Leonardo DiCaprio Watched as Christie’s Stellar $248 Million Contemporary Art Sale Set Record After Record

Powered by a rare Roy Lichtenstein Pop Art masterpiece from 1961 that fetched a record $43,202,500, Christie’s marathon postwar and contemporary art evening sale delivered $247,597,000. That tally landed midway between pre-sale expectations of $226,450,000-$312,340,000 for the 91 lots offered. Of those, 82 sold for a svelte buy-in rate by lot of ten percent and 13 percent by value. 

Thirty-three of the 82 lots that sold made over a million dollars, and, of that group, four exceeded $10 million. The price nicked the previous mark set at Christie's last November when Lichtenstein’s "Ohhh... Alright" from 1964 made $42,642,500.


The separate 26-lot Peter Norton collection sale, which came with its own catalogue, kicked off the evening with 100 percent sold and contributed $26,785,000 to the overall total, easily eclipsing the high end of the Norton $15.9 million pre-sale estimate. A whopping 13 artist records were broken, nine of those coming from the software magnate’s trove.

Even without Norton, the huge various-owners’ portion of the sale made $220,812,000, falling lightly between the $215.3-296.4 million pre-sale estimate, making it the eighth most expensive contemporary art sale for the privately owned auction house. It was a turnaround, indeed, from the embarrassingly weak $146.7 million Impressionist and Modern art evening sale one week ago.

Though impressively strong in terms of bidding and a buzzy atmosphere — especially for those works carrying a great provenance and fresh-to-market credentials — it trailed the evening record of $384.6 million for a postwar and contemporary sale set back in May 2007. Some of the evening’s buzz, meanwhile, was owed to the unusual appearance of a superstar celeb, Leonardo DiCaprio, who entered the packed salesrooms with his baseball-capped head tucked down, as if suspecting an onslaught of paparazzi, and cell phone glued to his ear. He sat next to his art dealer pal Helly Nahmad and seemed to follow the proceedings.

The lone Norton lot to make the top-ten price list was Paul McCarthy’s mad assemblage sculpture “Tomato Head (Green),” a 1994 piece in fiberglass, urethane, rubber, metal, plastic, fabric, and painted metal base, that sold to New York, London, and Zürich dealer Iwan Wirth for a record $4,562,500 (est. $1-1.5 million).

Another Norton standout was Glenn Ligon’s “Untitled (Stranger in the Village #17)” from 2000, a work of acrylic, oilstick, coal dust, and resin on canvas that sold to Robert Mnuchin of L&M Arts for a record $1,178,500 (est. $300-500,000). It more than doubled the previous mark set at the Artists for Haiti charity sale at Christie’s in September when Ligon’s “Stranger #4” from 2011 fetched $450,000 when it was bought by another rare megastar bidder, Jennifer Aniston.

No one had expected Norton to liquidate a chunk of his collection, especially at auction, since he primarily acquires works early on through the artists’ primary-market dealers. His taste and appetite for challenging works were richly rewarded as the Norton cover lot, Fred Tomaselli’s horror vacuui 2000 diptych “Untitled (Expulsion),” based on a famous Renaissance painting and comprised of leaves, pills, insects, mushrooms, and printed paper collage on panel, shot to a record $1,650,000 (est. $500,000-700,000).

There was so much bidding on the Norton works that it took auctioneer Christopher Burge about 50 minutes to dispatch the 26 lots.

Similar to the Phillips de Pury evening sale on Monday, Christie’s had numerous third-party guarantees on 10 of the most expensive lots, as well as six straight-out guarantees from their own pocket, assuring works would sell no matter what the reception.

It began with Gerhard Richter’s “Abstraktes Bild (724-5)” from 1990 that went to New York art advisor Kim Heirston for $3,90,500 (est. $2-3 million). The Richter was also one of a handful of works that had already shot through auction at the height of the past art boom, this one selling for £916,500 ($1,866,979) at Sotheby’s London in October 2007.

Another guaranteed property was the pristine and early Jeff Koons “Two Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J Silver Series, Wilson Aggressor),” floating weightlessly in a fish tank from 1985, that sold to New York dealer David Zwirner for $4,226,500 (est. $2-3 million). The dealer waited till the last moment to place his winning hammer bid of $3.7 million.

The consignor had acquired the work from Chicago’s Feature Gallery in 1985 for $3,500, according to the gallery’s founder, Hudson, who continues to run Feature on the Lower East Side. As he recalled, “I think I ended up selling one Koons, and it wasn’t easy.”

