A Showdown for Doig at Christies

Apart from two pricey casualties, Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary week opener brought an impressive $74,154,500, with 39 of the 46 lots selling for a crisp buy-in rate of fifteen percent by lot and eighteen percent by value.

Twenty-one of the 39 lots that sold made over one million dollars.

The results compared to the pre-sale estimate of $61,450,000 to $88 million, which had been reduced thanks to the 11th-hour withdrawal of Andy Warhols rare-to-market, back cover lot, Most Wanted Men No. 3, Ellis Ruiz B. (1964), estimated at $5.5–6.5 million.

But the evening got off to a rollicking start with Abstract Expressionist and early Pop property from the estates of modern dance legend Merce Cunningham and partner John Cage to benefit the Merce Cunningham Trust.

New York dealer Lawrence Luhring of Luhring Augustine nabbed Robert Rauschenbergs Untitled, a page-sized work on paper from 1951 (est. $100–150,000) for a whopping $938,500, and a telephone bidder won Jasper Johnss oil on canvas Dancers on a Plane (1980–81) (est. $1.5–2 million) for $4,338,500.

The six Cunningham/Cage works made $7.1 million total against a pre-sale high of $5 million.

Getting the bad news over early, Christie’s two top-estimated lots bombed without bidders as
Jean-Michel Basquiats Brother Sausage, six hinged panels from 1983 (est. $9–12 million), consigned by newsprint magnate Peter Brant, and Andy Warhol’s demanding Tunafish Disaster (1963), in silkscreen ink and silver paint on linen (est. $6–8 million), also from Brant, both flopped. A larger version of Tunafish Disaster from the same year sold at Sotheby's London in June for £3,7737,250 ($6,130,585).

“If you push an estimate too much in this market,” noted Christie’s specialist Robert Manley moments after the sale, “you suffer. If you get it wrong, they won’t bid.”

Luckily, Christie’s got most of it right, as evidenced by Jeff Koonss über-decorative Large Vase of Flowers (1991) in polychromed wood and from an edition of three plus one artist proof (est. $4–6 million). It sold to Dominique Levy of New York’s L&M Arts for $5,682,500.

It was sold by luxury art book publisher Benedikt Taschen and it came with a third-party guarantee, meaning some entity other than Christie’s guaranteed the Koons for an undisclosed price.

The piece last sold at Christie’s London in June 2000 for £663,750 ($999,322), meaning a handsome return for the seller this time around.

Another Taschen entry was Koons’s early and bordering on iconic New Shelton West/Dry 5- Gallon, New Hoover Convertible Doubledecker, with fluorescent lighting from 1981–87 (est. $2–3 million), which sold to New York private dealer Philippe Segalot of Giraud, Pissarro, Segalot for $3,106,500.

The Koons last sold at Christie’s New York in May 2000, for $358,000.

Segalot also acquired the stunning Untitled (14 Drawings) (1981) by Jean-Michel Basquiat (est. $500–700,000), for $1,986,500.

It had sold back in the early 1980s to New York collector Larry Warsh for around $10,000, and Warsh subsequently sold it to Peter Brant.

The stellar group was guaranteed by Christie’s, a rarity these days, and they made money on the gamble.

The evening’s unabashed highlight, reminiscent of the bubble days, was the Wild West–style shootout for Peter Doigs magisterial Reflection (What does your soul look like) (1996; est. $4–6 million), which sold to an telephone bidder for $10,162,500.

At least six bidders chased the prize, including underbidder Jay Jopling of London’s White Cube, which came close to breaking the Doig record of $11,283,464, set at Sotheby’s London for The White Canoe in February 2007.

Remarkably, or so it seems, another Doig, from the same period and on the same grand scale, Night Playground, sold at Christie’s London last June for £3 million ($5 million), or half the price — indicating, it would seem, a serious and possibly insatiable hunger for top Doig works.

Other highlights included a first-rate untitled Alexander Calder mobile from circa 1950 (est. $1–1.5 million), which sold to London dealer Timothy Taylor for $3,554,500, and Donald Judds ten-unit high-rise stack, Untitled, 1968 (DSS 120), in stainless steel and amber Plexiglas (est. $2.5–4.5 million), which made $4,898,500.

Rare-to-market works fared particularly well, with Joan Mitchells Ab-Ex composition Untitled (circa 1958) (est. $5–7 million), sold to a telephone bidder for $5,458,500. It last sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 1989, yes, twenty years ago, for $506,000, a tenth of this weeks' price.

Sam Franciss Japan Line, a huge 1957 canvas measuring 86 by 176 inches and consigned from the California estate of Betty Freeman (est. $1.5–2 million), sold to Jonathan Binstock of Citibank Art Advisory for $1,762,500.

“You can look at the market in two different ways,” said New York adviser Todd Levin, who underbid the Robert Smithson sculpture Untitled in painted steel and Plexiglas mirror from 1963–64 (est. $350–450,000) that made $902,500, “it has done really well, but two years ago the estimates would have been 600 to 100 percent higher than they are now, and you’d have 70 to 80 lots in the sale. The auction houses have gotten realistic.”

The evening action resumes on Wednesday at Sotheby’s.

Judd Tully is Editor at Large of Art+Auction.