Jasper Johns' $28.6 Million Flag Leads All-American Christie's Auction
Jasper Johns' $28.6 Million Flag Leads All-American Christie's Auction
Fueled by 31 choice works from the estate of literary giant Michael Crichton, which earned $93.2 million, Christie’s post-war and contemporary art evening sale last night posted a whopping $231,907,000 total, easily surpassing the high-end of its $207.4 million pre-sale estimate.
Overall, 74 of the 79 lots offered sold, which translated to a super-slim six percent buy-in rate by lot. Fifty-one of the 74 that sold made more than a million dollars, with a dozen of them pulling more than $5 million and five exceeding $10 million. American buyers dominated the action, picking up 72 percent of the lots. Europe provide 21 percent of the auction, while seven percent were designated by Christie’s as "other."
Of the five artist records set, Jasper Johns beautiful, compact Flag (1960–66) owned by Crichton and composed of encaustic and printed paper collage on paper laid down on canvas, handily beat its $10–15 million estimate, selling for $28,642,500 to New York dealer Michael Altman. As the dealer exited the salesroom shortly after that bidding battle, he declined to comment on the sale or identify his client. But apparently the record Johns price was enough to provide a contact high for Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, dealer Richard Rossello, who was sitting next to Altman in the jam-packed salesroom. After the sale he posted a message on his Twitter feed that read: “Great night at Christie's tonight. Can't say more, but it was a thrill.”
Bidding on Flag opened at $7 million and quickly escalated at $500,000 increments, with three competitors eventually jockeying for the prize. Making sure that the trio knew where they stood as the bidding climbed, auctioneer Christopher Burge boomed from the podium, “Not yours, not yours, his,” before hammering down the record sale, the highest price ever paid for a work by Johns at auction.
The sale ranksFlag as the second most expensive work of art by a living artist ever to sell at auction, just a few million dollars shy of the $33.5 million earned by Lucian Freud's Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) at Christie’s New York in May 2008, mere months before the world financial meltdown. Acquired by Crichton directly from Johns in 1973 (a few years before writing an essay for the artist’s Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective catalogue), it also crushed the artist’s previous top auction mark, set when Figure 4 (1959) sold at Christie’s New York in May 2007 for $17.4 million. However, the price pales in comparison to the $110 million reportedly paid for a larger Johns’ Flag, formerly in the collection of storied dealer Leo Castelli, purchased by hedgie Steve Cohen earlier this year.
Other Crichton highlights — there were many, since all 31 lots offered sold — included Robert Rauschenbergs combine painting, Studio Painting (1960-61) which trounced its $6–9 million estimate, selling to an anonymous telephone bidder for $11,058,500. Another Rauschenberg, Trapeze (1964) a two-part silkscreen and oil on canvas, sold to dealer Larry Gagosian for $6,354,500, squarely within its $5–7 million estimate. Gagosian announced last week that he had won the right to the estate of the late artist, who had previously been represented by the Pace Gallery.
Another record-setter in the Crichton trove was Mark Tanseys figurative 2003 painting Push/Pull, which soared past its $800,000-1.2 million estimate in a fierce bidding war that halted at $3,218,500. Those looking to gauge the size of that figure may be interested to know that the deep-pocketed Los Angeles super-collector and museum savior Eli Broad was among the underbidders.
Among the handful of decidedly non-contemporary lots from Crichton’s estate was Pablo Picassos Femme et fillettes, a large, 63 7/8-by-51 ¼-inch oil from 1961, which sold to New York art advisor Megan Fox Kelly for $6,578,500, safely within its $5.5–7.5 million estimate. The back of Kelly’s business cards reads, “Art inspires life” — and it's apparently especially inspiring for Kelly, an advisor for the Crichton family's remarkable successful collection. She declined to affirm whether she bought anything this evening on their behalf.