Another guaranteed Koons sculpture, the elaborately gaudy “Baroque Egg With Bow (Orange /Magenta)” from 1994-2008, in high chromium stainless steel with transparent  color coating, sold to a telephone bidder for $6,242,500 (est. $5.5-6.5 million).

Sculpture in general fared extremely well, with Louise Bourgeois’s grandly scaled bronze “Spider” from 2006, which had been parked on the sidewalk in front of Christie’s (receiving some plumping from no less than Spiderman), selling to an anonymous telephone bidder for a record $10,722,500 (est. $4-6 million).

Photography also shined as Andreas Gursky’s magisterial and mural-scaled “Rhein II,” a computer-altered 1999 state of the actual river from an edition of six, sold for a record $4,338,500 (est. $2.5-3.5 million). It also was a record for any photograph at auction.

“It was a dynamite image,” said underbidder Baird Ryan, a New York private dealer, as he exited the salesroom, “and rare to auction.” Christie’s had guaranteed the lot.

But the hum-dinger of the evening was the early, Benday-dot-infused Lichtenstein “I Can See the Whole Room... and There’s Nobody in It!” Bidding began at a sky-high $27 million for the 48-by-48-inch canvas, and as auctioneer Burge read out the title in deadpan fashion to the packed salesroom, the audience burst into combustive laughter. New York private dealer Guy Bennett beat back intense telephone bidding, nabbing the prize for the record $43,202,500 (est. $35-45 million).

Remarkably, the painting also set a record the last time it came to auction at Christie’s New York in November 1988 when it made $2.09 million, one of many masterworks from the storied collection of the late Connecticut collectors Emily and Burton Tremaine.

The huge march from $2 million to $43 million in 23 years speaks not only to the rising reputation of the artist but the explosive growth of the contemporary art market.

Pop Art once again proved its mettle with various examples of Andy Warhol making the grade and then some, with the gorgeous, turquoise-eye-shadowed “Silver Liz” from 1963 selling to London jewelry magnate Laurence Graff, who was seated front row center in the salesroom, for $16,322,500 (est. $16-19 million). The painting, guaranteed by Christie’s, and it made Graff’s evening.

“Of course I’m happy,” said Graff, as he strode out of the auction house. “Wouldn’t you be? This was the one opportunity to get it, and it’s a beautiful painting and it complements my ‘Red Liz,’ so I’ve got the two best ones.” Graff was referring to the other Warhol he acquired at Sotheby’s New York in 2006 for approximately $11 million.

Graff and Christie’s were expecting more competition for the painting, which didn’t materialize. The collector was delighted to get it at $14.5 million hammer, before premium, which was well under the $16 million low estimate.

“The ‘Liz’ had been mine,” said supercollector Peter Brant, with a seller’s pride. Speaking to the Warhol market and the wider art market in general, he added, “Whenever something is a good example, it brings a lot of money.”

Another Warhol, “Four Campbell’s Soup Cans,” a 1962 work in casein and graphite on canvas, sold to a telephone bidder for $9,826,500 (est. $7-10 million), and a 26-by-22-inch “Mao” by the artist from 1973 sold to Mnuchin for $3,442,500 (est. $3-5 million).

Some big-ticket items bombed, including Francis Bacon’s large but unappealing “Study of a Man Talking “ from 1981, which flopped against a $12-18 million estimate, and Willem de Kooning’s juicily wrought “Flowers, Mary’s Table” from 1971, which wilted against its $8-12 million estimate. Gerhard Richter's fuzzily realistic "Frau Niepenberg" from 1965 also passed without a bid against its $7-10 million estimate. But the casualties were easily absorbed by the tide of successful bids.

There were a couple of first-rate Abstract Expressionist examples, too, topped by Mark Rothko’s trophy-ready “White Cloud” from 1956 that sold to a lone telephone bidder for $18,562,500 (est. $18-25 million). The seller acquired the painting in 1976 from the Pace Gallery.

Among other abstract beauties, Robert Ryman’s 10 ¼-inch-square “Untitled,” an oil-on-linen-canvas from 1965, sold to London and New York dealer Harry Blain for $1,594,500 (est.$400-600,000.) It last sold at Christie’s New York in May 1993 for $92,700.

The evening action resumes at Sotheby’s on Wednesday.