Packed with prime estate material, a trove of Pop art, and an audience ready to gobble it all up, Christie's massive postwar and contemporary art evening sale last night tallied $272,873,000, roughly in the middle of its daunting $236.9-$345.8 million presale estimate.
All but five of the 75 works sold, for a stunning buy-in rate of seven percent by lot and eight percent by value. Forty-five of the 70 works that sold made over $1 million, eight made over $5 million, and four made over $10 million. The tally easily exceeded the house's May result of $231.9 million, and it leapfrogged the November 2009 evening total of $74.1 million. However, it was still short of the $325 million made in November 2007.
Six artist records were set, including one made by the vixenish, Ben-Day-dot-filled, bubble-captioned 1964 Roy Lichtenstein painting "Ohhh…Alright…" (estimate on request, in excess of $40 million), which sold to a telephone bidder for $42,642,500. It crushed the artist's previous top mark, set by the 1963 "In the Car," which made $16,256,000 at Christie's New York in November 2005. "Ohhh...Alright..." was also one of five works in the sale that carried a third-party guarantee, assuring a positive outcome, no matter how the bidding fared.
The fight for the Lichtenstein began at $29 million and chugged along at $1 million increments before losing steam at $38 million, the hammer price before the buyer's premium was tacked onto the prize-winning sum.
Formerly in the collection of Hollywood comic star and writer Steve Martin, the 36-½-by-38-inch picture, whose image was appropriated by the artist from a 1963 D.C. Comics issue of "Secret Hearts," reportedly was sold privately to Las Vegas casino and resort magnate Steve Wynn for more than $50 million. Wynn was tonight's seller, apparently taking a haircut in the auction room. He is said to have fallen for the redheaded beauty, who clutches a 60s-era black telephone in the picture, when he saw the work on view at a 2001 exhibition called "The Private Collection of Steve Martin," held at his Las Vegas Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art.
It also became the week's second-most-expensive artwork, trailing Andy Warhol's "Men in Her Life," which sold at Phillips de Pury & Company on Monday evening for $63.3 million, and ahead of Warhol's "Coca-Cola (4) [Large Coca-Cola]," which made $35.3 million on Tuesday evening at Sotheby's. Another large Lichtenstein, "Still Life With Palette" (1972), sold to a telephone bidder for $6,802,500 against an estimate of$5.5-7.5 million. It lastsold at Christie's New York in November 1986 for $418,000.
The collective thirst for the offered works seemed unquenchable, as Cy Twombly's "Untitled," a scribbled 1971 abstraction, in house paint and wax crayon on paper (est. $800,000-1.2 million), enticed four bidders who drove the price to $2.4 million.
Whether American or European, painting or sculpture, dated from the 50s or the 80s, most lots were hammered down at strong prices. Gerhard Richter's eerily beautiful 1982 "Zwei Kerzen (499-2)" (est. $12-16 million), for instance, sold to a telephone bidder for $12.9 million.
Works by Alexander Calder, of which six were offered, also went sky high. An untitled circa 1949 hanging mobile, in painted sheet metal and wire, estimated at $800,000 to $1.2 million, sold to San Francisco dealer John Berggruen for $2.4 million. A large-scale Calder outdoor piece "Red Curlicue," a rare-to-market 1973 stabile in painted sheet metal (est. $4-6 million) made a record $6,354,500, selling to a telephone bidder. It was part of the 14-lot trove of estate material from California computer pioneer Max Palevsky that tallied $24.2 million against presale expectations of $18.9 to $27.3 million.
Berggruen returned to action later in the marathon sale, outgunning intense competition for Wayne Thiebaud's 1972 California Pop still life, the 15-by-17-inch "Out Box #1" (est. $400-600,000), another Palevsky entry, buying the work for $1,538,500.California painter Richard Diebenkorn also drew fierce competition, with his 1966 painterly abstraction, "Berkeley #39" (est. $4-6 million), selling to New York dealer Jack Tilton for $4.3 million.
