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Art Market Watch

May 12, 2011 

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In the last five years, at the big New York auctions of contemporary art in May and November, Christie’s New York had the higher sales figure seven times out of ten. So it is again this week, as Christie’s evening sale of contemporary art on May 11, 2011, totaled $301 million, with 62 of 65 lots selling, or 95 percent. The sum far outstrips the $128 million reached at Sotheby’s New York the night before. After a one-day protest, the rich are back at bat.

“The waters are rising,” joked scholar (and art advisor) Charles Stuckey. “But nobody’s leaving town!”

The event was exceptionally lively, at least for the first 20 lots or so, due not only to the mildly rollicking ministrations of auctioneer Christopher Burge, but also to the avid dealers on hand, who produced several theatrical contests for individual lots.

The top lot was a set of four Andy Warhol photo-booth self portraits done in shades of pale blue and lavender in 1963-64, which sold for $38.4 million after a comically long bidding battle -- at least 15 minutes, an eternity in auction time -- between superdealer Philippe Segalot in the room and a bidder on the phone with Sotheby’s expert Brett Gorvy.

Burge had opened the lot at $14 million and quickly run the price up before the contest began in earnest at around $21 million. Though common practice at this level is for bids to move in $500,000 increments, the two bidders insisted on topping each other by “only” $100,000, and resisted all of Burge’s efforts to have them move more aggressively. Such cheapskates!

In the end it was hammered down to the anonymous phone bidder (later described as “European private” by the auction house) for $34,250,000, or $38,442,500 with the auction premium. The price is the fifth highest ever for a Warhol at auction.

The painting was indubitably attractive, unlike the huge (106 x 106 in.), red “fright wig” self-portrait from 1986 that graced the catalogue cover. Frightful or not, it too sold in the eight figures, for $27.5 million (below the presale low estimate of $30 million), with little contention, to Jose Mugrabi.

Mugrabi was sitting across the aisle from fellow Warhol devotee Larry Gagosian, and the two could be seen chatting amiably throughout the auction. At the very beginning of the bidding on the $38 million Warhol, after Gagosian had bid $20 million and been upped $500,000 by a phone bidder, he looked quizzically at Mugrabi, who shook his head, upon which signal Gagosian also shook his head to Burge, dropping out of what was only the beginning of that long battle.

Another star lot was Mark Rothko’s long-lost Untitled No. 17 (1961), which sold for $33.7 million, well above the presale high estimate of $22 million. The serene pink and carmine painting, though not included in the 1998 catalogue raisonné, apparently convinced the experts that it is authentic, though no details are presented in the catalogue notes.

The Rothko sold relatively quickly, but it was dramatic all the same. At first it looked as if Madison Avenue dealer David Nahmad would win the picture at $29.5 million, but a new bidder came in at the last moment and took the lot for $30 million at the hammer. Sitting in the front of the room -- most of the press is corralled in the rear, reduced to identifying bidders from the backs of their heads -- the buyer was identified by the Baer Faxt as a representative of the Daros Collection in Zurich.

Perhaps it was billionaire Swiss philanthropist and Daros founder Stephan Schmidheiny, whose late brother, Alexander Schmidheiny, was partners with the late Swiss superdealer Thomas Ammann (they died in 1994 and ’93, respectively). “Too young,” noted Wall Street Journal auction ace Kelly Crow, who said neither she nor her colleagues recognized the man.

The sale set new auction records for Cy Twombly ($8,696,000), Richard Diebenkorn ($7,698,500), Anselm Kiefer ($3,554,500) and Andreas Gursky ($3,346,456). Jeez, those are big numbers.

The giant yellow teddy bear-lamp sculpture by Urs Fischer that was on view at the Seagram Building sold for $6,802,500, also a record for the artist, about six times his previous high. The tattooed galoot is clearly a new art-market favorite, if there was any doubt.

The 1981 Cindy Sherman “fold-out” self-portrait, which sold to Segalot for a record $3,890,500, was from the collection of everyone’s favorite New York couple, artist Jane Kaplowitz and her late husband, Robert Rosenblum, who died in 2006. The price is a record for any photograph at auction, an honor held since 2007 by Richard Prince’s iconic Marlborough cowboy (at $3.4 million).

Other buyers in the room included Chelsea dealer Lawrence Luhring, who won the first two lots, both by artists from the Luhring Augustine stable, Janine Antoni ($182,500) and Christopher Wool ($1,930,500).

Daniella Luxembourg bought Gilbert & George’s Bad Thoughts #1 ($1,538,500), and Dominique Levy of L&M Arts got Prince’s Nurse on Horseback ($4,786,500, below its estimate).

Nicholas Maclean of Eykyn Maclean in New York was the buyer of a 1955 Sam Francis painting ($3,666,500) and San Francisco dealer John Berggruen was the winning bidder for both the record-setting Diebenkorn and a Philip Guston abstraction ($6,578,500).

But that’s enough of that. The week of evening contemporary art sales in New York concludes tonight with an auction at Phillips de Pury & Co.

Prices given here include the auction-house buyer’s premium, which is 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the amount between $50,000 and $1 million, and 12 percent on the rest.

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Arts Auction Report.

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