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    The $10-Million-Plus Club
by Andrew Decker
 
     
 
Mark Rothko
No. 15
1952
$11,000,000
 
Marcel Duchamp
Fountain
1964
$1.76 million
 
Sam Francis
Towards Disappearance I
1958
$3.4 million
 
Vija Celmins
Untitled (Big Sea #2)
1969
$398,500
 
Cy Twombly
Untitled
1959
$4.07 million
 
Alexander Calder
Brazilian Fish
ca. 1947
$3.91 million
 
Roy Lichtenstein
Still Life with Sculpture
1974
$2.75 million
 
Jean-Michel Basquiat
Self Portrait as a Heel
1982
$827,500
 
Jasper Johns
Flag
1959
$1.76 million
 
Robert Gober
Drain
1989
$167,500
 
Jeff Koons
New Hoover Deluxe Shampoo Polishers
1980
$365,500
 
Charles Ray
Plank Piece I-II
1973
$288,500
 
Eric Fischl
Time for Bed
1981
$783,500
 
David Salle
Ugly Deaf Face
1983
$68,500
 
Christie's contemporary art sales may be the most fun, but the money's at Sotheby's. $11 million for Mark Rothko's huge 1952 No. 15 (presale estimate $4 million-$6 million; previous record $5.9 million). $1.76 million for Marcel Duchamp's 1964 reproduction of his infamous 1917 Fountain (previous record: $607,500). A staggering $3.41 million for Sam Francis' Towards Disappearance I (previous record: $1.87 million).

Sotheby's even waded into Christie's trademarked new-record-for-young-artist turf, notching $398,500 for Vija Celmins' Untitled (Big Sea #2). The previous top price for a Celmins work had been $23,000.

The Sotheby's sale on Nov. 17 totaled $56.24 million, more than any contemporary sale since 1990. The Rothko, which went to London-based Israeli shipping tycoon Sammy Ofer, certainly helped fatten up the total. But beyond it were Cy Twombly's densely scrawled Untitled at $4.07 million, a record $3.91 million for Alexander Calder's jazzy and exceptionally fun Brazilian Fish, and a searing $2.75 million for Roy Lichtenstein's Still Life with Sculpture (est. $500,000-$700,000).

And the Basquiat market -- hit hard by a couple of big unsold paintings at Christie's -- was redeemed at Sotheby's, where the 1982 Baptismal fetched $1.43 million (est. $700,000-$900,000) from Giancarlo Giometti, who also picked up some other lots [see box score, below]. And the artist's wonderful Self Portrait as a Heel climbed to $827,500.

Where Christie's had scored big with the thrill of the new and naughty, Sotheby's cleaned up with the preeminence of the old. Consistently, the firm was fortunate enough to offer up works that are particularly good (the Rothko, Twombly, Calder, Francis and Basquiat) or particularly appealing (the Lichtenstein). The Rothko price launched the artist into the post-War artists' $10-million-plus club, along with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol.

And the sale had a slew of lovely subtexts for insiders. The Lichtenstein ended in a bidding duel between Lucy Mitchell-Innes of New York's Mitchell-Innes and Nash and Sotheby's chairwoman Diana D. Brooks. Mitchell-Innes had been a division head at Sotheby's until the mid-'90s, when Brooks forced her out in favor of a younger, less well paid colleague.

And here they were, representing their respective anonymous bidders, going at it full bore. Mitchell-Innes, who is one of the top contemporary art dealers in New York, slowed and nearly faltered around $2.1 million, but held on for two bids more to win the lot. Brooks was a bit red-faced as she got off the phone with her client.

The Calder Fish nearly climbed to over $4 million, but a bidding slip kept it at $3.9 million. Auctioneer Tobias Meyer started the bidding at around $800,000, and three people were left in the running at $1.8 million. It came down to a competition between two phone bidders, one on the line with Sotheby's staffer David Norman. With the bidding at $3.55 million, it was Norman's turn. He turned away from Meyer for a moment, trying to get his client to wrap his or her mind around the staggering sum. It seemed clear that he would come back in for another bid, but Meyer didn't sniff this one out and hammered the mobile down. A half second later, Norman called $3.6 million, but too late. The easy-going Norman was subtly but discernibly irate, his teeth all but bared. But by then, Meyer was well into the following lot.

It was one of those nights when people wanted to spend, and the stuff on offer by and large merited their enthusiasm. Where bidding at Christie's had veered into the giddy at times, at Sotheby's it was largely determined -- passionate and intense, without the whimsy. Old hands like Swiss art advisor Simon de Pury and Robert Mnuchin of C&M Arts in New York locked horns over a 1959 Jasper Johns graphite wash on paper Flag, and de Pury won at $1.76 million.

Young lion Iwan Wirth snared Eva Hesse's Untitled (Three Nets) at $376,500, a price that just met its reserve and Sotheby's guarantee (est. $400,000-$600,000). Wirth's generational colleague Anthony Meier, a San Francisco dealer, landed Charles Ray's Rotating Circle at the reserve of $180,000 ($200,500 including buyer's premium).

The evening's routine press conference ended on a peculiar note. Brooks made an open plaint to journalists to report prices, not moods, since the journalists were responsible for "the care and feeding of what the world thinks about art." The problem, from Brooks' point of view, was that various media (she didn't specify which) had painted the previous week's $400-million auctions as boring, despite the quite stellar returns. In essence, she said that spending $10 million or $20 million or nearly $50 million on a painting was serious business and did not necessarily come with hot duels between billionaires in the audience -- the kind of zip and zing that people show when spending, say, $30,000 or $200,000.