The secondary-market fortunes of Jeff Koons improved dramatically after the drumming he took at Philllips de Pury on Monday (when two of his works failed to sell), thanks to the strong result of "Balloon Flower (Blue)," in high chromium stainless steel with transparent color coating from 1995-2000, one of five unique versions from the series (est. $12-16 million). It sold to Amy Gold of L&M Arts, of New York and L.A., for $16.9 million, beating out two telephone bidders and the New York art advisory team of Catone and Ruth.
The Koons was another of the evening's guaranteed lots, but its sale price didn't come close to his artist record of $25.7 million that was set back at Christie's London in June 2007 when the magenta-colored version of the "Balloon Flower" sold. "This is an amazing market, considering what is going on in the rest of the world," said Gold. "This was a spectacular sale and a spectacular result.”
L&M contributed mightily to the evening tally, also nabbing Mark Rothko's 1958 "No 18 (Brown and Black on Plum)" (est. $9-12 million) for $9.6 million, Jackson Pollock's circa 1947 oil-and-aluminum-paint "Eyes in the Heat II" (est. $6-9 million) for $6.2 million, and Warhol's grim "Little Electric Chair" painting, at 22 by 28 inches (est. $2-3 million), for $2.6 million.
"We must have bought five or six things," said L&M founder Robert Mnuchin as he strolled out of the salesroom. "We have a lot of clients, and the evening was very enjoyable." The gallery picked off one of the 15 Warhol works that were offered and sold for a combined amount of $70.4 million, compared to combined presale estimates of $56.8-86.9 million. Said Christie's international co-head Amy Cappellazzo, referring to thegusher of Warhols: "The more there is, the more the market wants, and Andy would love that."
At the top of that Warhol heap, the 1962 "Big Campbell's Soup Can With Can Opener (Vegetable)," in casein and graphite on linen and measuring six by four and one half feet (est. $30-50 million), attracted three bidders and sold for a seemingly cheap $23.9 million. It had been consigned by Seattle mega-collector Barney Ebsworth, and the proceeds were earmarked for a charitable foundation. The work last sold at auction at Christie's New York in November 1986 — three months before the Prince of Pop died following gall bladder surgery — for $264,000.
Asked about the soup can's slightly lackluster price, Christie's international co-head of contemporary art Brett Gorvy said that it resulted from the work having to bat cleanup during the week of sales, in which two other major Warhols had come to market. "It fell short of our expectations a bit," Gorvy said. "There's a huge demand for Warhol under $10 million, and over that it becomes very selective. Having three high-value Warhols in one week divided the market."
Adding some West Coast market spray to the proceedings were lots from two L.A. estates, including a pair of works offered from the Dennis Hopper estate that realized $6.7 million. Of these, the quirky Hollywood star's late Jean-Michel Basquiat 1987 oil stick and paper collage on canvas, "Untitled" (est. $5-7 million), that sold to a telephone bidder for $5.8 million.
Then a trove from the California estate of collector and former Gagosian dealer Robert Shapazian, composed of Warhols (the L&M-bought "Death and Disaster" electric chair was one), Duchamps, and a single Lichtenstein, fetched $33.9 million, hurdling the dozen-piece group's high estimate of $27.3 million. Another of the esteemed connoisseur's Warhols, "Campbell's Soup Can (Tomato)" from 1962 in graphite and casein on canvas, measuring 20 by 16 inches (est. $6-8 million), sold in the packed salesroom to Sotheby's contemporary specialist Florence de Botten for $9 million.
Interestingly, later works of Warhol — dating from the 70s and 80s, a period in the artist's career that has gained increased attention over the past year as a result of a recent traveling museum exhibition — performed better, in comparison to their estimates, than mint works fromthe 60s. The 1978 "Mona Lisa" (est. $1.8-2.2 million) sold to Hugo Nathan of the New York and London Dickinson Gallery for $3.6 million, with Jose Mugrabi,who bought several Warhol works during the evening, as the underbidder.It last sold at Christie's New York in May 1999 for $684,500. "I boughtan Old Master sleeper," declared Nathan as he exited the salesroom, "I think it's a great picture."
Even when expressed with a touch of irony, such sentiments at this week's auctions helped drive the contemporary market very close to the bubble levels of 2007.