Leonardo DiCaprio's Wildlife Charity Auction Raises $38.5 Million at Christie's

Leonardo DiCaprio's Wildlife Charity Auction Raises $38.5 Million at Christie's
Zeng Fanzhi's "The Tiger" (2011), estimated at $1.5-2.5 million, sold for $5,040,000.
(Christie's Images LTD. 2013)

NEW YORK — Sold to benefit conservation projects for endangered species, the 33 donated art works in the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation’s “The 11th Hour Auction” at Christie’s realized a whopping $38.5 million Monday evening. It was an excellent portent for both endangered species and the art market, as 13 artist records were set in an almost raucous salesroom, giddy with celebrity life, good will, and a shaved-down buyer’s premium of just five percent. (The event was organized by Christie's international specialist Loic Gouzer.)

The tally crushed pre-sale expectations of $13-18 million, with a spree of wild spending on choice works, ranging from the cover lot, Robert Longo close-up of a tiger’s head, “Untitled (Leo),” which sold to pharmaceutical magnate and philanthropist Stewart Rahr for a record $1,575,000 (est. $250-350,000), to Mark Grotjahn’s richly layered “Untitled (Standard Lotus No. II, Bird of Paradise, Tiger Mouth Face” (2012), which went to Larry Gagosian for a staggering — and record-setting — $6,510,000 ($1.5-2.5 million). All 33 lots sold for a total of $33.3 million, with an unidentified donor kicking in $5 million and other contributors accounting for an additional $500,000.

Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen was having fun at the rostrum, cajoling bids and needling clients, even telling the room “let’s not let him have it” after Gagosian’s leading bid on the Grotjahn. When the price for the Grotjahn easily hurdled Francois Odermatt’s early $2-million bid, Pylkannen politely asked DiCaprio, seated in the front row, “Is that ok?”

But it was serious business, especially for the film star’s 15-year-old foundation. DiCaprio, the star of the new Hollywood film “The Great Gatsby,” addressed the crowd before the sale, urging the congregants to “bid as if the fate of the planet depends on us.”

Rahr certainly took those words to heart, outgunning others in the room for Elizabeth Peyton’s “Leonardo, February 2013,” featuring a portrait of de Caprio, which made a record $1,050,000 (est. $400-500,000). He also snared Rob Pruitt’s “6:20 pm, Late Summer,” a hulking glitter-and-enamel on canvas work that fetched a record $315,000 (est. $100-150,000).

Caught on the stairway exiting the salesroom, a second or so after dealer Gavin Brown thrust his business card in his hand, explaining he represented the artist, Rahr explained his modus operandi. “I’m like this all my life, period,” the billionaire said. “All I do is philanthropy now, ever since I sold my company. Look it up.”

Though the lion’s share of the works offered were donated by the artists who made them, Christie’s owner Francois Pinault contributed the muscular and menacing Zeng Fanzhi “The Tiger” (2011), which sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for $5,040,000 (est. $1.5-2.5 million). The tiger theme, referencing one of diCaprio’s major wildlife initiatives — he has established sanctuaries established for species preservation in Nepal — featured throughout the evening. Bidders left the auction room aware that only 3,200 of the great cats remain on the planet.

U.S. buyers could take deductions on their purchases for amounts exceeding the so-called market price of the works, or mid-way between the low and high estimates. One candidate could be “Spider-Man” franchise star Toby McGuire, who bought Sergej Jensen’s “Untitled” (2005), a 106-by-79-inch composition comprised of sewn money bags, for $262,500 (est. $70-100,000).

In a statement after the bidding fireworks had ended, Christie’s characterized the results as “the most important wildlife charity auction ever staged,” which sounds convincing.

DiCaprio, who himself purchased the as-yet-unfinished Takashi Murakami acrylic painting, “Mononoke,” for $735,000 (est. $500-700,000), grabbed the microphone after the last lot — Cady Noland’s “Untitled,” which sold to Tony Shafrazi for for $157,500 (est. $20-30,000) — to say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”