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May 14, 2008 

Art auctions are the Vampire Theater of Capital, where all-powerful but soulless Money seizes Esthetics in an iron embrace, draining it of blood only to endow it in turn with an otherworldly kind of eternal life. Ah, if only the actual sales had that kind of melodrama.

Christie’s New York auction of contemporary art on the evening of May 13, 2008, totaled $348,263,600, with 54 of 57 lots finding buyers, or 95 percent. Nine works sold for more than $10 million, almost everything (all but eight lots) sold for more than $1 million, and new auction records were set for eight artists (about which more below). One thing seems clear -- the top of the auction market is practically recession-proof.

That would seem to be true even in the U.S., despite our devaluing currency, as 70 percent of the lots were bought by U.S. clients, according to Christie’s.

The total was the second highest ever for this type of sale, exceeded only by Christie’s contemporary auction of one year ago. That sale totaled $385 million for 74 lots, setting new auction records for an incredible 26 artists, including Andy Warhol, whose Green Car Crash (1963) sold for $71.7 million.

Strictly speaking, then, the contemporary art auction market peaked in 2007, and this year’s result, however salutary, represents a pullback.  Of course, the sale was substantially smaller -- which can also be taken as a sign of belt tightening. But since the average lot sold for a higher price, it’s a pullback we can live with. I’m calling a market top, baby!

Nevertheless, the auction was notably free of drama, save for that of prices climbing inexorably upward. The top lot, Mark Rothko’s red and yellow No. 15 (1952) sold for $50,441,000 (est. $35 million) after a patient battle between two phone bidders who took the painting in million-dollar increments from an opening bid of about $26 million to a $45 million hammer.

The audience applauded the price, as if to encourage it for being so high, like parents complimenting a child for growing. The painting had last been purchased at Sotheby’s New York in the fall of 1999, almost 10 years ago, for a mere $11 million.

The second star lot, Lucian Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995), was actually brought out on the turntable, a relative rarity for such a large and expensive picture. It sold for $33,641,000, in the middle of its presale estimate of $25 million-$35 million. For the assembled spectators, the action consisted largely of watching Christie’s ace auctioneer Christopher Burge swivel his body as the bids ping-ponged from the telephone bank on one side of the room to the phone bank on the other.

The final price for the Freud work is a new auction record for a living artist, supplanting Jeff Koons ($23.6 million), who in turn supplanted Damien Hirst ($19.7 million), who had in turn supplanted Jasper Johns ($17.4 million). Once again, the audience applauded the result, this time as if lauding a statistic. The work was sold by Cannes-based collectors Guy and Marion Naggar, according to press reports.

(A few days after the sale, the Art Newspaper reported that the buyer of Freud’s record-setting painting was Roman Abramovich, the Russian oil-and-gas billionaire who lives in London, where he owns the Chelsea Football Club. Abramovich also bought Francis Bacon’s record-setting Triptych for $86.3 million at Sotheby’s on May 15, 2008.)

Other top lots included Andy Warhol’s Double Marlon (1966), which hit the block for $32,521,000 to an anonymous phone bidder; Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Self-Portrait (1976), which was knocked down for $28,041,000 to an anonymous phone bidder; and Jeff KoonsNew Hoover Convertibles (1981-86), which sold for $11,801,000 to an anonymous phone bidder.

And Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House in Palm Springs sold for $16,841,000 to an anonymous phone bidder.

New auction records were set for Tom Wesselmann ($6,761,000), Sam Francis ($5,193,000), and Richard Prince, whose Man-Crazy Nurse #2 (2002) sold for $7,433,000, about $1.4 million more than the last record-setting nurse painting by Prince, which sold only six months ago. The buyer this time around was New York dealer Christoph van der Weghe.

Records were also set for Robert Indiana, whose USA 666, the 6th American Dream (1964-66) sold for $1,833,000, and Barnett Newman, whose untitled 1969 "Stations of the Cross"-style ink-on-paper work sold for $5,193,000. The buyer of the Newman was New York art dealer Philippe Segalot.

Adolph Gottlieb’s Cool Blast (1960), which actually commemorates the Atom Bomb, sold for $6,537,000, a quantum leap for the Abstract Expressionist painter, whose work only recently broke the million-dollar mark. The buyer was certainly determined; Burge had the winning bid "on the book," and the other bidder in the room -- Daniella Luxembourg, according to the Baer Faxt -- just could not supersede it.

A final record price was set for Peter Halley, the pioneering 1980s "Neo-Geo" painter whose works have not appeared in an evening sale for some time. The presale estimate for Halley’s Dream Game (1994), a large (ca. 103 x 86 in.) gray, black, white and gold cell with conduits, was set at $90,000-$120,000, a cautious sum representing a modest advance over Halley’s retail price level. But the anonymous consignor’s "dream" came true, as the work was knocked down for $457,000, almost double the artist’s previous auction record.

Another 1980s art star, Susan Rothenberg, did less well, as her iconic two-panel painting of a galloping horse from 1975-76, titled Recoup, failed to sell. It carried a presale estimate of $2.5 million-$3.5 million.

Though much of the action was on the phones, all the usual players were in the room (including those mentioned above). Jose Mugrabi snagged Warhol’s Four Jackies (1964) for $4,297,000, and Larry Gagosian grabbed Mike Kelley’s Nativity Play (2004-05) for $301,000. Jeffrey Deitch won Carl Andre’s early Fir Crankshaft Exercise (1964) for $577,000 (it had sold in 1999 for $134,500). Manhattan dealer Chris Eykyn bought David Smith’s bronze Widow’s Lament (1942) for $2,393,000. And fashion designer Valentino won Joan Mitchell’s La Grande Vallée (1983) for $3,849,000 (it sold in 2004 for $1.2 million).

For a complete, illustrated listing, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report

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