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Art Market Watch

CHRISTIE’S CONTEMPORARY DOES A RECORD $388 MILLION

May 9, 2012 

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Say one thing for ace auctioneer Christopher Burge -- he knows how to make an exit. Taking his final turn at the podium at Christie’s New York evening sale of post-war and contemporary art on May 8, 2012 (Burge is not retiring, though he is giving up the auctioneer’s gavel to Jussi Pylkkanen), he oversaw a sale that totaled a record-setting $388,488,000 (with premium), with 56 of 59 lots selling, or 95 percent.

The sum is the highest ever for a contemporary sale, besting Christie’s own prior record of $384 million set in May 2007. The all-time record for any single auction was set at Christie’s New York Impressionist and modern sale in November 2007, which totaled $395 million. Sotheby’s New York sale of Impressionist and modern art last week, which included the $120 million Edvard Munch The Scream (1895), totaled $330.6 million.

No less than nine works in the sale broke the eight-figure ceiling, selling for $10 million or more, and new auction records were set for 11 artists. The records:

* Mark Rothko, Orange, Red, Yellow, 1961, $86,882,500 (est. $35 million-$45 million). Three telephone bidders vied for the orange and crimson picture, which is from the estate of Philadelphia businessman and philanthropist David Pincus, who died late last year. “Fresh to the market” and “in pristine condition,” the painting was bought from Marlborough Fine Art in London in 1964 and had been on extended loan at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Also from the Pincus collection were record-setting works by Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman (see below), and two paintings ($14,082,500 and $8,482,500) and four sculptures by Willem de Kooning.

* Yves Klein, FC1 (Fire Color 1), 1962, $36,482,500 (est. $30 million-$40 million). Measuring almost ten feet wide and featuring a pair of female silhouettes on a gold ground, outlined in blue pigment with fire-touched black highlights, the painting is probably the most important work by the artist to come to auction.

A portion of the proceeds go to Oceana, the international organization devoted to ocean conservation. The picture had previously been offered around by L&M Arts, one auction insider said.

* Jackson Pollock, Number 28, 1951, 1951, $23,042,500 (est. $20 million-$30 million), from the Pincus estate. Measuring a modest 34 x 52 in., the work is easily the best Pollock to appear at auction in the last 15 years.

* Barnett Newman, Onement V, 1952, $22,482,500 (est. $10 million-$15 million), is the most important Newman painting to come to auction in recent memory. Acquired for the Pincus collection in 1988 from Analee Newman, the artist’s widow, the painting has been on long-term loan at the Philadelphia Museum.

* Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (798-3), 1993, $21,810,500 (est. $14 million-$18 million), proves the art market is still crazy about Richter. The sale included six works by the 80-year-old German artist, compared to a mere pair of pictures by the auction star of yesteryear, Andy Warhol. Underbidders for 798-3 included Jose Mugrabi and Larry Gagosian, who came in late and shook his head no just before the final phone bid.

Gagosian, by the way, snagged the final lot in the sale, Warhol’s Frankensteinian portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat, for $3,330,500. Ugly? “It’s red,” exclaimed auction observer Jessica Mizrachi.

* Alexander Calder, Lily of Force, 1945, $18,562,500 (est. $8 million-$12 million), the stabile from an anonymous owner was one of several works that were “fully guaranteed” at their minimum price by a third party, i.e. it was certain to sell. Two other Calders in the auction sold for high prices, $10,286,500 and $6,354,500.

The power buyer of the Calder was New York dealer Daniela Luxembourg, who also won Richter’s 1969 Seascape ($19,346,500) and a work by Anselm Kiefer ($1,762,500). Thaddaeus Ropac, who opens a new gallery for monumental works this October with a Kiefer show, was an underbidder.

* Jeff Wall, Dead Troops Talk, 1992, $3,666,500 $1.5 million-$2 million), one of an edition of two with one artist’s proof, is a work that disturbingly conflates zombies with Afghanistan war dead.

* Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Distant Alarm, 1966, $1,986,500 (est. $800,000-$1,200,000).

* Vija Celmins, Untitled #8, 1995-96, $1,142,500 (est. $700,000-$900,000), for a small (ca. 17 x 22 in.) Photorealist graphite and charcoal drawing of a starry sky.

* Sherrie Levine, Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp), 1991, $962,500 (est. $250,000-$350,000), a golden bronze urinal, one from an edition of six.

* Romare Bearden, Strange Morning, Interior, 1968, $338, 500 (est. $250,000-$350,000), with proceeds earmarked for the Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust.

Philadelphia wasn’t the only museum that had masterpieces ripped from its walls. A pair of other museums cashed in on the market boom. The Museum of Modern Art sold Hans Hofmann’s 1958 color abstraction Kaleidos for $3,554,500, and the Akron Art Museum sold a classic Cindy Sherman “Centerfold” photograph from 1981 for $2,882,500 (the work is from an edition of ten). Proceeds from both are earmarked for future acquisitions, of course. Presumably MoMA has plenty where that Hofmann came from. The buyer of the Sherman, according to the Baer Faxt, was Skarstedt Gallery.

Two lots were withdrawn before the sale, and they were notable ones: Brice Marden’s seven-foot-tall Attendant 5, 1996-99 (est. $7 million-$10 million), and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Museum Security (Broadway Medltdown), 1983 (est. $9 million-$12 million), one of a series of works painted that year for an exhibition at Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles. No explanation is given when works are withdrawn, although one possibility is a last-minute fear that the lots won't reach their reserve.

Prices given here include the auction-house commission of 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the next $50,000 to $1,000,000, and 12 percent of the rest.

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

NB: Regarding the purchaser of Munch’s The Scream, here’s a thought: What about Ronald Lauder, buyer of the $135 million Gustav Klimt in 2006?

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