Only two of the 54 lots offered failed to sell, for a svelte four percent buy-in rate by lot and two percent buy-in rate by value, stunningly positive statistics in today’s uncertain market that suggest a breathtakingly rapid recovery from the carnage witnessed here last November, when 32 percent of the lots failed to sell.
Tonight, 27 lots made more than a million dollars, and of those, seven made more than five million dollars. Along the way, bidders set records for four artists, including Alice Neel, whose funky though masterful, double-portrait of Jackie Curtis and Rita Red from 1970 (est. $400–500,000) attracted a half-dozen bidders and made $1,650,500. New York dealer David Zwirner, who represents her estates, was the underbidder.
The Neel was one of 20 lots from the single-owner trove of the late St. Louis collectors Mary Schiller Myers and Louis Myers, which made $24,491,500 against a pre-sale estimate of $17–24 million. Those works sold under a global reserve, meaning that high-performing lots (like the Neel) allowed others to sneak in at low prices, such as the evening’s greatest bargain, Alexander Calders Extreme Cantilever, an early standing mobile (dated 1940 and estimated at $1–1.5 million), which went to New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch for $842,500.
Sculpture played a strong supporting role in the sale, with an expressionist bronze, Large Torso (1974), by Willem de Kooning (who briefly dabbled in the medium), selling to Houston dealer Robert Maclean for $6,130,500 (est. $4–6 million). Numbered six of an edition of seven, it was another highlight of the Myers’ collection, and had been acquired by the couple in 1980 from Xavier Fourcade, the last dealer to work with de Kooning during his lifetime.
Two other works shared the exact price of the de Kooning sculpture, including Warhol’s 20-inch-square Self-Portrait from 1965, which had been consigned by Cathy Naso, a one-time teenage receptionist for Warhol’s famed Factory. The artist had given it to her as a token of appreciation for her brief service. Estimated at $1-1.5 million, it sold to London jewelry magnate Laurence Graff for a hefty $6,130,500.
You could say — to put it mildly — that Warhol ruled the evening, as a stunning work on paper, Untitled (Roll of Dollar Bills) from 1962 (est. $2.5–3.5 million), sold to international dealer Larry Gagosian for $4,226,500, underbid by New York trader Alberto Mugrabi.
Even Warhol’s difficult-to-look-at painting Tuna Fish Disaster found a buyer, selling to the Mugrabis for $1,202,500 (below an estimate of $1.5–2 million). It was a change in fortune for the series: a much larger, two-panel Tuna Fish Disaster, which had been tagged with an ambitious $6–8 million pre-sale estimate by Christie's, had failed to sell on Tuesday evening.
But the main attraction of the evening — and yes, the entire season — was Warhol’s early silkscreen, portraying his favorite commodity, the almighty dollar.
You can’t say the dollar is weak against any currency given its super-charged performance here, with the opening bid for 200 One Dollar Bills coming in at $6 million. Instantly, Sotheby’s specialist Alex Rotter shouted “$12 million” from his telephone bidder and a rapid ascent began, climbing at million-dollar increments to $38 million, at which point Jose Mugrabi, on a cell phone with a Sotheby’s specialist, cut the bid to $38.5 million, though he wouldn’t go beyond the winning hammer price of $39 million.
Along the way to that lofty figure, New York dealer Philippe Segalot, one of a handful of deep-pocketed bidders who fought for the work, made a try but dropped out.
The anonymous seller, rumored to be Pauline Karpidas, the London-based collector known for showing her cutting-edge contemporary art trove on the Greek island of Hydra, acquired the painting for $385,000 at the Robert Scull estate sale in November 1986, after which it disappeared from the market for more than two decades.
The Sculls — early, nouveau riche collectors of Abstract Expressionist and Pop works who made their fortune with a Checker taxi cab fleet known as the Sculls Angels — acquired the work from Richard Bellamys Green Gallery around 1962 for an unknown but no doubt minuscule price.
Trade gossip before the sale circulated that mega L.A. collector David Geffen had offered $12 million as a preemptive private bid, but Sotheby’s, responding for the seller, rejected it. That’s when rumors began flying that the black-and-white, 82 ¼-by-92 ¼-inch cover lot was going to make $40 million.
“It’s a phenomenal picture,” said Alberto Mugrabi, whose father underbid the picture. “It’s a big price. When you get that kind of quality, the price will come out.” (Alberto snagged a Richard Prince Doctor’s Nurse (est. $1–1.5 million) from 2002 for a recalibrated, post-boom price of $1,706,500.)
Still, Warhol's $43 million painting was far from the artist record set at the height of the market in May 2007 when his Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) from 1963 sold at Christie’s New York for $71,720,000.
The serial dollar bills (all 200 of them) now rank as the 25th most expensive picture to sell at auction in any category, according to Sotheby’s, and the seventh most expensive contemporary art work to go on the auction block, trailing four Francis Bacons, a Mark Rothko, and the aforementioned Warhol.
Another highlight of the sale was an early Jasper Johns, Gray Numbers, from 1957 (est. $5–7 million), which sold to a telephone bidder for $8,706,500 with New York dealer Jack Tilton as the underbidder. It last sold at Christie’s New York in Nov. 2003 for $5,271,500.
David Hockneys iconic though rather awkward California Art Collector (1964), sold to fashion legend Valentino for $5,458,500 (est. $5–7 million), well above the $1,020,000 it last sold for at Sotheby’s New York in November 1993.
“The stars aligned tonight because of the material,” said Sotheby’s senior specialist Anthony Grant. “We supplied the product for that.”
Sotheby’s triumphant evening clobbered arch rival Christie’s evening sale on Tuesday, which made $74.1 million.
The final action of the season in the post-war and contemporary market takes place tonight at Phillips de Pury & Company.
Click the photo gallery at the left to see some of the top lots for the evening.
Judd Tully is Editor at Large of Art+Auction.