Why am I thinking about Pat Riley getting into a ref's face just now?

Seriously, auctions and the art market are not strictly about the bottom line. They may be on Wall Street, where Sotheby's stock is traded, but the reason evening sales (and not the day auctions) are covered is that they're about theater, society, tastes and passion as well as about art and money. Yes, the art market press can be bitchy, impatient, critical and at times unfair. But auctions are and should be judged on many aspects, not simply an auction house's take at the end of the week. If you prefer a purer market and unemotional reporting, sell the art privately or through Sothebys.com.

Box score:
Sotheby's contemporary art, Nov. 17, 1999
$56,236,650 (presale est. $32.5 million-$46.1 million), 92.7 percent sold by dollar. 68 lots offered, 63 sold, 5 unsold, 92 percent sold by lot.

Big winner: Mystery California resident Placido Arango, who sold the Rothko, Francis and Twombly.

Buyers:
London-based collector Sammy Ofer bought Mark Rothko's No. 15, 1952, for $11,000,000 (est. $4,000,000-$6,000,000).

Lawrence Luhring of Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York, bought Cindy Sherman's Untitled (#87), 1981, for $123,500 (est. $100,000-$150,000) and Robert Gober's Drain, 1989, for $167,500 (est. $150,00-$200,000).

New York dealer James Cohan bought Jeff Koons' New Hoover Deluxe Shampoo Polishers, 1980, for $365,500 (est. $150,000-$200,000).

London dealer Anthony d'Offay bought Charles Ray's Untitled, 1973, for $189,500 (est. $90,000-$120,000) and Ray's Plank Piece I-II for $288,500 (est. $150,000-$200,000).

San Francisco dealer Anthony Meier bought Charles Ray's Rotating Circle, 1988, for $200,500 (est. $180,000-$220,000).

London dealer Anne Faggionato bought Dan Flavin's 'A Leaning Diagonal' of March 27, 1964 (To David Smith) for $112,500 (est. $100,000-$150,000).

Iwan Wirth of Hauser & Wirth, Zurich, bought Eva Hesse's Untitled (Three Nets) for $376,500 (est. $400,000-$600,000).

Swiss art advisor Simon de Pury bought Jasper Johns' Flag, 1959, for $1.76 million (est. $800,000-$1.2 million), a record for a Johns work on paper.

Athens-based collector Dimitri Daskalopolos bought Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, 1964, for $1.76 million (est. $1 million-$1.5 million).

Andrew Fabricant of Richard Gray Gallery's New York office bought Roy Lichtenstein's Duridium for $607,500 and Sam Francis' Towards Disappearance I, 1958, for $3.41 million (est. $1.5 million-$2 million).

Giancarlo Giometti, head of finance at Valentino (and who had Claudia Schiffer in his retinue) underbid on Andy Warhol's Liz, 1963, which sold for $1.98 million (est. $1.5 million-$2 million), and bought Jean-Michel Basquiat's Baptismal, 1982, for $1.43 million (est. $700,000-$900,000).

C&M Arts, New York, bought (for various clients) Mark Rothko's Untitled (Light Plum and Black), 1964, for $1.21 million (est. $800,000-$1.2 million) and Julian Schnabel's Maria Callas No. 4, 1982, for $321,500 (est. $200,000-$250,000).

Doris Ammann of Thomas Ammann Fine Arts, Zurich, bought Brice Marden's Black and White Painting, 1982, for $452,500 (est. $250,000-$350,000) and Sigmar Polke's Wo ist der Hirsch, 1983-4, for $332,500 (est. $300,000-$400,000).

Lucy Mitchell-Innes bought Roy Lichtenstein's Still Life with Sculpture for $2.75 million (est. $500,000-$700,000) and Eric Fischl's Time for Bed, 1981, for $783,500 (est. $300,000-$400,000).

New York dealer Jack Tilton bought Claes Oldenburg's Inverted Q A.P. I/II, 1976-1988, for $332,500 (est. $200,000-$300,000).

New York dealer Jill Weinberg bought Joan Mitchell's Your Boat, 1982, for $266,500 (est. $250,000-$350,000).

Larry Gagosian bought David Salle's Ugly Deaf Face, 1983, for $68,500 (est. $40,000-$60,000).

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

In an unrelated non-story, this is my last report on the evening sales, the internet gods willing. I'm going to be working for a dot-com company that I'll avoid naming out of a sense of propriety, and I don't think artnet.com would run an ad for eppraisals.com here anyway. I'll do some writing there, but it will be less about the high-end market and the trying but engaging task of sticking my nose in other people's business and more about the enjoyment of things. I'll miss talking professionally to the collectors, dealers and auction staffers who make up this slice of the market.

In a way I'm leaving at a bad time. The market feels like it's close to the middle of an incredible boom, one that will probably see a $100 million painting sell at auction, that will breed a new roster of young art stars (some of whom may survive with their reputations intact through some future recession), and that will help redistribute wealth, with older collectors cashing out as younger ones come into the market. It's sure to be intense and wild, dizzying and fraught.


ANDREW DECKER has been Artnet Magazine's art market correspondent.