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May 12, 2010 

The supercollectors are back, and they don’t care who knows it. Dizzying prices were the hallmark of Christie’s New York evening sale of post-war and contemporary art on May 11, 2010, which totaled $231,907,000 (with premium), with 74 of 79 lots selling, or 94 percent.

For an interesting comparison, check out Christie’s total from its contemporary sale a year ago in the depth of the recession ($93.7 million) and Sotheby’s record-setting auction from 2008, just before the crash ($348 million).

Last night’s two-part sale included 31 choice lots from the Michael Crichton estate, a collection that ranged from Pablo Picasso to Jasper Johns and Mark Tansey, while the mixed-owner sale included still more Johns and some blue-chip Andy Warhol works to boot.

"It was a classic American sale," said Christie’s expert Amy Cappellazzo, in light of stats that put buyers at 75 percent U.S. A lot of winning bidders were actually in the room, rather than phoning it in, which seemed to signal. . . something. They wanted to be part of "an event"?

The auction was strangely free of drama, though the room did offer a collective groan when the first lot passed, Claes Oldenburg’s Soft Pay Telephone (Ghost Version), which was all the way to lot 58. As for celebrities, Salman Rushdie was in the back of the room with art advisor Kim Heirston, though apparently not to bid.

The sale of the top lot, Jasper Johns’ encaustic Flag from 1960-66, measuring a modest ca. 18 x 27 in. and looking fresh as a daisy, went off with dispatch. Auctioneer Christopher Burge launched the bidding at $7,000,000, and it promptly proceeded in $500,000 jumps until it was knocked down for $25,500,000.

The buyer was a dark-haired man in the sixth row -- Manhattan art consultant Michael Altman, according to reporters who chased him out into the lobby after he left. The price, $28,642,500 with premium, is a new auction record for a Johns work. It would be a surprise if the name of Altman’s client didn’t leak out in the next few days.

The Crichton sale also included a more recent Johns work, Study for a Painting (2002), which had been included in the artist’s rare recent gallery show at Matthew Marks Gallery in 2005. Study sold at Christie’s for $5,346,500, at the top end of its presale estimate.

All 31 Crichton lots were sold, for a total of $93,323,500. The overall sale of 79 lots, though admirably "curated," was arguably about 15 lots too long, as most of the final lots passed or sold at their reserves.

Other top lots included Warhol’s Silver Liz (1963), which went for $18,338,500, just above the presale high estimate of $15,000,000, and Yves Klein’s Anthropométrie "La Buffle" (1960-61), which sold for $12,402,500, just at the high estimate.

According to the Baer Faxt, the buyer of the Warhol was L&M Arts, which only entered the bidding near the end, after a long (and pointless) duel between an anonymous telephone bidder and a pale man standing on the side -- he must be modest, not to have demanded a seat -- with the art consultant Pierre Sebastien.

The collector redeemed himself later in the sale, snagging Warhol’s lovely, nine-panel painting of Holly Solomon from 1966 for $5,458,500, considerably below its presale low estimate of $7,000,000. He declined to identify himself to reporters.

Picasso’s notable Femme and Fillettes, a portrait of his wife Jacqueline with Picasso’s illegitimate daughter Paloma (by Françoise Gilot) and another girl with a smeared face (presumably Jacqueline’s daughter Cathy Hutin-Blay), sold for $6,578,500, about in the middle of its estimate.

The buyer was an attractive young woman with dark hair sitting near the back of the room, presumably a collector -- though who knows, perhaps she was a Crichton heir, buying back a family memory -- a circumstance that would suit the sentimental auction observer.

Records were set for four other artists in addition to Johns. A Sam Francis painting from 1957, Middle Blue, sold for $6,354,500, well above the presale high estimate of $5,000,000. The buyer was San Francisco dealer John Berggruen.

A record was also set for Lee Bontecou, whose Untitled steel, wire and canvas construction from 1962, a work in her signature style, sold for $1,874,500, right in the middle of the presale estimate.

New auction records were also set for a pair of contemporary artists. Mark Tansey’s Push/Pull (2003) went after a bit of a contest for $3,218,500, edging above his previous high of $3,040,000, to an unidentified buyer in the room. And Christopher Wool’s Blue Fool (1990) sold to a telephone bidder for $5,010,500, considerably above his previous record price of $1,874,500. Wool is already an auction favorite -- with more than 300 lots in the Artnet auction database -- so his prices in general can now be expected to rise.

Other buyers we know included Jeffrey Deitch, who presumably has a few more weeks left before he enters the nonprofit world as director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; he was the winning bidder for Gerhard Richter’s small oil portrait, Kopf (Skizze), for $2,322,500.

Art dealer Lucy Mitchell-Innes won Agnes Martin’s Untitled #13 for $2,098,500, while Jose Mugrabi demonstrated his clan’s famous lust for works by Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, snagging Warhol’s double Self-Portrait for $5,682,500 and Basquiat’s Man Struck by Lightning for $4,786,500.

And Larry Gagosian won Warhol’s Multicolored Retrospective Painting (Reversal Series), which is to be included in "Pop Life" at the National Gallery of Canada next month, for $1,874,500, and Robert Rauschenberg’s 1964 Trapeze from the Crichton collection for $6,354,500.

The more classic Rauschenberg in the sale, however, the two-part Studio Painting from 1961, which includes a bag of sand (or something) hanging from a pulley, sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for $11,058,500.

Prices include the auction house premium of 25 percent on the first $50,000, 20 percent on anything up to $100,000, and 12 percent on the rest.

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