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Nov. 13, 2008 


Christie’s New York sale of contemporary art on the evening of Nov. 12, 2008, totaled $98,480,000 ($113, 627,500 with premium), with 51 of 75 lots finding buyers, or 68 percent. Although several new auction records were set (see below), as a rule the hammer price of sold lots was less than the presale low estimate. Overall, the sale came in at about half of its total presale low estimate of $227 million.

The total for the current auction compares unfavorably to Christie’s 2007 fall contemporary sale, which amounted to $325 million, and to Sotheby’s New York sale last night, Nov. 11, which totaled $125 million. It’s been awhile since Sotheby’s has had the lead in this category.

Buyer breakdown was 60 percent American, 18 percent European and Russian, zero percent Asian and 24 percent "other," leading Sotheby’s auction expert Amy Cappallazzo to proclaim that "America is back and strong." As for the large percentage of "other" buyers, Christie’s is vague -- perhaps they include international fugitives, space aliens and Ernst Stavro Blofeld, or simply clients who insist on total anonymity.

The sale itself was crowded, with people and with lots, and seemed long, lasting just under two hours. Auctioneer Christopher Burge was noticeably suffering from nasal congestion (if Burge catches a cold, does the sale get pneumonia?), but pursued every last bid nevertheless, which eats up the minutes.

Further bogging down the proceedings in the middle of the sale was the auction of 16 recently acquired drawings owned by Museum of Modern Art trustee Kathy Fuld, wife of disgraced Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld. The total for the collection, which included drawings by Arshile Gorky, Barnett Newman, Agnes Martin and Willem de Kooning, was $13,552,500 (with premium), rather less than the secret guarantee, which has been put variously at $14 million and $20 million.

Though dubbed "Master Drawings of American Post-War Art: A Private Collection," the callow nature of the undertaking is revealed in its quick turnaround. Gorky’s Study for Agony I (1946-47), for instance, is a preparatory drawing for a painting now at MoMA. Fuld bought it at auction in 1996 for $370,000 at the hammer, and sold it this time around for $1.9 million ($2,210,500), making a nice profit, even if the auction house may not have. The buyer was New York dealer Matthew Marks, who also won several other drawings from the Fuld collection.

Less profitable was the resale of an untitled Barnett Newman ink-on-paper "zip" that had been purchased more recently: at Christie’s New York in May 2007, for $2,760,000 (with premium). This time around, it sold to a phone bidder for $2.6 million ($2,994,500). Other works in the Fuld collection were bought from Gagosian Gallery and L&M Arts in New York, and Anthony Meier in San Francisco. Larry Gagosian himself was not in the salesroom; speculation in the press queue had him with Fuld in one of Christie’s skyboxes -- though no one actually spotted them.

As for the major lots, the bad news first. Francis Bacon’s Study for Self-Portrait (1964), estimated at $40 million, drew hardly a bid, as did Brice Marden’s loopy oil painting, Attendant 5 (1996-97), estimated at $10 million-$15 million. Other works that failed to sell included a Gerhard Richter abstraktes bild (est. $10 million-$15 million), Peter Doig’s Pine House (est. $4.5 million-$6.5 million), Georg BaselitzEin Grüner (est. $4 million-$6 million), Roy Lichtenstein’s Two Nudes (est. $3.5 million-$4.5 million) and Mark Tansey’s classic 1980s-era painting, Modern/Post-Modern from 1981 ($600,000-$800,000).

A small (40 x 16 in.) Andy Warhol double Jackie failed to sell (est. $1.8 million-$2.2 million) as did a tiny (26 x 22 in.) Mao (est. $4.5 million-$6.5 million) and an even smaller (24 x 24 in.) image of four poppies (est. $2 million-$3 million). This last work had the flowers in black, making the picture look either unfinished or like anti-matter, depending on your mindset. "The weakest group of Warhols I’ve ever seen in an evening sale," said Richard Polsky, author of I Bought Andy Warhol (Bloomsbury). 

