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Art Market Watch
May 10, 2006 

$143 MILLION AT CHRISTIE'S CONTEMPORARY
Tulipmania! That one-word definition of irrational market exuberance came to mind during Christie's New York sale of post-war and contemporary art on the evening of May 9, 2006, as lot 25 came to the block. A galvanized metal box, roughly two feet square and six inches deep, covered with a blue plastic lid -- an untitled Donald Judd sculpture from 1985 -- the work carried a presale estimate of $300,000-$400,000, and followed the sale of two dozen similar boxes for similarly high prices. $300,000 for a shallow metal box? The mind reeled. But then auctioneer Christopher Burge knocked it down to a phone bidder for $450,000 ($531,200 with the auction-house premium), and the art world snapped back into focus.

Christie's unusually long sale of 91 lots -- 60 lots is a more typical number these days -- totaled $143,187,200, with 83 of 91 items finding buyers, or 88 percent. The length of the sale was due to the inclusion of 26 lots from the Donald Judd Foundation, which sold for a total of $24,468,800, with only one work failing to sell. The funds are earmarked to set up a new endowment for the foundation, which maintains Judd's home and studio building in SoHo and 16 more buildings, all installed with Judd works, in Marfa, Texas.

The high prices can be attributed to pent-up demand, as the foundation stopped supplying works to galleries -- Judd had showed with PaceWildenstein -- around six years ago. What's more, no sales tax is due on the Judd works, since they are sold by a tax-exempt organization. It should also be noted that the foundation did not, in all likelihood, have to pay a commission to Christie's for conducting the sale (the auction house earned its cut from the buyer's premium of 20 percent on the first $100,000 of sales prices and 12 percent on the remainder).

The Judd sale had its own lavishly illustrated, library-worthy catalogue, complete with a 1971 interview with the artist by John Coplans, essays by Rudi Fuchs and Frances Colpitt, and texts by Judd himself and his son, Flavin Judd. The plan to auction works from the foundation holdings prompted objections by some observers, who claimed that a better route would have been to place works carefully with select museums. But museums are notoriously slow to act, and understandably reluctant to pay top price.

Indeed, lot 6, a 1993 "stack" of six units in Douglas Fir plywood and colored Plexiglas, which was exhibited in the Judd retrospective at the Tate in 2004 -- actually, only five of the six units were installed at the museum, due to space limitations -- could have been purchased by a museum at the time for perhaps $500,000, according to an insider. There were no takers. Last night, the sculpture sold to a phone bidder for $2,704,000 (est. $2,000,000-$3,000,000).

Dealers and collectors sitting in the crowded auction room face competition from anonymous buyers on the telephone, whose bidding, in these days of huge fortunes, can seem relentless, giving them an undeniable competitive edge. Phone bidders won the majority of the Judd lots, with one client -- paddle number 1781, bidding through Christie's contemporary specialist Robert Manley -- apparently winning four Judd works. "There was talk that a consortium from Texas should be formed to buy a group of works," joked the artist's daughter, Rainer Judd, after the sale. "Maybe the Texans bought them!" According to the Baer Faxt, buyers of Judd works in the room included Swiss art dealer Doris Ammann, Hollywood producer and Dia Center trustee Stavros Merjos and Denver gallery owner Ginny Williams.

Art dealers in the auction room were more successful with the rest of the sale, winning the top three lots. The sale's high price was brought by Andy Warhol's Small Torn Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot) (1962), which sold for $11,776,000. It was being sold by the retired Pop Art dealer Irving Blum. The buyer was Larry Gagosian, bidding for California supercollector Eli Broad, who sat next to the art dealer with his wife, Edythe, and his curator, Joanne Heyler.

Willem de Kooning's broadly brushed, pink and yellow abstraction from 1961, Untitled, sold for $10,096,000 (est. $8,000,000-$12,000,000) to dealer Andrew Fabricant of the Richard Gray Gallery, and de Kooning's ca. 23 x 29 in. oil on paper, Two Women (Study for Clamdigger) (1961-62) -- compared, rather convincingly, to Peter Paul Rubens' Three Graces in the catalogue -- sold for $5,728,000 to L&M Arts.

The sale set new auction highs for ten artists: David Hockney ($3,600,000), Damien Hirst ($3,376,000), Brice Marden ($2,984,000), Lucio Fontana ($2,704,000), Eva Hesse ($2,256,000), Piero Manzoni ($1,920,000), Morris Louis ($1,808,000), Richard Prince ($1,360,000), Mike Kelley ($688,000) and Dirk Skreber ($496,600). New records for work on paper were set for Robert Rauschenberg ($1,360,000) and Alberto Giacometti ($1,584,000).

The room was filled with all the usual art-world players. Up near the front was collector Peter Brant, who arrived with wife Stephanie Seymour and their two children, and bought the record-breaking Mike Kelley work, according to auction-house observers. Real estate mogul Aby Rosen snagged a 1990 word-painting by Christopher Wool (reading "run dog eat dog") for $1,080,000, while Larry Gagosian beat out several bidders, including SoHo dealer Jeffrey Deitch, to win Jeff Koons' cast bronze Aqualung (1985) for $4,608,000 (est. $2,500,000-$3,500,000).

Hauser + Wirth gallery bought Eva Hesse's early (1965) painting, An Ear in a Pond (an exhibition of Hesse sculpture, including works from the same series, has just opened at the Jewish Museum) -- Hauser + Wirth handles the Hesse estate -- for a handsome $2,256,000 (est. $1,000,000-$1,500,000), and private dealer Neal Meltzer won a lively, graphic de Kooning painting from the Nelson Rockefeller collection, Asheville #1 (1948), for $1,584,000. Other winning bidders included Kim Heirston, Matthew Marks, Lucy Mitchell-Innes and Alberto Mugrabi.

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


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