders jockeying for it, even after it had passed $40 million.

“It’s a curious thing, really,” Mr. Pylkkänen said at the press conference. “As the auctioneer I found myself wondering how many clients we could have sold pictures to for over $20 million tonight. That’s the thought that was going through my mind as they were bidding on the Licthenstein, the Basquiat. We are in a new era of the art market.”

“Pictures are really making prices that we couldn’t have imagined a few years ago,” he added

“Or even last year,” said Contemporary Chairman Brett Gorvy.

Mr. Gorvy represented a phone bidder at the end of a seven-minute bidding session for Roy Lictenstein’s Woman with Flowered Hat (1963), which came down to him and the jeweler Laurence Graff, bidding in half-million increments after $30 million, all the way up to $48.5 million.

“That may not do it, Brett,” Mr. Pylkkänen said, meaning something more aggressive would be required to end the back-and-forth.

With a gesture from the front row Mr. Graff indicated that he wanted to go to $50 million. This seemed to impress the room.

“Oh, you gotta let him have it,” said the dealer Tony Shafrazi—loud, impressed and seated just a few seats away from Mr. Graff. Mr. Gorvy did, and Mr. Graff won the lot at $50 million.

Dustheads (1982), the Basquiat record breaker, was said to have been guaranteed by Helly Nahmad and climbed to its $48 million finish with premium (a record over the $26.4 million set this past fall) relatively quickly, eventually going to a phone bidder. Its new owner, we hear, is Warner Music Group owner and billionaire Len Blavatnik.

The evening’s Rothko sold to Dominique Lévy for $27 million with premium. She also bid on the Guston, which eventually sold to a phone bidder for $25.8 million, and picked up a 1953 Willem de Kooning for $19.1 million.

After the sale art advisor Todd Levin said oddities like the $4.2 million Cornell, and the Koons that failed to find a buyer after a similarly spotty performance for the artist last night at Sotheby’s, showed a market that was strong but choosey.

“The big lots were not surprises,” he said, “We expected them to do well and they did. We expected the Pollock, it’s a very important Pollock. Although it’s smaller in scale there aren’t any Pollocks left in the free market.” The one everyone had been waiting to come on the market, Lucifer (1947), was donated by collectors Harry and Mary Margaret Anderson to Stanford University in 2011, he said, and people had been “throwing money at that one for years.” So they were willing to take what they can get. Not that this one wasn’t great. He then went on to liken the one that sold this evening, Number 19, 1948 (1948), to one at the Museum of Modern Art, Full Fathom Five (1947).

Pace Gallery President Marc Glimcher concurred about this evening’s Pollock outside the house. “The next time I’ll see something like that, I don’t know when,” he said.

The contemporary auction season finishes tomorrow night at Phillips.

Sarah Douglas and Zoë Lescaze contributed reporting.

(All auction research courtesy of Artnet.)

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