The top lot was Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (710) from 1989, which was acquired from Marian Goodman Gallery and compared in the auction catalogue to Max Ernst’s frottage paintings. It sold for $14,866,500 to a phone bidder, somewhat more than its presale estimate of $13 million. The painting carried an undisclosed guarantee.

Another top lot was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s oversized (74 x 96 in.) painting of a triumphant boxer that was being sold by Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. Though tracing its provenance to the late dealer Vrej Baghoomian, who had been embroiled in a Basquiat forgery controversy, this picture nevertheless sold for $12 million ($13,522,500 with premium) to a phone bidder.

In the catalogue, the work was impressively compared to photographs of Muhammad Ali in the ring, the U.S. sprinters giving the Black Power salute at the Mexico City Olympic Games, a ca. 1807 drawing of a slave being whipped, an Egon Schiele self-portrait as St. Sebastian, and Mattias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. The picture had a presale estimate of about $12 million, and did not carry a guarantee.

The auction did have its moments of theater and, in its small way, of comedy -- supplied by the irrepressible Robert Mnuchin, a principal of L&M Arts. During a long bidding duel over Yayoi Kusama’s early, rare and large (72 x 108 in.) white "infinity net" drawing, No. 2 (1959), which was once owned by Donald Judd, Mnuchin and New York dealer Philippe Segalot fought it out, in $100,000 increments, from around $3 million at the start to the winning bid of $5.1 million ($5,794,500 with premium).  

Both men were on cell phones. Early in the bidding, Mnuchin disrupted the usual even back-and-forth by shouting out his next bid, jumping a level to $3.5 million, and then, to indicate $3.8 million, held up eight fingers in what could be called an interesting configuration. "Surprise me sir," said the auctioneer.

The bidding and the banter continued -- with Segalot bidding more conventionally by raising his index finger -- until Segalot lost his cell line, leading to a pause after Mnuchin had bid $5 million. Burge kept taking, proclaiming "reconnected!" when Segalot bid $5.1 million, winning the lot, as Mnuchin shook his head and punned, "I’ve lost it!" The price is a new auction record for Kusama.

The other interesting bidding battle came two lots earlier, when several bidders fought it out for Joseph Cornell’s Pharmacy (1943), a wooden shelf construction containing 20 vials, each filled with romantic flotsam -- a butterfly wing, a shell, a picture. Clearly predictive of Damien Hirst’s own "Pharmacy" series, the Cornell had belonged to Teeny Duchamp, and carried a presale estimate of $1.5 million-$2 million. It sold for $3.3 million ($3,778,500 with premium), a new auction record for Cornell. The buyer was identified by the Baer Faxt as Daniel Varenne, an art dealer with a gallery in Geneva.

Other buyers of note included Giancarlo Giammetti, Valentino’s business partner (the maestro himself was absent), who bought Richard Prince’s Lake Resort Nurse (2003) for $2.9 million ($330,500 with premium, well below the presale low estimate of $5 million).

Philippe Segalot and Franck Giraud, who are partners in GPS Partners, Inc., an art dealership with addresses in Paris and on East 70th Street in Manhattan, were big players in the sale. In addition to the record-setting Kusama, they bought Takashi Murakami’s sculpture of DOB in the Strange Forest (Red DOB) (1999) for $3 million ($3,442,500, against a presale low estimate of $5 million) and Robert Irwin’s untitled orange canvas from 1963-64 for $880,000 ($1,058,500, with premium, within the presale estimate of $700,000-$1,000,000), a new auction record for the artist. They also bought an Agnes Martin painting for $1,202,500.

New York art consultant Stefano Basilico won Arshile Gorky’s untitled drawing, Study for Betrothal (1946) for $266,500, and Ed Ruscha’s Hollywood Study #4 (1968) for $722,500. Jose Mugrabi bought the very first lot in the sale, Tom Wesselman’s Study for Great American Nude #20 (1961) for $986,500 (est. $600,000-$800,000).

The buyer’s premium is 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of any amount up to $1 million, and 12 percent on anything above that

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

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