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May 14, 2009 

Art dealers and auction-house employees alike were happy with the results of Christie’s New York sale of post-war and contemporary art on May 13, 2009. Of 54 lots offered, 49 sold, or 91 percent, for a total of $93,734,500 (with premium). Much of the success is due to the lots from the estate of Los Angeles collector Betty Freeman, some 19 works that made for a rather counterintuitive selection, with few knock-out Abstract-Expressionist or Pop lots, a quality that extended to the sale as a whole.

The success of the strategy -- and at the after-sale press conference, Christie’s contemporary art experts Amy Cappellazzo and Brett Gorvy were quick to claim it as a strategy -- seemed reflected in the new auction records set at the sale: David Hockney ($7,922,500), Claes Oldenburg ($2,210,500), Tony Smith ($842,500); Kerry James Marshall ($782,500), and Douglas Wheeler ($290,500). It was if these important artists had somehow been overlooked during the art boom of the past five years.  

Charting the art market simply based on Christie’s recent contemporary sales gives a rather less optimistic picture, however, as the direction continues to be down. Eighteen months ago, in November 2007, Christie’s total was $325 million, plus another $52 million from the separate sale of the Allan Stone collection; 12 months ago, in May 2008, it was $348 million; six months ago in November 2008, the total was $113.6 million.

With the current total of $93.7 million, any economic optimism felt by art-market observers would seem to be of the same sort as that fueling the current stock market rally -- the totals are still dropping, it’s just that the rate of fall has slowed.

But onto the drama in the salesroom -- not that there was much. A modicum of excitement came at the beginning of the auction, when both François Pinault and Steve Cohen were spotted peering down from a skybox.  After that, it was pretty much pro forma.

The record-setting Hockney work, Beverly Hills Housewife (1966-67), which sold more or less in the middle of its estimate for $7,922,500, went to a phone bidder. The sale’s number two lot, Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park No. 117 (1979), a dependable auction performer, went for $6,578,500 to a phone bidder.

The sale’s third highest price came for Roy Lichtenstein’s Frolic (1977), a Pop “surrealist” beach scene, which was estimated at $4,000,000-$6,000,000. It took some heavy lifting from auctioneer Christopher Burge just to get to the low estimate. Superdealer Larry Gagosian, who has shown Lichtenstein extensively, jumped in at $5.1 million, and then turned to his colleague in the next seat and gave a shrug. He won the lot at $5.3 million, or $6,018,500 with premium. 

Gagosian provided dependable support for his artists throughout the sale, also winning Richard Prince’s odd 2007 bronze cast of a basketball backboard and picnic table for $1,082,500, a Jackson Pollock paint spatter on paper for $506,500 and Lichtenstein’s Still Life with Cash Box (1996) for $1,986,500 -- a rather ominous icon, since the cash box is empty.

Other winning bidders in the room -- we always root for the bidders in the room -- included art consultant Kim Heirston, who bought Hans Hofmann’s large, colorful Wild Vine for $1,202,500, well above its presale high estimate of $800,000, and New York private dealer Todd Levin, former curator for hedge funder Adam Sender, who snagged Jean-Michel Basquiat’s primitive-holy Mater (1982) for $5,850,500, near the low presale estimate of $5,000,000.

Peter Doig’s exquisitely decorative Night Fishing (1993), a variation of his man-in-a-canoe image that was being sold by hedge funder Daniel Loeb, went for $4,674,500 to Victoria Gelfand, the young art dealer who has worked with Gagosian in Russia. And Claes Oldenburg’s seven-foot-tall bronze Typewriter Eraser, which sold for the record-setting $2,210,500 -- curiously, a smaller version had been on the block at Sotheby’s the night before -- was bought by Jonathan Binstock, the former Corcoran Gallery curator who now works for Citibank Art Advisory.

The auction house premium is 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the next $50,000 to $1 million, and 12 percent of the rest.

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

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