Maybe it's just me but it seems like the contemporary art market is coming undone. The main evidence here is the Christie's Nov. 16 contemporary art auction, the one with the Jeff Koons Pink Panther on the cover of the catalogue. It sold for $1.82 million, more than a tad above the previous record of $409,000 for a work by Koons. But given the current market, it was a steal.
I thought it would bring a shade over $2 million. Christie's contemporary specialist Philippe Ségalot added the perfect touch of canned kitsch to the moment. After the panther and the idealized babe in his embrace were hammered down, he made a show of "presenting" a small bouquet of long-stemmed roses to the porcelain pair, as some members of the audience gasped, "Oohh" and "Aahh." Looney tunes.
The sale also elevated Chuck Close to million-dollar status. Close is hardly a new artist, but he's largely been overlooked at auction. His appeal has broadened thanks to a traveling retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art last year. Christie's cashed in on Close's new standing as one of the greatest living painters by offering Cindy II, which fetched $1.2 million (est. $600,000-$800,000), nearly three times the previous record of $431,500 for a Close.
Christie's trick, ever since it redefined its contemporary category as "1970 and after," has been to come up with a handful of artists per auction whose works had never been offered to the glamorous set who attend the evening sales. By getting a critical mass of fresh art, and presenting it to a high-roller crowd, the firm has been cashing in.
For instance, German cult artist Martin Kippenberger's Untitled (1988) brought $717,500 against an estimate of $40,000-$60,000, and his previous auction record had been all of $19,090. Yet there was Swiss art advisor Simon de Pury bidding away above the $500,000 level and then a final slow, seemingly endless duel between two Christie's reps taking phone bids. Auctioneer Christopher Burge brought the hammer down at $650,000 just as the underbidder called for a bid again. "Too late," Burge said. "It has to stop somewhere."
Christie's beautifully set up the sale of a drawing by Charles Ray. First came a perfectly nice Roy Lichtenstein 1995 benday dot work, Nude with Street Scene Painting (1995), that fetched $288,500 (est. $150,000-$200,000) Then came Ray's Untitled (1991) showing Superman having just bust through a bedroom wall, grabbing the front of a guy's pajamas and demanding, "WHO THE FUCK IS ROY LICHTENSTEIN?!?!" It was conceived but not drawn by Ray and sold for $189,500 (est. $35,000-$45,000). New York dealer Lucy Mitchell-Inness gave up on it at $80,000, London dealer Anthony d'Offay chased it to around $95,000 and it was fought over by two phone bidders from then on.
Yet Christie's proved that it can miscalculate and overreach, even in this market, as it did with Jean-Michel Basquiat's Revised Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta (1983). Christie's had made history with the Basquiat market when it hammered down a Self-Portrait (1982) for $3.3 million a year ago. The buyer was Philip Niarchos, and the underbidder a man who had no business being in the salesroom and who also "bought" three other paintings that he never paid for. When it became clear that he couldn't pay, Christie's called Niarchos and said they had a problem -- the guy who had bid Niarchos up on the Basquiat Self-Portrait from somewhere around $1.5 million to $3 million was a fraud. They supposedly renegotiated the sales price down to around $2 million, according to one reliable source, or to around $3 million, according to a source at Christie's. (I mistakenly reported in the New York Observer that it was Niarchos who first suspected the bogus bidder, but it was actually Christie's who originally informed Niarchos about the fiasco.)
The Basquiat market then took off, and now, a year later, Christie's pushed the estimate on this B level painting to an A level pre-sale estimate of $800,000-$1.2 million. Bidding opened at $450,000, auctioneer Christopher Burge walked it up to $600,000, and hammered the painting down unsold. No ooohhs and aaahs this time -- it wasn't the painting's fault that it didn't merit the beefy estimate. Instead, New York dealer Anthony Grant clapped his hands, the first time in memory that a painting was applauded for going unsold.
