Art Market Shakes Off the Blues With Christie's Sizzling $301.6 Million Contemporary Sale

The contemporary art market turned a giant cartwheel at Christie's last night, trouncing the lackluster auction at Sotheby's 24 hours earlier with a dazzling $301.6 million tally. All but three of the 65 lots offered found buyers, making for a tiny buy-in rate by lot of five percent, or one percent by value. Thirty-eight of the 62 lots that sold brought in over a million dollars, and of those nine went for over five million, one for over ten million, and four for over twenty million.


This season, the battle between the big rival auction houses was definitely a tale of two cities, as Sotheby's came across as too aggressive with overreaching estimates on property that simply wasn't good enough, while Christie's flirted and enticed potential buyers with more conservative estimates and better kit.


Two Andy Warhol "Self-Portraits," a previously unrecorded Mark Rothko, and a petite Francis Bacon self-portrait study triptych made up the quartet of $20 million lots. That group also soared past the highest prices achieved for Claude Monet, Maurice Vlaminck, and Pablo Picasso at the Impressionist-Modern evening sales last week.


As a whole, it was Christie's highest evening tally for a postwar and contemporary sale since May 2008's $331 million bonanza, and it came in well ahead of last May's $231.9 million result of 74 lots sold. The result, with premiums, nicked the high end of the $214.8-299.2 million pre-sale expectations. Even the final $265,180,000 hammer total amply demonstrated that Christie's read the market correctly, and erased any fears of a stumbling art economy.

The United States dominated the action, accounting for 62 percent of the lots sold, followed by Europe at 23 percent, Asia at three percent, and the always fascinating "other" at 13 percent. The latter might be Gulf State territory but probably not the Moon.

Five artist records were set. Of these, Cindy Sherman's exquisite untitled 1981 color coupler print from her "Centerfolds" series, featuring the artist as a cashmere-clad ingénue, seductively reclining with a crumpled personal ad in one hand, sold to New York dealer Philippe Segalot for $3,890,500 (est. $1.5-2 million). The underbidder was New York dealer Per Skarstedt. The sellers had acquired the print, from an edition of ten, in 1981, when Sherman's market was in its infancy. Her 1985 "Untitled #153" print sold at Phillips de Pury last November for $2,770,500, the artist's previous high. Remarkably, Sherman's feminist work now also represents the most expensive photograph ever to sell at auction, topping über-star Andreas Gursky's "99 Cent II" (2001), which sold for $3,346,456 at Sotheby's London in February 2007.

Photographs were percolating throughout the supercharged evening. Mike Kelley's "Ahh... Youth" (1991), comprised of eight Cibachrome prints mounted on aluminum, sold to Philippe Davet of Geneva's Blondeau Fine Arts for $1,022,500 (est. $400-600,000), while Gilbert & George's "Bad Thoughts #1," made up of 16 hand-colored gelatin silver prints in artist frames from 1975, sold to New York and London dealer Daniella Luxembourg for $1,538,500 (est. $700,000-1 million).

The evening also rehabilitated certain artists whose markets caught bad viruses in 2008, including Richard Prince, whose "Nurse on Horseback" — a fetching 78-by-58-inch work dating from his acclaimed and much-speculated-upon 2004 series — sold to New York's L&M Arts for $4,786,500 (est. $3.5-4.5 million). Still, a later Prince, "Untitled (de Kooning)," a huge 86-by-118 inch acrylic-and-inkjet-on-canvas from 2007, featuring de Kooning-esque women collaged with appropriated soft-porn elements, failed to sell at $1.4 million against a $1.5-2 million estimate.

Anyone hungering for real AbEx masters found solid material in Mark Rothko's previously unrecorded, color-infused, trophy-sized 93-by-76-inch abstraction, "Untitled No. 17" (1961), which sold to an unidentified bidder seated in the third row of the salesroom, for $33,682,500 (est. $18-22 million). International art trader David Nahmad was the underbidder, and though he proclaimed "it was a fantastic painting," he also stated that "the fact that it's not reproduced in the catalogue raisonné is a disadvantage. I always like to buy a painting that is in the book." (In fact, the painting — the fourth most expensive Rothko to sell at auction — will be included in a supplement being prepared by scholar David Anfam.)

