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May 15, 2008 

Say one thing about the record-setting auction of 83 lots of contemporary art at Sotheby’s New York on the evening of May 14, 2008 -- it was l-o-n-g. But no matter. Ever since the original Rambo movie in 1982, like the film’s hero John Rambo, your correspondent has been "trained to ignore pain." Long? That sale wasn’t long. Make it longer. One hundred lots, 120 lots, go ahead, it’s all the same to me.

Sotheby’s contemporary sale totaled $362,037,000, with 73 of 83 lots finding buyers, or 88 percent. "Our best sale ever," said auctioneer Tobias Meyer in the post-auction press conference, "with the highest total ever in our 264-year history." The total even exceeded the presale high estimate of $356 million, a fairly rare occurrence. Eight lots sold for over $10 million, and new auction records were set for 18 artists.

For all that, Sotheby’s auction barely beat the $348 million total of Christie’s contemporary sale the night before, a sum achieved with a rather shapely group of only 57 works, 26 fewer than Sotheby’s vaunting number. A dispassionate viewer can’t help thinking that Sotheby’s, with its ambitious collection of iconic works, desperately wanted to beat out its rival, which has been number one in the competition between the two firms for some time now.

And Sotheby’s triumph would have been greater, too, were it not for one of the big buy-ins of the evening, Mark Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow (1956), which was estimated to sell for $35 million and drew not a single bid. The picture did look rather wan up on the turntable, but that can happen.

All prices include the buyer’s premium of 25 percent of the hammer price up to $20,000, 20 percent of any amount between $20,000 and $500,000, and 12 percent of anything above $500,000.

But back to the good news. The top lot, Francis Bacon’s Triptych, a work painted in 1976 as the centerpiece of the artist’s show at Galerie Claude Bernard in Paris and arguably inspired both by the Greek myth of Prometheus and the Three Furies in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, sold for $86,281,000, well above the presale $70 million estimate and a record for a work by a contemporary artist at auction.

The bidding started at $60 million and quickly proceeded in $1 million increments to $76 million, with bids coming from several phones, at which point Meyer took a momentary pause, waiting to squeeze another bid from one of the unseen billionaires.  "Be brave," he encouraged, and a bidder hazarded $76.5 million, taking only a half step higher, no doubt in hopes of saving himself a trifling $500,000. More cajoling followed -- "Are you sure? Even if I beg? Are you sure?" -- before the winning bid of $77 million was hammered down, followed by applause from the audience. The buyer, according to Sotheby’s, was a "private European collector."

Another top lot was MG9 (ca. 1962), a golden monochrome by Yves Klein -- a ca. 4 x 5 ft. panel covered with actual gold leaf -- which sold for $23,561,000, almost triple the presale high estimate of $8 million. The price is a new auction record for the artist. The buyer was Manhattan art dealer Philippe Segalot. The sale included two other Klein monochromes, which went for similarly high prices, $17,401,000 and $4,745,000.

Also causing something of a sensation was Takashi Murakami’s My Lonesome Cowboy (1998), a polychromed fiberglass statue of a nude male youth, wearing a frenetic grin and spiky blonde hair, presenting with his right hand a magically upward-swirling stream of white sperm that erupts from his erect penis, which he holds in his left hand. Amusingly, the auction house compared this fluid cascade of male sexual mania to the curling waters in Hokusai’s iconic Great Wave. Ho

Widely thought to have been consigned by the artist’s former New York dealer, Marianne Boesky (she reportedly says no, however), the sculpture sold to an anonymous phone buyer for $15,161,000, almost four times the presale high estimate of $4 million, and a record for the artist at auction. The affable artist was present, sitting in the back of the room, and was swarmed by the art press in the auction-room lobby after the sale.

Murakami wasn’t on hand only to watch his own triumph -- he said he had no idea who bought the work -- but also to bid, as he won the final lot in the auction, Yoshitomo Nara’s Light My Fire (2001), for $1,161,000, a price that is an auction record for a Nara sculpture.

A new auction record was set for Robert Rauschenberg, the much-loved Pop pioneer who died on Monday at age 82, when his high-Pop 1963 Overdrive, a vigorous and colorful silkscreen painting from a European collection, sold for $14,601,000 (est. $10 million-$15 million) to a phone bidder.