Crichton bought much of his art at auction, though he also acquired works privately from dealers ranging from Pace and Gagosian to Los Angeles’ Margo Leavin and L.A. Louver. The bestselling author picked up Jeff Koons Jim Beam-Model A Ford Pick-Up Truck (1986) at Phillips de Pury in November 2004 for $489,600, just above its $450,000 high estimate. It sold tonight to a telephone bidder for $602,500, realizing a rather modest return.
The 48-lot-strong various-owners portion of the marathon evening was dominated by big-league prices for dependable names like Andy Warhol, Yves Klein, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Surprising none of the market watchers in the room, Warhol’s stunning 1963 diptych Silver Liz shot to $18,338,500, selling to Dominique Levy of New York’s L&M Arts, comfortably above its $10-15 million estimate. According to Christie’s catalogue entry, the seller acquired it from famed from legendary collectors and dealers Horace and Holly Solomon in 1986, when Warhol’s market was in a major slump.
An anonymous underbidder, standing by the sidelines in a blazer and open-collar shirt, added some electricity to the rather ho-hum atmosphere, since no one seemed able to identify him. One source identified the gent as a first-time American bidder. Approached after the sale, the tall bidder brushed by reporters without an encouraging word.
Warhol’s iconic Self-Portrait diptych (1964), inscribed to über collectors Bob & Ethel Scull and estimated at $5-7 million, sold to dealer Alberto Mugrabi, a major collector of Warhol, for $5,682,500. The work last sold at Christie’s New York in November 2002 for $2,649,500. Before that, at the second major Scull estate sale, held at Sothebys New York in November 1986, it earned only a hard-to-believe $26,000.
Warhol’s friend and one-time protégé Jean-Michel Basquiat also burnished his market credentials as his Self Portrait as a Heel (1982), estimated at $4-6 million, sold to a telephone bidder for $5,986,500. Art advisor Michele Quinn was the underbidder. Quinn, however, came back to snare Basquiat’s 1982 Extra Cigarette, in acrylic and oilstick on glass and wood, for $1,082,500, almost at the center of its $800,000-1.2 million estimate. It last sold at auction at Sotheby’s New York in November 1999 for $387,500.
Apart from the Picasso, the only other European to crack the top-ten roster was Yves Kleins blue-pigment masterpiece Anthropometrie “Le Buffle” (ANT 93) (1960-61), which sold to a telephone bidder for $12,402,500, slightly more than its $8-12 million estimate. Buttonholed moments after the bidding contest, one of the underbidders, casually attired in a sweater and sport shirt, irritably rebuffed his inquisitor with three words: “Don’t chase me.”
Of the few Abstract Expressionist works offered in the too-long evening sale, Sam Franciss important and large-scaled Middle Blue (1957), estimated at $3-5 million, sold for a record $6,354,500 to San Franciso dealer John Berggruen.
While Johns’ Flag provided the biggest news of the night, Christopher Wools still-edgy 1990 word painting, Blue Fool, an enamel on aluminum estimated at $1.5-2 million, sold to a telephone bidder for a stunning $5,010,500, a record for the artist. Gallerist Roland Augustine, of Wool’s New York gallery Luhring Augustine (which celebrated its 25th anniversary last weekend), was the underbidder. Augustine sold the painting to the noted collector and arts patron Emily Fisher Landau in 1991 for approximately $35,000.
One of the many stand-out works in the sale was the page-sized (but still potent) Gerhard Richter portrait of his wife, Kopf (Skizze). The 1997 oil on aluminum work was estimated to sell for $1.2-1.8 million, though newly appointed MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch had to spend $2,322,500 to win it.
Asked after the sale about the seemingly endless gush of money pouring into the art world, Marc Porter, chairman of Christie's America, said: “There are a lot of rich people in the world, even after 2008, who feel the art market is a great inflation hedge. That's why you see so many bidders: they're comfortable spending money.”
The evening contemporary action resumes Wednesday at Sotheby’s.