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Art Market Watch
Nov. 10, 2005 

Sotheby's New York's contemporary art sale on the evening of Nov. 9, 2005, totaled $114,494,400, with 48 of 54 lots finding buyers, or 89 percent. "It's the best contemporary art sale we've ever had," said auctioneer Tobias Meyer. 27 lots sold for over $1 million, and 21 sold for over their presale high estimates. The total compares to the $157 million notched for a rather larger auction of 70 lots at Christie's the evening before.

Top lot was David Smith's Cubi XXVIII (1965), a polished stainless steel "gate" sculpture, which was installed by the auctioneer's podium at the front of the crowded auction room and sold for $23,816,000, almost double its presale high estimate of $12 million. The price is not only a new auction record for Smith, but a record for any work of contemporary art, making it the most expensive artwork sold at auction this fall, eclipsing even Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's La blanchisseuse (1886-87), sold for $22.4 million at Christie's on Nov. 1, 2005.

Five different bidders -- all U.S. -- vied for the sculpture, one of the last available works from a series considered to be pivotal in the history of 20th-century American art. The bidding began at $7 million, with the action on the phones, manned by Sotheby's new contemporary specialist Anthony Grant and Sotheby's Impressionist art expert Charles Moffett. A third phone bidder entered the fray at $12,750,000, as Meyer moved the auction upwards in $250,000 jumps, with the five-second space between bids seeming like an eternity.

Then the action moved resolutely into the room, as Dominique Levy of L&M Arts and dealer Larry Gagosian, both on the aisle, sitting only a few seats apart, fought it out until the price reached $21 million. Gagosian shook his head, consulted with his younger blonde companion, and then placed the winning bid of $21,250,000. Now, about the client. . . .

The sculpture has been on view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth since 1984, on loan from Fort Worth's Sid W. Richardson Foundation. In a statement, foundation president Edward P. Bass noted that the Smith was "not in keeping with the foundation's core collection," a group of 60 paintings by Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell and other western artists, and added that the Richardson Foundation is in the middle of a renovation and expansion, due to be completed in July 2006.

Other top lots included two paintings by Cy Twombly, the successive sale of which broke the auction record for the artist ($5.6 million) twice in a row. First up was Untitled (Rome) (1961), a pink and pale orange abstraction whose abraded surface suggests ancient stucco, which sold for $7,968,000, and second was Untitled (New York City) (1968), one of the artist's emblematic "chalkboard" abstractions, which sold for $8,696,000.

The latter sold to an anonymous bidder on the phone with Sotheby's vice chairman Jamie Niven; the former went to Larry Gagosian (who held the auctioneer with an unwavering gaze, and bid in this case not by nodding but by speaking the bid sotto voce).

Gagosian also won lot 37, Ed Ruscha's 1987 silhouette painting You and Your Neighbors, for $576,000, and lot 49, Jeff Koons' Encased - Two Rows, a Brancusi-like pair of matched columns of boxed basketballs, for $352,000.

Four works by Alexander Calder were offered in the sale, and did very well. A 22-inch tall maquette for the 1944 stabile, The Haverford Monster, Calder's earliest outdoor sculpture, sold for $1,472,000, well above its presale high estimate of $800,000. Sotheby's sold a seven-foot-tall version of the work for $1,080,500 in 1994. Two Calder mobiles being sold by the family of Ben Shahn, Aux Shahn (1967) and Untitled (ca. 1955), sold for $1,248,000 and $665,600, respectively (Aux Shahn was bought by Chelsea dealer Christophe van de Weghe). And last but not least, Calder's shiny brass mobile, Brass in the Sky (1947), being sold by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago -- is Calder no longer hip enough for the avant-garde MCA? -- went for $2,424,000, about double its presale high estimate. The buyer was Henry Zimet of French & Co., a New York gallery perhaps better known for its Old Masters.

Auction records were also set for Louise Bourgeois ($3,040,000), Vija Celmins ($576,000), Hiroshi Sugimoto ($744,000) (though admittedly for a suite of seven photographs) and Francis Alÿs ($632,000).

Among the bidders were Miami real estate developer Martin Margulies, who runs his own museum in his hometown, called the Margulies Collection at the Warehouse. He won Warhol's handsome Pop endless column -- a 1964 stack of five ersatz boxes of ketchup, cornflakes and Brillo soap pads. The $1,248,000 price, in the middle of its presale estimate, is an auction record for a Warhol sculpture.

Other active players included Kevin Moore of Thea Westreich Art Advisory, Inc., who bought the Sugimoto; real estate developer Aby Rosen, who purchased Richard Prince's 2003 Mountain Nurse painting for $744,000; his partner Harry Lis, who won Andy Warhol's Nine Blue Marilyns (1979) for $2,480,000. Art consultant Kim Heirston was the winning bidder for Jeff Koons' purple Donkey mirror from 1999, paying $464,000 -- after Jose Mugrabi threw in a bid as he was walking down the aisle on his way out of the room. "Enjoy your dinner, sir," said auctioneer Tobias Meyer.

The final lot, David Salle's Ashton (1992), a large painting dominated by a portrait of a sour-looking fop with pursed lips, sold for $352,000 to collector Phil Schrager. Perhaps the market for works by the prototypical 1980s artist, who has concurrent exhibitions now on view at Mary Boone Gallery and is showing with Deitch Projects at Art Basel Miami Beach, is on the way up.

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet's signature Fine Art Auction Report.