Auction records were also set for Tom Wesselman ($10,681,000), Piero Manzoni ($10,121,000), Georg Baselitz ($4,633,000), Hans Hofmann ($4,297,000), Robert Smithson ($4,297,000), Lee Krasner ($3,177,000), Brice Marden ($3,065,000), Carl Andre ($2,617,000), Claes Oldenburg ($1,721,000), Dan Flavin ($1,553,000), Joseph Beuys ($1,049,000), Jeff Wall ($993,000), Robert Mangold ($937,000) and Subodh Gupta ($825,000).

The sale did have a touch of scandal, as a huge chunk of it was ripped from the walls, so to speak, of the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Krefeld, Germany. More than 20 lots in the auction came from the Helga and Walther Lauffs Collection, as it is called, including the record-setting works by Andre, Beuys, Klein, Manzoni and Wesselmann. Mrs. Lauffs and several of her five daughters watched from a skybox as their property sold for a total of $96.1 million. Still more works come on the block in future sales.

Formed since the 1960s by the late museum director Paul Wember -- whose selections turned out to be salutary, to say the least -- with funds from the late German industrialist Walther Lauffs, the collection had long been displayed in the regional museum, with maintenance paid by the city. When the Lauffs’ decided to take their holdings to market, and give nothing to the museum that had supported their collection for so long, the move was greeted by a public uproar.

An important installation by Joseph Beuys, also paid for by the Lauffs, remains at the museum at present, and negotiations for its disposal continue at this writing.   

The sale included a plethora of works by Andy Warhol, of course, eight in all, and several were presumed to be from the collection of Connecticut newsprint magnate Peter Brant, who is also the new full owner of Interview, Art in America and the Magazine Antiques. A large yellow Warhol "fright wig" self portrait ($3,065,000), a diamond dust portrait of Joseph Beuys (pass), a Christ 112 Times from the Last Supper ($9,561,000), a yellow, green and violet Skull painting ($1,609,000), a double self-portrait from 1966-67 (pass), and a two-panel grid of portraits of transvestites ($3,513,000) were among the guaranteed properties that may have come from Brant.

Though Brant was generally thought to be selling to raise funds to buy "a paper mill," the astute London-based auction reporter Sarah Thornton -- whose new book, Seven Days in the Art World, is being published by Norton this fall -- suggested that a more likely reason for Brant to sell art would be to help pay for a share of the large-scale purchase of works from the Ileana Sonnabend estate [see "Artnet News," Apr. 10, 2008].

Among the buyers spotted in the salesroom were dealer Alberto Mugrabi, who won Damien Hirst’s 1996 spin picture, a pretty one titled Beautiful, childish, expressive, tasteless, not art. . ., for $1,161,000, and Manhattan art dealer Franck Giraud (Segalot’s partner), who paid the record-setting $10,121,000 for Manzoni’s 1958 Achrome.

Donald Judd’s landmark 1964 sculpture, an oddly squarish torus made of sheet metal painted cadmium red, which is from the Lauffs Collection, sold for $4,241,000 to dealer Ivan Wirth, a partner in Zwirner & Wirth, which is currently exhibiting additional works from the Lauffs holdings for sale. His partner David Zwirner won Smithson’s atypical, serial steel sculpture, Alogon #3 (1967) for the record-setting $4,297,000, and also paid $385,000 for a great early work by Christo, Show Window, a door-like galvanized metal frame holding nothing but a hanging sheet. The price was below the presale low estimate of $400,000.

Larry Gagosian won Jeff Koons’ colorful Caterpillar Chains (2003), a child’s swimming-pool float done up in polychromed aluminum, for $5,921,000 (bidding against the Mugrabis, among others). Paris dealer Thaddaeus Ropac paid the record $4,633,000 for Baselitz’s 1965 painting of a striding "Hero," B.J.M.C. - Bonjour Monsieur Courbet, a work based on Courbet’s famous painting. And former Janis Gallery head Carroll Janis won George Segal’s working class tableau, The Tar Worker (1964), for $421,000.

Many of the lots in the final third of the sale inspired next to no action, but one animated moment did come on lot 78, an untitled, minimal scribble painting from 1968 by Cy Twombly. As Tobias Meyer collected battling bids from two men sitting up front rather near to each other -- dealer Larry Gagosian and collector Aby Rosen -- Gagosian swirled suddenly in his seat to see who was bidding against him. "You can see him, you know him very well," Meyer remonstrated, following this with, "He can have it?" Rosen won the work for $3,065,000.

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

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