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Francis Bacon
Seated Figure on Couch
Bought in at $1.78 million.

Roy Lichtenstein
Forest Scene
$2.09 million

Alexander Calder
Crag with Flat Top

Andy Warhol
Four Foot Flowers

Andy Warhol
Nine Multicolored Marilyns (Reversal Series)

Richard Diebenkorn

Roy Lichtenstein
The Memory Haunts My Reverie

Cindy Sherman
Untitled Film Still, #48

Willem de Kooning
$15.6 million

Roy Lichtenstein
$3.96 Million
a tale of
two cities:
new york 
contemporary sales
by Judd Tully
The evening contemporary sales in New York 
this week resembled a tale of two cities. 
Sotheby's so-so $11.2 million performance 
on Nov. 19 exited with a 29 percent buy-in 
rate and was similar to a number of less-
than-stellar evening sales since the market 
downturn in late 1990. In fact, it was the 
lowest tally of the '90s. That's not a big 
surprise since the property, aside from a 
handful of significant exceptions, was 
nothing to write home about. Still, 32 of 
the 42 lots that found buyers fell within 
or exceeded their pre-sale estimates. 
Given those somewhat plain parameters, the 
sale came close to matching its $13.7 
million pre-sale low estimate. It would 
have looked much stronger if the evening's 
most expensive lot, Francis Bacon's twisted 
Seated Figure on a Couch(1962) (est. $2 
million-$2.5 million) had sold. But it 
bombed at $1.78 million, apparently one bid 
shy of its secret reserve. Considering the 
picture had been shopped around and was 
owned by a well-known European dealer, its 
spurning was a surprisingly close call. 

The top lot turned out to be Forest Scene, Roy Lichtenstein's German Expressionist re- do of Franz Marc's 1911 Blue Horses. The billboard-sized painting made $2.09 million (est. $1.8 million-$2.2 million) and sold to an anonymous telephone bidder. West Coast collector Eli Broad was--in uncharacteristic fashion--the underbidder at $1.85 million. The passion just wasn't there. In any case, the landscape became the fifth highest price for a Lichtenstein at auction.

Great prices were achieved for Alexander Calder and Andy Warhol. And there were plenty to go round as Crag with Flat Top, Calder's standing mobile from 1974, made $332,500 (est. $200,000-$250,000) and Four- Foot Flowers, Warhol's hothouse silkscreen from the recently assembled collection of Californian Donald J. Christal, realized $519,500 (est. $350,000-450,000). Nine Multicolored Marilyns (Reversal Series), hailing from another consignor, hit $376,500 (est. $350,000-$450,000). It last sold at auction in May 1995 at Christie's New York for $585,500. Hey, everything is relative.

In the eye-brow raising category, Poppies, Richard Diebenkorn's large-scale still life from 1963, sold for a fragrant $497,500 (est. $200,000-250,000) to San Francisco dealer John Berggruen.

It was an evening of contrasts. Richard Artschwager batted zero as two of his building paintings from the mid-'60s crashed at $38,000 each. Eva Hesse's superb ink wash with charcoal drawing from 1966 made a record $118,000, $5,500 more than Lichtenstein's circa 1965 drawing, The Memory Haunts My Reverie.

Cindy Sherman made an auspicious evening sale debut with her hitchhiking Untitled Film Still, #48 selling for a record $66,300 to SoHo dealer Jack Tilton. It was deaccessioned by the Museum of Modern Art as a duplicate image, stemming from MoMA's giant acquisition of Sherman's entire series early this year.

Twenty-four hours later, Christie's rang up a remarkable $33.9 million sale and shook off the stubborn shadow of the recession. In less than 90 minutes, the contemporary market came up-to-par with the steadier gains made in the Impressionist and modern arena.

Willem de Kooning's Woman was the standout star of the evening. The painterly icon of the Post-War Abstract Expressionist epoch fetched a whopping $15.6 million and was the first time since November 1989 that a contemporary picture shattered the $10 million mark. The painting is the most expensive work of art to sell in any category at auction in 1996. It surpassed last week's highs set at Christie's for two Monets,The Artist's Garden in Vetheuil and Nympheas which brought identical $13.2 million prices.

The price is second only to the record $20.68 million set in Nov. 1989 for Interchange, de Kooning's 1955 masterpiece. (Only Jasper Johns' False Start, which sold at Sotheby's New York in Nov. 1988 for $17.05 million, exceeds Woman.) Until Wednesday evening, there hadn't been such a high-profile property to test the market's strength. It was a stunning and instant reversal for the laggardly rake's progress of the contemporary market.

The 1949 canvas of a flaming orange-haired Madonna figure, admiring her curvy profile in a misty mirror, was first acquired by direct marketing mogul Boris Leavitt in 1955 from the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York for $2,500. Mr. Leavitt, who died last June in West Palm Beach Florida at age 91, had the painting and 32 others on long-term loan to Washington's National Gallery of Art. Last August when the estate closed it's deal with Christie's to sell his trove, the art works were removed from the museum. (Given the recent deaccession by the Shelburne Museum in Vermont of five masterworks, it hasn't been a jolly season for museums). The 13 Leavitt works realized $18.8 million, $6.2 million over its high estimate.

Woman soared over the unpublished $8 million-$10 million pre-sale estimate and sold to an anonymous telephone bidder, beating out Robert Mnuchin of New York's C & M Arts, who was bidding on behalf of a private client. Bidding for the picture opened at $4.5 million and proceeded slowly in a tense salesroom at $500,000 increases. The pace quickened at the $6 million mark. One American private bidder dropped out at $10 million, leaving the contest to Mnuchin and the telephone, manned by Christie's veteran expert Martha Baer. At $13.75 million the bidding scaled back to $250,000 increments. Finally, Mnuchin shook his head after Baer's $14.2 million bid and the standing room only crowd broke into delirious applause.

Even pictures familiar to the market, went like gangbusters, such as Tex, Roy Lichtenstein's war comic strip panel from 1962 that sold to an anonymous telephone bidder at a huge $3.96 million (est. $2.5 million-$3 million). London dealer Anthony D'Offay was the underbidder, apparently bidding on behalf of an unnamed American institution.

Auctioneer Christopher Burge practically laughed through the sale, quipping after Wayne Thiebaud's Drink Syrups became the first casualty at lot #36, "finally." Only eight of the 61 lots failed to find buyers. Of the 53 that sold, 24 exceeded their high estimates.

It was a night to remember.

JUDD TULLY covers the international art market for a variety of publications, ranging from Art & Auction to The Washington Post.