Irascibility Pays Off as Clyfford Still Leads Sotheby's to a White-Hot $316 Million Postwar Art Sale

On a day the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped almost 400 points and a rowdy crowd of Occupy Wall Street protesters jeered the flow of art world types entering Sotheby’s York Avenue headquarters, the auction house pulled off a $315,837,000 coup, its third-highest tally for a contemporary evening sale. It just missed the November 2007 tally of $315,907,000, and the record May 2008 mark of $362,037,000.

This evening, the result easily hurdled the pre-sale estimate of $192-270 million. Eleven of the 73 lots offered failed to sell for a trim buy-in rate by lot of 15 percent and five percent by value. Forty-four of the 62 lots that sold made over a million dollars, and of those seven fetched over $14 million, including three by Gerhard Richter and three by Clyfford Still. A painting by Francis Bacon also leapt the million-dollar mark.

Of the five auction records set, the award for most remarkable performance went to a magisterial 93-by-79-inch abstraction by the eccentric and market-phobic Clyfford Still. Titled “1949-A-No. 1 (PH-89),” the 1949 painting sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for $61,682,500 (est. $25-35 million). Bidding opened at $18 million and eventually became a tug of war between a telephone bidder and New York dealer Chris Eykyn, who fielded bids from his cell phone.

The canvas crushed the previous mark set at Christie's New York in November 2006 when "1947-R-No.1" from 1947 sold for $21,296,000 (est. $5-7 million). It also became the third-most-expensive postwar work to sell at auction, trailing Mark Rothko’s “White Center (Yellow, Pink, and Lavender on Rose),” which fetched $72.8 million at Sotheby’s New York in May 2007, and Andy Warhol’s “Green Car Crash-Green Burning Car I,” which made $71.7 million at Christie’s New York, also in May 2007.

The super-Still was one of four works sold by the City and County of Denver to benefit the brand new Clyfford Still Museum, scheduled to open on November 18. That group of financially guaranteed works, culled from the estate of his widow, Patricia Still, made $114.1 million in total.

The same telephone bidder also nabbed Still’s “PH-1033” from 1976 for $19,682,500 (est. $10-15 million). Another large-scale abstraction from 1947, “1947-Y-No.2,” had more competition, drawing at least four bidders who chased it to $31,442,500 (est. $15-20 million). San Francisco dealer John Berggruen was the underbidder.

Still famously withdrew from the commercial art world at the height of his powers and kept virtually all of his production, insisting it could only be released to a museum.

A number of art-hunters at Sotheby’s seemed intent on acquiring a stockpile of their own masterpieces, and one anonymous telephone bidder (known only as paddle number L0086) snared three of eight Gerhard Richters offered by a private collector couple identified in the catalogue and in the auction house's effective promotion materials as “Abstraction-Figuration: A Private Collection.”

That deep-pocketed player outgunned intense competition to buy Richter’s “Abstraktes Bild (769-2)” from 1992 for $14,082,500 (est. $5.5-7.5 million); “Gudrun,” another de Kooning-esque abstraction from 1987, which made $18,002,500 (est. $5.5-7.5 million); and “Mohre” from 1984 that realized $6,242,500.

The exact reason for Richter’s wild prices is anybody’s guess, but clues could be found in the rave reviews for his current retrospective at Tate Modern and the fact that, since the recent death of Lucian Freud, he is now widely recognized as the world’s greatest living artist.

The painter’s jump in market power is rather breathtaking. “Gudrun,” for example, last sold at Sotheby’s London in June 2001 to the current seller for £553,500 ($783,106). Gudrun was underbid by Chicago dealer Paul Gray, who complemented Sotheby’s on its promotion of the Richter trove. “They did a really good job marketing those pictures,” said the dealer. “I did a little research on the Richter market and 150 Richters have sold for more than one million dollars in the past ten years. That’s a big market!”

But it was Richter’s chillily titled but hotly colored “Abstraktes Bild” from 1997 that hit a record $20,802,500 (est. $9-12 million). The group of eight works contributed $74.3 million to the evening’s total, double their $36.7 million high estimate.

Not everyone was over the moon about the Richter stampede. “The Richter prices are just insane,” said John Elderfield, the celebrated curator who recently organized the de Kooning retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. The reputations of artists today are measured by money.”

Elderfield described the evening as “like going to the circus in Roman times.” He bought Donald Judd’s “Untitled (DSS 155),” a red fluorescent Plexiglas-and-stainless-steel sculpture from 1968 for $4,674,500 (est. $5-7 million). Elderfield said he bought the work on behalf of a private collector.

Other high-flying entries included Francis Bacon’s electrifying “Three Studies for a Self-Portrait,” a 1967 painting with each canvas panel measuring 14 by 12 inches that sold to a telephone bidder for $19,682,500 (est. $15-20 million). The underbidder was the Greek collector Dimitri Mavromatis, who was seated near the front of the salesroom.

Two other Bacons, including the early and rare "Interior of a Room" from circa 1935 (estimate upon request) were withdrawn at the 11th hour, apparently frozen in customs by British authorities who are investigating whether they are of significant enough cultural import to prevent their departure from Great Britain for a chance at auction.

On a more modest scale, Andy Warhol’s petite, ten-by-eight-inch “Dollar Sign” from 1982 sold to Los Angeles collector Stavros Merjos for $698,500 (est. $250-350,00). It last sold at Christie’s New York in May 1988 for $27,000.

Works by less established artists also made huge prices as Cady Noland’s “Oozwald,” a politically charged 1989 photo silkscreen on aluminum relief depicting JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald at the moment he was gunned down by Jack Ruby, sold for a record $6,578,500 (est. $2-3 million).

David Hammons’s “Untitled,” a stunning assemblage of found African masks, mirror, and wire from 1996, sold to New York collector Adam Lindemann for a record $2,266,500 (est. $1.5-2 million).

“It was a fabulous sale,” said L&M Arts dealer Dominique Levy as she strode out of the salesroom, “and I think it shows an incredibly aggressive and wide market for the very best works.” Levy bought David Smith’s unique 1952 welded-steel sculpture “Agricola XII” for $1,426,500 (est. $1.2-1.6 million).

As auctioneer Tobias Meyer characterized the evening, moments after the fireworks subsided, “the sale blew every expectation away.”