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Art Market Watch
May 11, 2006 

The art market's new power couple is Dominique Lévy and Robert Mnuchin of L&M Arts -- that much became clear last night at the Sotheby's New York evening sale of contemporary art, May 10, 2006. Authoritative and coolly elegant, the two principals of the blue-chip gallery on East 78th Street (where "Willem de Kooning: Paintings 1975-1978" is on view, Apr. 20-June 3, 2006) sat on the aisle in the fifth row on the "dealer's side" of the vast auction room, alongside gallery staffers Robert Pincus-Witten and Meredith Harper, Lévy bidding with a firm, spare nod of her head, Mnuchin jumping bids and joking out loud to the auctioneer.

Lévy and Mnuchin were clearly having a good night. L&M Arts took the two top lots at the sale -- a 1975 Willem de Kooning abstraction and Roy Lichtenstein's large Sinking Sun (1964) -- and several others as well. It almost seemed as if Sotheby's could dispense with the entire auction rigmarole and just do business with L&M.

The auction totaled $128,752,000 (including premium), with 63 of the 66 lots finding buyers, or 95.4 percent. The top lot, de Kooning's Untitled XVI (1975), was sold to Mnuchin for $15,696,000, well above the presale high estimate of $8,500,000, after a long battle with another bidder in the room, reported by the Baer Faxt to be bicoastal art consultant Barbara Guggenheim, a partner in Guggenheim Asher Associates (and wife of entertainment attorney Bert Fields). Mnuchin could have been bidding for himself, or for a client -- the gallery is known to work with hedge-fund manager Steven Cohen, among other deep-pockets.

The de Kooning picture, though essentially abstract, can also be interpreted as a scene with three standing figures, and even a small red dog in the lower left corner of the canvas. Call it the "pooch factor."

The other top lot, Lichtenstein's lovely Sinking Sun (1964), also sold for $15,696,000, falling rather short of its ambitious presale estimate of $18,000,000-$22,000,000. A large (68 x 80 in.) and portentous image -- auctioneer Tobias Meyer had earlier suggested that the setting sun symbolized the decline of the West -- was being sold by New York art dealer Joe Helman. Bidding began at $12 million and ended at $14 million, with Lévy the winning -- and some thought only -- bidder for the picture.

L&M Arts also bought Christopher Wool's 1988 word painting, Helter Helter, for $1,416,000 (est. $1,200,000-$1,800,000), an auction record for the artist, and Jeff Koons' paean to newness, New Hoover Convertibles. . .  (1981-87), three vacuum cleaners and two floor waxers, lit by fluorescent lights and encased in a clear plastic box, for $5,615,750 (est. $2,500,000-$3,500,000).

Later in the sale, Lévy bought a 1984 Agnes Martin painting for $1,550,000 at the hammer -- making a horizontal hand motion to indicate to the auctioneer that she would raise the previous bid by half the usual increment, or $50,000. With premium, the price was $1,752,000 (est. $1,200,000-$1,600,000).

Lévy was also the underbidder on another top lot, Robert Ryman's untitled Minimalist painting from 1962, a thick scrum of white with bits of canvas peeking through. After a slow start, the painting sold at the end of a long battle to a relentless telephone bidder for $8.6 million at the hammer, or $9,648,000 with premium. "How about a 'wow'," Mnuchin proclaimed, prompting a smattering of applause. The price is about double the presale estimate and a new record for the artist, well above the previous Ryman auction record, which was $2.3 million.

In all, 11 new auction records were established, with some of the art market's younger favorites making an especially good showing. The third lot of the sale, Cecily Brown's explosive High Society (1997-98), which was debuted in 1998 in the artist's second exhibition at Deitch Projects in SoHo, was knocked down for $850,000, or $968,000 with the auction-house premium. In this regard, your correspondent hastens to refer you to Artnet Magazine's Weekend Update column of Feb. 15, 2005, where a $1 million price was predicted for Brown's paintings (then selling for about $100,000, if you could get one). Art collectors, are you listening?

The buyer of High Society was a bidder sitting way in the back of the room, unidentifiable by the press in its corral at the front; the seller, according to New York Times reporter Carol Vogel, was Maurice Saatchi.

The sale also set records for Andreas Gursky ($2,256,000), who now holds as well the record for a contemporary photo at auction; Lisa Yuskavage ($1,024,000) -- the seller was said to be the artist's former dealer, Marianne Boesky (Yuskavage is currently represented by David Zwirner); and John Chamberlain ($1,024,000), Mark di Suvero ($968,000), Sean Scully ($912,000), Blinky Palermo ($800,000), David Salle ($576,000) and Neo Rauch ($452,800).

Among the buyers in the room were Alberto Mugrabi, who snagged the Yuskavage and a Richard Prince joke painting; Andrew Fabricant of Richard Gray Gallery, who won the Chamberlain; Irving Blum, who bought Andy Warhol's 1981 Gun for $2,368,000; Aby Rosen, who purchased a Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981 paintstick drawing on paper, as if on a whim, for $688,000; Pierre Segalot, who bought Carl Andre's 1960 Posts on Threshold for $520,000; and Matthew Marks, who won the sale's second Robert Ryman painting for $2,032,000.

Diane Vanderlip, sitting in the front row on the auctioneer's left, bought three works -- a 1945 oil-on-paper by Clyfford Still for $1,080,000, the record-setting di Suvero sculpture and a Dan Flavin Monument for V. Tatlin (1969-70, in an edition of five) for $688,000. A longtime expert in Morris Louis and the Color Field painters, Vanderlip told a reporter for the New York Sun that she was buying for "a friend."

The Alexander Calder Flying Dragon mobile from 1975, which measures an impressive 30 x 56 x 22 ft., sold for $5,616,00 to a telephone bidder. The work had been purchased by the ExxonMobil Foundation from the Perls Gallery in New York in 1977.

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

Christie's day sale of post-war and contemporary art totaled $62.6 million, well above presale estimates. Of the 414 lots offered, 374 found buyers, or about 93 percent.

Eight artist's records were set in the morning session, with new highs for Pierre Soulages ($520,000), Christo ($464,000), Elmer Bischoff ($564,800), Victor Vasarely ($296,000), Harry Bertoia ($180,000) and Forrest Bess ($84,000), among others. In the afternoon session, new auction records were set for Yoshitomo Nara ($1,080,000), Sturtevant ($531,200), Robert Irwin ($441,600), Ross Bleckner ($192,000), Karen Kilimnik ($273,600) and 11 other artists.

Christie's total for post-war and contemporary this spring, which includes the Refco photo collection and the Mar. 16 "First Open" sale, is $224,789,800, which the house calls "the highest result ever for the field."

The three-part sale of the Refco Collection of 321 lots of contemporary photography at Christie's New York totaled $9,709,120, soaring above the presale high estimate by $3 million, with all but one of the lots selling. An incredible 50 new artist's records were set, according to Christie's, and buyers included the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, which snagged Andreas Gursky's Avenue of the Americas for $374,400.

New auction records were set for John Baldessari ($744,000), Thomas Demand ($262,400), Olafur Eliasson ($240,000), an Ed Ruscha photograph ($192,000), an Eva Hesse photograph ($186,000), Rodney Graham ($168,000), Adam Fuss ($90,000) and Gillian Wearing ($50,400), among others.

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