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Nov. 14, 2007 

Auction records weren’t just broken, they were doubled and more at Christie’s New York evening sale of post-war and contemporary art on Nov. 13, 2007. Works by Gerhard Richter, Ed Ruscha, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, Rudolf Stingel and Fred Tomaselli soared past their previous record levels to sell for two times as much or even more. "A thrilling evening," said Christie’s chief auctioneer Christopher Burge at the post-sale press conference. But then he’s been saying that for years.

The salesroom was as crowded as it’s ever been. Among the high-profile attendees were Michael Ovitz ("just keeping an eye on things," said a friend) and the designer Marc Jacobs (with blue-dyed hair).

The sale totaled $325,006,000, with 62 of 67 lots finding buyers, or 93 percent. Fifty-one lots sold for over $1 million. About half of the winning bidders were from the U.S. and a quarter from Europe, according to Burge. "The weak dollar is helping overseas buyers," Burge remarked, "but not worrying American buyers." Prices given here include the auction house premium of 25 percent of the first $20,000, 20 percent of the remainder up to $500,000, and 12 percent of the rest.

The "Turquoise Liz," the much-ballyhooed Andy Warhol portrait of Liz Taylor from 1963, sold for $23,561,000, rather less than the presale low estimate of $25 million, but a pretty sum nonetheless. Burge made short work of it, starting the lot at $14 million and quickly running the bidding up in $500,000 increments to a hammer price of $21 million. The buyer was on the phone. As almost everyone knows, the actor Hugh Grant had purchased the painting for $3.6 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2001.

The auction’s other star lot was Jeff Koons’ six-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture of a blue diamond that was conceived in 1994 as part of the "Celebration" series, honoring a child’s view of the world. Diamond (Blue) was finally fabricated two years ago and sold to its current owner for about $3.5 million by Gagosian Gallery. Christie’s auctioned the work last night for $11,801,000, only in the mid-range of its presale estimate but still a new auction record for the artist. The winning bidder was Koons’ dealer, Larry Gagosian.

The sale included four works by Mark Rothko. Untitled (Red, Blue, Orange) (1955), a large (ca. 67 x 50 in.) painting that the catalogue called "warm and joyous," was the auction’s top lot, selling for $34,201,000 to a phone bidder, above the presale high estimate of $30,000,000. In esthetic contrast, the somber and austere Untitled (Black and Gray) (1969), done in acrylic, sold for $10,681,000, also to a phone bidder.

In 2004, Richard Prince unveiled his "Nurse" paintings at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York at prices that reportedly ranged from $45,000 to $85,000. These pictures seem to have become favorites of market players -- more than 10 works from the series have appeared at auction since 2005 (and one is used, sans irony, on the cover of the current New Republic magazine, illustrating a special issue on "the health care crisis").

At Christie’s, Piney Woods Nurse (2002) sold for $6,089,000, after a rather heated bidding war, to London dealer Jay Jopling. A new record for the artist (the previous record was $2,840,000 for a 2001 color photography of a cowboy with a lariat), the price puts Prince well ahead of his peers in the auction sweepstakes.

Sellers included the Art Institute of Chicago, which unloaded a 1957 Joan Mitchell abstraction, Ste. Hilaire, for $3,849,000, above the presale high estimate of $3 million. Chicago super-collectors Susan and Lewis Manilow were also selling, consigning Richter’s blurry portrait of a speeding jet plane, Düsenjäger (1963), which they had acquired from Gladstone Gallery. Reflecting our martial times (or perhaps not), it sold for $11,241,000 to a phone bidder, a new record for the artist. 

Among the other successful bidders spotted in the room were New York dealers Leo Koening, who snagged Richard Artschwager’s 1969 celotex image of a Woman on Swing for $993,000; Christoph van de Weghe, who purchased Frank Stella’s Carl Andre (1963), a striped parallelogram in metallic paint, for $3,961,000; and David Zwirner, who won Thomas Struth’s panoramic 1992 photograph of the interior of the Pantheon in Rome for $1,049,000 (one of an edition of 10), a new record for the artist.

In addition to winning Koons’ blue diamond, Larry Gagosian also got Ed Ruscha’s Burning Gas Station (1965-66) for $6,985,000, a new auction record for the artist.

Manhattan dealer David McKee won Martin Puryear’s 1982 ring-like wall sculpture, Thylacine, a work named after the extinct Tasmanian tiger, for $713,000. McKee’s gallery at 745 Fifth Avenue is currently presenting "Early Signs: Vija Celmins, Martin Puryear, Daisy Youngblood," Nov. 10-Dec. 21, 2007.

Another active bidder was London jeweler Laurence Graff, an avid art collector, who won Warhol’s silver Elvis 2 Times (1963) for $15,721,000, according to observers in the room, as well as Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 painting of Sugar Ray Robinson for $7,321,000. Graff also helped run up the price of Warhol’s 40 x 40 in., 1978 portrait of Muhammad Ali, which was estimated at $2 million-$3 million but finally sold to a phone bidder for $9,225,000.

In addition to winning the record-setting Prince nurse painting, Jay Jopling also bought Damien Hirst’s 2003 cabinet portrait of Judas Iscariot -- his gallery, White Cube, exhibited it in 2003 -- for $993,000, and Liza Lou’s bead-covered nude Self-Portrait from 2000 for $337,000, a record for the artist. 

Among the most active players at the auctions are Robert Mnuchin and Dominique Levy, who are partners in L&M Arts on East 78th Street. Both were bidding -- at times it seemed they were bidding against each other -- but suffice it to say that between them they won de Kooning’s Untitled XVII (1977) for $7,321,000, de Kooning’s Untitled XXIII (1977) for $19,821,000, Joan Mitchell’s Atlantic Side (1960) for $5,081,000, and Warhol’s Ambulance Disaster (ca. 1963) for $825,000. At present, L&M Arts is featuring an exhibition of de Kooning paintings dating 1981-86.

Other new auction records were set for Lucian Freud ($19,361,000), Zhang Xiaogang ($3,961,000), On Kawara ($2,393,000), Yoshitomo Nara ($1,497,000), Rudolph Stingel ($1,217,000) and Fred Tomaselli ($937,000).

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

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