Though not nearly as pricey, Philip Guston's authoritative AbEx composition "Painter's City," hailing from the sought-after period of 1956-57, sold to San Francisco dealer John Berggruen for $6,578,500 (est. $4.5-6.5 million). Berggruen also nabbed the following lot, Richard Diebenkorn's lusciously painted and decidedly geometric "Ocean Park #121" (1980) for a record $7,698,500 (est. $7-9 million). (The Diebenkorn last sold at Christie's in May 1986 to last night's consignor, for $374,000.)

As Berggruen rushed out of the salesroom following his back-to-back purchases, he only had time to ask, "How come Christie's is so much better than Sotheby's this time?" Berggruen was referring to Sotheby's relatively tame $128 million evening sale on Tuesday. Pausing a second, he added, "I was fortunate to get two wonderful paintings — but now I'm broke."

Francis Bacon, another market giant who had lately been bruised after a great buildup in price points paid by various oligarchs and hedgies, found some favor last night with the guaranteed "Untitled (Crouching Nude on Rail)" (1952), which sold for a somewhat modest $9,602,500 (est. $10-15 million). Christie's also had success with the more appealing and angsty "Three Studies for Self-Portrait" triptych in oil on canvas from 1974, which sold for $25,282,500 (unpublished estimate on request). Both these Bacons went to telephone bidders, including the triptych, for which Christie's chairman Edward Dolman handled proxy bids with paddle number 103.

That same bidder went on an art shopping spree, nabbing the Bacon as well as Urs Fischer's much-hyped and giant outdoor sculpture "Untitled (Lamp/Bear)," in cast bronze from 2005-2006, for a record $6,802,500 (est. on request), as well as Alighiero Boetti's signature "Mappa del Mondo," an embroidered tapestry of the world from 1988, which fetched $2,332,500 (est. $1.2-1.8 million).

A stunning and rare Cy Twombly chalkboard painting, "Untitled," in house paint and wax crayon on canvas from 1967 and packed with his loopy arabesques, sold to a bidder in the room for a record $15,202,500 (est. $10-15 million). New York dealer Christophe van de Weghe was the underbidder. Christie's and an anonymous third party guaranteed the lot. 

But, finally, if there was one overriding factor in the success of the sale, it had to be the eight-lot bunch of Warhols, which contributed close to $91 million of the overall tally. Leading the pack was the night's top lot — not to mention the most expensive picture to sell so far this season in any category — "Self-Portrait," a medley of variously hued blues in four parts, dating from 1963-64. These so-called photo-booth self-portraits, made in seedy Times Square way before that area was cleaned up, and scaled at 40 by 32 inches, came from the family of the late Detroit art collector and tastemaker Florence Barron. It sold to a telephone bidder for $38,442,500 (est. $20-30 million).

Philippe Segalot was the underbidder, linked by cellphone with his client. The 16-minute-long contest — what veterans of such bidding battles would call an old-fashioned pissing contest between two rich guys — drove the price up beyond reason. The two bidders played a cagey cat-and-mouse game, jumping bids at various levels, from $100,000 to $500,000, making it an arduous task for auctioneer Christopher Burge to keep control of the contest, like an experienced headmaster trying to get a handle on two bratty school boys. The winning bidder was on the phone with Christie's postwar and contemporary department co-head Brett Gorvy, who raised his clenched fist in victory when the time came to declare it.

A late "Self-Portrait," from the so-called fright wig series of 1986, massively scaled at 106½ inches square, sold to Warhol collector and dealer Jose Mugrabi for $27,522,500 (est. $30-40 million). It was one of the few instances where Christie's miffed the estimate. (Another version owned by fashion and film maven Tom Ford had sold at Sotheby's last May for $32.5 million.) Alberto Mugrabi, one of Jose's sons, spoke for his father who had departed the jammed salesroom shortly after his acquisition: "It was a really phenomenal sale."

The evening action resumes on Thursday at Phillips de Pury & Company.