Christie's Postwar and Contemporary Sale Takes $388 Million, Led by a Record-Smashing $87-Million Rothko

Mark Rothko's "Orange, Red, Yellow" fetched $388,488,000 last night.
(Courtesy Christie's)

NEW YORK — Powered by a stunning handful of super-trophies, including a sublime and record-eclipsing Mark Rothko masterpiece from 1961, Christie’s delivered a $388,488,000 Postwar and Contemporary at evening sale. The tally zoomed beyond the $236-329 million pre-sale estimate and nicked the May 2007 high water mark of $384.6 million, harkening back to a time generally acknowledged as the zenith of the last art boom. It easily surpassed last May’s performance that realized $301.6 million, though it still trailed the house’s all-time high evening tally for a various-owner sale, set by the $491 million worth of Impressionist and Modern art sold back in November 2006.

Tonight, 11 artist records were set while 40 of the 56 lots sold made over a million dollars. Of those, nine hurdled the ten million dollar mark and 18 went over five million dollars. With the seminal bidding action at times resembling a raucous fireworks display of unrestrained exuberance, only three lots failed to sell, making for a tiny five percent buy-in rate by lot and one percent by value.

There were other epoch-making features of the night as well. It marked the last appearance of star auctioneer Christopher Burge, who navigated the sale with exceptional élan, at times impatient at certain bidders’ attempts to split bids at already outrageous sums. “We’ve messed around long enough,” snapped Burge as he rapped his gavel after a long bidding battle for Gerhard Richter’s color-stroked, square "Abstraktes Bild (798-3)" (1993) (est. $14-18 million), which sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for a record $21,810,500. Larry Gagosian was the underbidder in a deep-pocketed field that attracted at least a half-dozen bidders including dealer Jose Mugrabi.

“It’s getting out of hand here,” muttered Burge at an earlier point, when bidding hit $15.3 million and one telephone bidder wanted to increase that amount by $100,000 and not the established $200,000 increment. “No, absolutely not,” intoned Burge — sparking more competition. Though Christie’s has said Burge will stay in the game as a business-getter and occasional auctioneer, he clearly told the packed salesroom it was his last hurrah.

The sweet spot of the huge evening centered around the 13-lot trove from David Pincus, the late collector and philanthropist who passed away in November. It was expected to bring $89.8-125.9 million and wound up making $174.9 million instead. Leading that dazzling pack was lot 20, Mark Rothko’s magisterial oil on canvas, “Orange, Red, Yellow” (1961), which unleashed a bidding frenzy, starting at $24 million and quickly escalating, at least, for the most part, at one million dollar increments.

The Rothko brought a record $86,882,500 (est. $35-45 million), knocking out the previous mark for any Postwar work, set by Francis Bacon’s “Triptych” (1976) that sold to Roman Abramovich at Sotheby’s New York in May 2008 for $86,281,00. It also crushed the previous Rothko record, set by “White center (Yellow, pink and lavender on rose)" (1950) — also known as the “Rockefeller Rothko” — which fetched $72,840,000 at Sotheby’s New York in May 2007.  

“The Rothko was a great value,” said Chicago dealer Paul Gray, who watched the action from a ringside seat near the front of the salesroom, “but it has superb quality if that’s  your brand of trophy picture. Put in the company of other $50-million-plus pictures and it belongs there.” (The fire-hued Rothko also epitomized the often hackneyed notion of ‘fresh to the market,’ since Pincus, a Philadelphia-based mensware magnate, acquired the painting from Marlborough Gallery in London back in 1967, three years after it debuted there in a 1964 solo exhibition.)

AbEx works soared throughout the evening as another rare Pincus highlight, Jackson Pollock’s “Number 28, 1951,” a thickly impastoed, all-over composition in oil sold to another anonymous telephone bidder for a record $23,042,500 (est. $20-30 million). Yet another Pincus high achiever was Willem de Kooning’s late and juicy “Untitled I” (1980), which sold to German private dealer and former Christie’s specialist Jorg Michael Bertz for $14,082,500 (est. $8-12 million). Still another work from the Pincus brood, Barnett Newman’s slightly battered looking “Onement V” (1952), featuring the artist’s signature ‘zip,’ sold to yet another anonymous telephone bidder for a record $22,482,500 (est. $10-15 million).

New York dealer Christophe van de Weghe was the underbidder. “We were super surprised we didn’t get the painting,” said van de Weghe, who dropped out at $19.5 million, $4.5 million over the high estimate. “My client” — who the dealer described as a private American in his late 40s — “has been trying to find the right Newman for years. But it was such a strong sale….”

Outside the Pincus orbit, huge sums were realized in various categories, including whopping prices for world-class Alexander Calder sculptures, including “Lily of Force,” a ravishing standing mobile of painted sheet metal in red, blue, black, white, and yellow shades, from 1945. It sold to London- and New York-based dealer Daniella Luxembourg for a record $18,562,500 (est. $8-12 million). It pulverized the mark set by “Snow Flurry,” a hanging mobile from circa 1948 that made $10,386,500 earlier in the evening action.

Luxembourg also snared Gerhard Richter’s early and calming “Seestuck (leicht bewoelkt)” (1969) for $19,346,500 (est. $10-15 million).  

Though it set a record, Yves Klein's much-hyped and assuredly iconic blow-torch and dry pigment composition, “FC1 (Fire Color 1)” (1962),  considered the artist’s last masterwork, sold to the telephone for $36,482,500 (est. $30-40 million). Still, the star lot came nowhere near the contrails of the splendid Rothko.

There appeared to be an unlimited appetite for first-class works as evidenced by the soulful and brawny Richard Diebenkorn “Berkeley #59” abstraction from 1956 sold from the estate of legendary San Francisco art patron Evelyn Haas, to benefit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It made $6,242,500 (est. $4-6 million).

On a lighter side, at the top of the night, Urs Fischer’s paraffin wax sculpture, “Untitled (Standing),” depicting art collector Peter Brant, from an edition of two plus one artist’s proof, sold to London dealer Marco Voena $1,314,500 (est. $700,000-1 million). The new owner is entitled to a fresh version from the foundry once the current example melts down, according to the auction house. (It was one of a half-dozen works that carried financial guarantees in whole or in part by third-party backers.)

“Fischer has made only eight wax sculptures,” said Voena who said he bought it for his own collection as he exited the salesroom, “and the other one is in Peter Brant’s house.”

Christie’s spectacular evening could have gone higher if two high-priced lots hadn’t been withdrawn for undisclosed reasons at the eleventh hour, including Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Museum Security (Broadway Meltdown)” (1983) (est. $9-12 million) and Brice Marden’s loopy abstraction, “Attendant 5” (1996-99) (est. $7-10 million). Go figure.

As the sidewalk crowd thinned after the two-hour-long auction, Gil Perez, the 34-year Christie's doorman and meet-and-greeter, tugged on his brimmed hat and acknowledged, as Burge did, this was his last event and said, "I'm just a guy from Brooklyn and to get this job was a real blessing."

The contemporary action resumes Wednesday evening at Sotheby’s.

To see highlights of Christie's Postwar and Contemporary Sale, click on the slide show.