Overall, the auction was a blast to watch -- bidders jumping in all over the place, records falling right and left. In fact, 18 of the 56 works sold broke records. The Christie's contemporary sales are coming to feel like John McEnroe's tennis matches of the early '80s. Back then, McEnroe's bad behavior helped tennis fans get in touch with their spleens. What had been a decorous sport sometimes lapsed into a Christians and lions spectacle. (The serve and volley star turned dealer was at the auction, wearing a baseball cap.)
"This is disgusting," growled a serious, value-conscious collector as he watched the end of the auction. He's resigned himself to sitting out the contemporary market's current climb. In the Christie's salesroom, he was among the Luddites. He may turn out to be a wise man in four years, should Koons become no more saleable at $700,000 than '80s stars like Anselm Kiefer or Julian Schnabel are today, but for the moment, Christie's has tapped into a passion that is redefining the market.
Sale totaled $13,242,600 (presale est. $9,230,000-$12,895,000), 93 percent sold by dollar, 60 lots offered, 56 sold, 4 unsold, 90 percent sold by lot.
Anthony d'Offay, London, bought Gerhard Richter's Gilbert, George (381-1,2), 1975, for $431,500 ( est. $300,000-$400,000), Andy Warhol's Portrait of Joseph Beuys, 1980, for $166,500 (est. $120,000-$150,000), Gerhard Richter's Junge Frau (bunt), 1965, for $640,500 (est. $500,000-$700,000) and Jeff Koons' Winter Bears, 1988, for $486,500 (est. $400,000-$600,000).
PaceWildenstein, New York, bought Joel Shapiro's Untitled, 1995, for $211,500 (est. $250,000-$300,000) and Untitled, 1987-88, for $200,500 (est. $200,000-$300,000).
Iwan Wirth of Wirth & Hauser, Zurich, bought Luc Tuymans' Maria, 1987, for $57,500 (est. $30,000-$40,000).
Lucy Mitchell-Innes of Mitchell-Innes + Nash, New York, bought Cindy Sherman's Untitled (Film Still #54), 1980, for $112,500 (est. $80,000-$120,000).
Gustavo and Patricia Cisneros bought Jac Leirner's To and From (MOMA Oxford), 1991, for $41,400 (est. $35,000-$45,000) and Gertrudis Goldsmidt Gego's Corniza II, No. 88/37, 1988, for $118,000
Angela Westwater of Sperone Westwater, New York, bought Guillermo Kuitca's Corona de espinas (Kindertotenlieder), for $79,500 (est. $60,000-$80,000).
Roberto Shorto of 11 Duke Street Ltd., London, bought Andreas Gursky's Untitled IV (Prada I), 1996, for $173,500 (est. $40,000-$60,000).
Simon de Pury, of de Pury and Luxembourg, Basel, bought Rosemarie Trockel's Gewohnheistier 2 (Reh), 1990, for $85,000 (est. $50,000-$70,000), Damien Hirst's Alone yet Together, 1993, for $277,500 (est. $180,000-$250,000) and Damien Hirst's Loss of Memory is Worse than Death, 1994, for $188,500 (est. $120,000-$180,000).
Anthony Grant, of Grant & Selwyn, New York, bought Richard Serra's Untitled, 1987, for $55,200 (est. $40,000-$60,000).
Barbara Gladstone of Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York, bought John Baldessari's Brutus Killed Caesar, 1976, for $68,500 (est. $60,000-$80,000)
Stellan Holm, New York, bought Cindy Sherman's Untitled #70, 1980, for $66,300 (est. $60,000-$80,000).
Giancarlo Giametti, CFO of Valentino, New York, bought Christopher Wool's Untitled (P103), 1989, (which says "INSOMNIAC") for $233,500 (est. $100,00-$150,000).
Jose Mugrabi, New York, bought Damien Hirst's My Way, 1990-1991, for $354,500 (est. $250,000-$350,000).