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Art Market Watch


Nov. 9, 2011 

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Now that was a sale and a half. Literally. Christie’s New York evening auction of contemporary art on Nov. 8, 2011, included 91 lots, and lasted two-and-one-half hours. By the end, a clearly worn-out Christopher Burge, who does know how to move things along, was nevertheless presiding over an all-but-empty room, allowing the more stalwart dealers to pick up random lots without contest (see below).

Fittingly for such a blow-out, the stats are supersized as well. The auction totaled $247.6 million, with 82 of 91 lots selling, or 90 percent. A lucky 13 of the lots were financed by third parties. One non-fiscal highlight was the presence of Leo diCaprio and his Inception co-star, Lucas Haas, sitting with dealer Helly Nahmad.

When they left, about halfway through the sale (without buying anything), diCaprio pulled his baseball cap down low and held his cellphone as if taking a call, effectively shielding his face from view as he passed across the front of the salesroom -- it could have been a scene from The Aviator.

The auction’s top lot was Roy Lichtenstein’s witty 1961 comic book panel of a man looking through a peephole and saying, I Can See the Whole Room! . . .and There’s Nobody in It! -- probably Lichtenstein’s most “contemporary” work, at least judging by the conceptual-art joke, which could come from the Maurizio Cattelan playbook.

After starting the bidding at $27 million, Burge bounced it back and forth between the telephones and the room until the picture sold for $38.5 million at the hammer, or $43,202,500 with premium, to Guy Bennett, a former auction-house specialist who is now a private dealer.

The painting had previously appeared at auction in 1988, when it sold for a little over $2 million -- an auction record then.

Celebration also greeted the sale of an 11-foot-tall Louise Bourgeois bronze Spider from 1996, displayed outside on Christie’s entrance plaza, for $10.7 million, a new world record for the artist, and a record for any artwork by a woman (excluding that $28 million Eileen Gray armchair from the Yves Saint Laurent sale at Christie's Paris in 2009). The buyer was an anonymous U.S. collector.

Another top lot was Andy Warhol’s 40 x 40 in. Silver Liz from 1963, which though it sold for a muscular $16,322,500, seemed somehow out of the limelight. The buyer, sitting in the front row, was jewelry magnate and supercollector Laurence Graff.

New auction records were also set for photographer Andreas Gursky ($4,338,500 -- the price is a record for any photograph), and Vija Celmins ($902,500, bought by the perennially youthful art dealer Iwan Wirth).

The sale started a half-hour early, at 6:30 pm, to accommodate 26 lots from the collection of software pioneer Peter Norton, a patron of leading-edge contemporary art since the 1980s. The Norton material was 100 percent sold and totaled $26.8 million. Norton watched the proceedings from the skybox, along with his advisor, Los Angeles art dealer Tom Solomon.

One highlight of the Norton Collection was lot 5, Paul McCarthy’s lively Potato Head (Green) installation from 1994 (it is one of three variants). Bidding climbed rapidly to $4 million at the hammer, or $4,562,500 with premium, about triple the presale high estimate. Iwan Wirth was the buyer. Might the new price make selling the McCarthy bronzes that have just now gone on view at Hauser & Wirth on East 69th Street that much easier? The gallery price range is $1.5 million-$2.6 million.

Another Norton lot, which should be mentioned just for the record, was On Loan from 2000 by David Hammons -- an empty metal wall hook, “with dust.” It sold for $206,500 to an anonymous telephone bidder.

Most of the 13 new artist auction records were set for Norton lots, which overall seemed both avant-garde and atypical: Barbara Kruger ($902,400), Glenn Ligon ($1,178,500, bought by dealer Robert Mnuchin), Mona Hatoum ($470,500), Sophie Calle ($218,500), Charles Ray ($3,106,500, bought by Matthew Marks), Yinka Shonibare ($194,500), Christian Marclay ($266,500) and Fred Tomaselli ($1,650,500).

Needless to say, the Norton Collection exemplifies the bottom-line benefits of savvy, long-term collecting, as works sold for anywhere between 10 times and 80 times their original purchase price.

Other successful bidders included Harry Blain -- arguably a fresh face in the room, his presence presumably encouraged by the new Blain / DiDonna gallery in the Carlyle Building on Madison Avenue, recently opened with a show of works by Rene Magritte. He was the buyer of Robert Gober’s touching, illuminated (from behind bars) Prison Window (1992, from an edition of five plus one proof), which sold for $3,386,500.

Blain, who was with a client on his cellphone, kept the phone glued to his ear and promptly won the next lot as well, Mona Hatoum’s record-setting Silence, a child’s crib made of glass (also from an edition of five plus one proof). He later bought Robert Ryman’s untitled white canvas from 1965 for $1,594,500.

Larry Gagosian bought Takashi Murakami’s DOB in the Strange Forest, one of the artist’s signature works, for $2,770,500; a Cy Twombly bronze sculpture from 1955/2002 for $1,650,500; and a Twombly painting from 1959, Untitled (Lexington, Virginia), for $5,234,500.

David Zwirner snagged Richard Tuttle’s 1965 Green Triptych for $422,500, and one of the evening’s postmodernist prizes, Jeff KoonsTwo Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (1985), for $4,226,500.

Jack Tilton won Wangechi Mutu’s Shake a Tail Feather for $170,500, and L.A. dealer Marc Selwyn bought Adolph Gottlieb’s Black Emblems (1971) for $542,500.

By lot 80 or so, the room had almost cleared out. Andrew Fabricant of Richard Gray Gallery bought lot 85, Warhol’s 1966 Self-Portrait, for $3,106,500, within its estimate, while Lucy Mitchell-Innes got lot 86, Cindy Sherman’s Untitled film still from 1980, for $278,500, below the presale low estimate. And Tony Shafrazi took home lot 88, John Chamberlain’s 1989 Now Morton Ever: Dedicated to Morton Feldman, for $746,500, within its presale estimate.

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 Art Auctions Report.

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