Warhol Edges Out Rothko (and Johns) at a Buoyant Sotheby's Sale

The contemporary art market continued to roar at Sotheby’s evening sale on Wednesday as 50 of the 53 lots offered sold for a rousing $189,969,000, $28 million above its high estimate. Without a major estate to market — such as Christie’s had on Tuesday evening with Michael Crichton — Sotheby’s managed to sell the two most expensive paintings of the week and set five artist records, with sell-through rates hitting a marksmanlike 94 percent by lot and 98 percent by value.

Of the 50 lots that sold, 39 went for more than a million dollars, and, of those, two exceeded $30 million and five made over $7 million.

The starring (and startling) cover lot, Andy Warhols late 1986 fright-wig Self-Portrait, ominous and ghostly in purple against black and measuring a massive 108 by 108 inches, sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for $32,562,500, more than doubling its $10-15 million estimate.Bidding was fierce, opening at $8 million and instantly jumping to $15 million and then $18 million before settling down to percolate at one-million-dollar increments. It not only exceeded the impressive mark set by Jasper JohnsFlag (1960–66), which made a record $28,642,500 at Christie’s, but stands as the most expensive work of 1980s art ever to sell at auction — admittedly a made-up category, but one worthy of attention.

Sold by fashion and film titan Tom Ford, it is one of only five self-portraits of this scale and from this late date, a year before the artist’s premature death at the age of 58 in 1987. Three of those other jumbo fright-wigs are tucked away in museum collections, and the last one, in red, sold in May 2002 to super-collector Peter Brant at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg in New York for $3,192,500.

Sotheby’s also made hay with Mark Rothkos majestic (though much-shopped) Untitled (1961), a canvas radiating firey red tones that sold to another telephone bidder for $31,442,500 on an $18-25 million estimate. The performance was remarkable, given that Bloomberg broke a major news story the morning of the auction about a lawsuit filed by noted Dallas collector and philanthropist Marguerite Hoffman against the Rothko seller, David Martinez, together with Sotheby’s and L&M Arts for failing to keep a secret about the sale of the painting.

A shakier market would have probably run scared from bidding on the painting, but not this hungry market. The Rothko last sold at auction at Christie’s New York for $1.87 million in November 1997, providing yet another opportunity for the argument to treat fine art as just another asset class.

Another rare-to-market Ab Ex work, Jackson Pollocks enamel and gesso ground on paper Number 12A, 1948: Yellow, Gray, Black (1948), ignited interest and sold to Gabriel Catone of Manhattan art advisors Ruth Catone for $8,762,500 against a $4-6 million estimate.The dynamic work on paper, once owned by avant-garde dealer Betty Parsons, last sold at auction at the same house in November 1987 for $396,000.

Though hard to believe, the conceptual prankster Maurizio Cattelan almost topped the Pollock price as his Untitled, a 2001 self-portrait of the Italian artist in a hole — comprised of painted wax, hair, and fabric — sold for an artist-record-shattering $7,922,500 on an $3-4 million estimate.Of the posse of six or so underbidders, New York advisor Philippe Segalot came close to the $7 million hammer price.

There was plenty of action in the room, as auction newcomer Jon Colby, who was identified by the New York Times as chasing Silver Liz (1963) at Christie’s, had better luck tonight, snaring Joan Mitchells majestic abstraction Vera Cruz (1960-62) for $4,002,500 (est. $3.5-4.5 million) and Anish Kapoors untitled 2005 stainless-steel mirrored disc — an artist’s proof from an edition of three (est. $600-900,000) — for $1,082,500. The Miami collector prefers to stand and call out his bids, commanding lots of attention along the way. The Mitchell last sold at auction at Christie’s New York in November 1995 for $288,500.

Sotheby’s did an impressive job in sourcing works that in most cases were long out of the market and therefore more tasty to discerning collectors, which seems to be the current profile of buyers with lots of spare cash. Sculpture performed at a high level, as evidenced by the Cattelan and more serious works like Ellsworth Kellys stainless-steel 1996 abstraction Untitled (Totem) that sold to Jonathan Binstock of Citi Private Bank Art Advisory Service for $4,002,500 on an estimate of $2-3 million.

“Connoisseurship really emerged as an influential factor tonight,” said Binstock. “We really got to see the varied tastes of the art-collecting base.” Describing the heated vying for the rare-to-market Kelly sculpture, Binstock noted, “the competition for that piece was about having the best.” Another stand-out sculpture, Juan Munoz's Conversation Piece III (est. $2.5-.3.5 million), constructed of six nearly life-size androgynous bronze figures in 2001, the year the artist died, sold to a telephone bidder for a record $4,898,500. It smashed the previous mark, set at the same house in November 2004, when a Munoz made $1,202,500.

Though it didn’t spark any bidding battles, Brice Mardens elegant signature Cold Mountain I (Path) (1988-89), managed to almost double his auction record from May 2008 when it sold for $9,602,500 on an $10-15 million estimate.Bidding appeared to be global, as evidenced by Donald JuddUntitled, 1987 (87-30 Bernstein), a wall relief fabricated in anodized aluminum (est. 600-900,000), that sold to Do Hyung-Teh of Seoul’s  Gallery Hyundai for $1,082,500. Approached after turning in his paddle, the dealer said: “I think the market is picking up, and it’s coming back slowly. It’s a good time to buy, and that’s why I’m here.” Another Judd, Untitled, 1992, comprised of six Cort-Ten Steel and black Plexiglas units, sold to private LA. dealer Patricia Marshall for $2,434,500.  It last sold at Christie's New York in May 2006 as part of the "Donald Judd: Selected Works from the Judd Foundation" sale, for $2,704,000, proving, at least in this instance, that the market isn't as yet ready to overindulge recently traded pieces.

As the sale scooted to the finish line, the penultimate lot took ages to complete, as a bidding war for Jean-Michel Basquiats jazz-infused 1983 Untitled (Stardust) (est. $1.8-2.5 million) unfolded between Larry Gagosian and an elegantly attired woman seated across the aisle from him. Gagosian joined the fray at around the $2.9 million mark, after Jose Mugrabi dropped out, and the price climbed in $100,000 increments. Gagosian didn’t hesitate in casting his bids, simply lifting his paddle again and again, as his rival consulted with her client via cell phone and then demurely flicked her paddle in the direction of auctioneer Tobias Meyer. Surprisingly — since this was, after all, Larry Gagosian — the anonymous rival succeeded in buying the painting, freshly consigned directly from the estate of the artist, for a thundering $7,250,500.

In post-sale comments, Meyer noted a change in the market's atmosphere, saying that “people are willing to break boundaries.” He referred to the $32 million Warhol self-portrait as “an incredibly intelligent purchase,” predicting that “it will become the Monet Waterlilies of the future.”