"This Is Nuts": Christie's $412-Million Postwar and Contemporary Auction Stuns

Andy Warhol, "Statue of Liberty," 1962
(Courtesy Christie's Images LTD. 2012)

NEW YORK — Christie’s notched its largest-ever Postwar/Contemporary evening sale on Wednesday, delivering a stunning $412,253,100 tally. It beat Sotheby’s astonishing $375.2-million contemporary art evening on Tuesday and along the way, set seven artist records and sold all but six of the 73 lots offered for a miniscule buy-in rate of eight percent by lot and seven percent by value. Equally impressive, it beat pre-sale expectations of $289,350,000-$411,800,000.

Six works sold for over $20 million and 55 of the 67 lots that sold hurdled the million-dollar mark. The enormous and almost incomprehensible result ranks second in Christie’s history for any category, trailing only the $491.5-million Impressionist and Modern evening sale in November 2006. Tonight’s result crushed the $247.5-million tally made last November.

The evening got off to a rousing start with the first lot, Christopher Wool’s “Untitled” patterned abstraction in alkyd and flashe on aluminum from 1988. It sold for $1,930,500 (est. $800,000-1.2 million) to Paris dealer John Sayegh-Belchatowski.

Next up was a rare and whimsical Alexander Calder wire sculpture, “Policeman” (ca. 1928), standing just 18½ inches high and featuring a burly fellow holding a nightstick. It went to a telephone bidder for $4,226,500 (est. $1.2-1.8 million).

Christie’s packed the sale with choice blocks of single-owner property, led by the 100 percent sold Hannelore and Rudolf Schulhof collection that made $19.2 million, including Richard Serra’s outdoor Cor-ten steel “Schulhof’s Curve” (1984), resembling a kind of low-rise Tilted Arc, which sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for a record $2,882,500 (est. $2.5-3.5 million).

Another Schulhof outdoor sculpture — and let’s face it, this is a climate for parking such works on grand estates — was Ellsworth Kelly’s “Untitled” geometric, gable-shaped stainless steel work, which sold to another telephone for $3,778,500. New York/London dealer Daniela Luxembourg was the underbidder.

New York private dealer Neal Meltzer bought the Schulhofs’ petite and early Robert Ryman abstraction, “Untitled” (1963) for $1,650,500 (est. $1.4-1.8 million).

Christie’s financially guaranteed the Schulhof trove for an undisclosed amount — but apparently made a good bet given the pre-sale estimate was $11-16 million. Meltzer complimented Christie’s for “doing a good job of finding buyers and creating excitement” for works in the sale, a statement that cannot be easily challenged.

The packed salesroom, already buzzing with anticipation of what seemed like a tsunami of star property, chased Andy Warhol’s iconic bad boy image, “Marlon” (1966), to $23,714,500 (est. $15-20 million). It had been offered by New York collector Donald Bryant. Somewhat oddly, it sold to London dealer Helly Nahmad of the art dealing family better known for its Impressionist and modern inventory — perhaps a symbol of where the market is shifting.

Jose Mugrabi was the underbidder on “Marlon.” In fact, he originally bought the piece for $1,652,500 at Sotheby’s New York in November 1997 and then sold it for $5,047,500 at Christie’s New York in May 2003. “The guy who bought the Marlon [tonight] did the best,” said Mugrabi as he strode out of the salesroom. “It’s a great painting.”

Bryant, however, seemed to harbor a bit of seller’s remorse, noting, “I’ve regretted many times putting it up for sale.” Asked about the price, he replied, “I wasn’t surprised but I think it’s better than that.” Still, the collector had some fun, buying his wife Bettina Bryant an early Christmas present, Ed Ruscha’s gunpowder and ink on paper, “Sin” (1967), for $962,500 (est. $300-500,000), one of ten works offered from the Douglas Cramer collection. “She loves Ruscha,” he explained.

Bryant was also the underbidder for Donald Judd’s stunning copper-and-red-Plexiglas wall relief, “Untitled, 1989 (Bernstein 89-24),” consisting of ten identical elements. It sold for $10,162,500 (est. $5-7 million).

For his part, Douglas Cramer also had some misgivings about letting go of his remarkable tranche of works, which fetched $18.6 million (est. $11-16 million). “It’s sad to see them go,” said the famed movie and television producer, “but they’ve found very good homes, which is what is important. I’ll have to take another deep breath for the 100 or so that are going up for sale tomorrow,” he added, referring to Christie’s day sale.

Other Cramer highlights included John Currin’s racy and sprawling nude (a la Gustave Courbet), “Gezellig” (2006), which sold to San Francisco dealer Anthony Meier for $2,602,500 (est. $1.2-1.8 million), and Mark Grotjahn’s splendid “Untitled (Red Butterfly II Yellow Mark Grojahn P-08 752)” (2008), which fetched a record $4,170,500. New York dealer Andrew Fabricant of the Richard Gray Gallery was the underbidder.

Caught on the stairway leading down to Christie’s exit, Fabricant let loose his take on the sale. “This is nuts,” said the seasoned dealer. “It’s some kind of weird anomaly to what’s happening in the world and I find it sickeningly disturbing. These prices set the bar higher and higher for everyone and it completely confounds the whole model.”

Other mad hatter prices included that realized for the large and late Roy Lichtenstein interior, “Nude with Red Shirt” (1995), which somehow soared to $28,082,500 (est. $12-18 million). New York dealer Christophe van de Weghe was one of the underbidders.

By that time, of course, Christie’s had rung up gonzo results, ranging from the top lot, Andy Warhol’s experimental 3-D “Statue of Liberty,” executed in silkscreen inks, spray enamel, and graphite from 1962, which sold to a telephone bidder for $43,762,500 (est. on request in the region of $30-40 million). It now ranks as the second most expensive Warhol ever sold at auction, trailing only “Green Car Crash (Green Burniing Car I)”  (1963), which sold at the same house in May 2007 for a record $71,720,000.

Not far behind was a true masterwork, Franz Kline’s powerful and boldly executed black and white Abstract Expressionist painting, “Untitled” (1957), which sold to a telephone bidder for a record $40,402,500 (est. $20-30 million). New York dealer Robert Mnuchin was one of the underbidders, as well as a onetime owner of the great painting. Christie’s guaranteed the painting. Its sale obliterated the previous mark set just recently by “Shenandoah” (1956), which sold at Sotheby’s Tuesday evening for $9,322,500.

Another AbEx work from 1957, Mark Rothko’s punchy “Black stripe (orange, Gold and Black)” sold to the telephone for $21,362,500 (est. $15-20 million). Jose Mugrabi was one of the underbidders. It last sold at auction at Sotheby’s New York in May 1993 for $882,500.

Still another record price went to Richard Diebenkorn’s brilliant “Ocean Park #48” composition from 1971, measuring a trophy-sized 198-by-82-inches. It sold to a telephone bidder for $13,522,500 (est. $8-12 million).

The potent mix of AbEx, Pop, major outdoor sculpture and just about everything else desired by the market made for a wildly successful sale. Among some of the other  records, Jeff Koons’s over-the-top mirror-polished stainless steel “Tulips” (1995-2004), sited purposefully in a shallow reflecting pool on the sidewalk in front of Christie’s Rockefeller Center entrance, sold for a whopping $33,682,500 (est. on request in the region of $20-30 million). The charming sculpture, a kind of long-stemmed bouquet, is one of five unique versions (whatever that means).

As expected, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s widely exhibited painting, “Untitled” (1981), featuring a skeletal figure brandishing a fishing pole and a rather unimpressive catch, sold to the telephone for a record $26,402,500 (est. on request in the range of $20-30 million).

If there were any big surprises, it would certainly be the two Gerhard Richter paintings of the four offered that failed to sell, perhaps a result of Richter market fatigue and giant estimates. Remarkably, “Prag 1883” (1983) from the collection of Greenwich hedge fund magnate Steven Cohen, died at an imaginary $8.8 million (est. $9-12 million).

Still, Richter had some juice with "Abstraktes Bild (779-2)" (1992), which sold to a telephone bidder for $15,314,500 (est. $12-18 million). It was one of eight works that carried a third-party financial guarantee.

Of the relatively few ‘bargains’ in the off-the-chart sale, Willem de Kooning's large and late "Untitled" abstraction from 1987, which hailed from the Pincus Family Collection. It sold for $2,994,500 (est. $3-4 million) to Connecticut collector David Rogath.

Yet, despite a few hiccups along the way, the contemporary market more than proved its high-gloss mettle. “Clearly,” said Jussi Pylkannen, the evening’s coolly efficient auctioneer, “there’s an enormous amount of energy in the Postwar market globally.”

The series of evening auctions resumes at Phillips de Pury on Thursday.

Prices here include the buyer's premium tacked onto the hammer price: 25 percent up to and including $50,000; 20 percent up to and including $1 million; and 12 percent above $1 million.