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Nov. 11, 2009 

Art market insiders said that Connecticut horse farmer Peter Brant wanted too much for his prize Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat works in the Christie’s New York evening sale of contemporary art on Nov. 10, 2009, and they were right. While Brant watched from a darkened skybox, and his art-market pals sat on their hands, both star lots passed with nary a bid.

First up was Basquiat’s funky Brother Sausage, lot 16, four hinged panels measuring 4 x 15 ft. overall, estimated to go for $9,000,000-$12,000,000. "Too many Xeroxes for that price," hazarded one Warhol expert, referring to the multiple collage elements the artist had used in the work.

Brant’s second painting in the sale, lot 25, Warhol’s famous Tunafish Disaster in black and silver, also passed. It was estimated at $6,000,000-$8,000,000. A larger version of the work had sold in London last June for about $6 million, and Sotheby’s New York is offering still a third variation tonight, Nov. 11, this one cropped in tight, with a presale estimate of $1,500,000-$2,000,000.

Though Brant could sell the works after the auction, it’s also possible that he might just put them back into his stacks and wait for the price he’s after. Cynics may view the buy-ins differently, however, as a gambit to establish lower values for works that may become subject to a property settlement in a future divorce.

A luckier consignor was César and Mima Reyes, the Puerto Rican psychiatrist and his wife who were early clients of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York [see "Report from Puerto Rico," Jan. 4, 2006]. Reyes bought Peter Doig’s 6 x 9 ft. painting Reflection (What does your soul look like) in 1996, no doubt for a relatively modest price.

When the painting hit the block at Christie’s with a presale estimate of $4,000,000-$6,000,000, he and his wife were in the gallery, along with Brown and Doig himself (looking well-tanned, presumably from the warm sun of Trinidad, where he lives). The drawn-out bidding for the work provided about the only real drama of the night, as several buyers vied for the work while auctioneer Christopher Burge slowly advanced the price in $100,000 jumps.

Eventually the battle came down to two bidders, one on the phone with Christie’s president Marc Porter, and the second represented in the room by London dealer Jay Jopling, sitting to the left of the auctioneer, along with most of the other art-dealer players at the sale. Jopling was conferring with a client via cell phone.

The bidding see-sawed back and forth -- "I can do this all night," quipped Burge at one point -- until Jopling’s bidder seemed to quit, and Burge hammered down the lot to Porter’s client at $9 million. Jopling’s bidder reconsidered, and tried to enter one more bid, but it was too late. The painting sold, with the auction house premium, for $10,162,500. 

The price was just under the Doig record in dollars, $11,283,464, but when converted into pounds, the price is £6,121,988 -- above the former record of £5,732,000. Who says the art market makes any sense?

All in all, the sale wasn’t too bad, considering. In the end, 39 of 46 lots, or 85 percent, sold for a total of $74,151,500 (with premium), above the presale low total estimate of $61.4 million. Twenty-one lots sold for over $1 million, and 82 percent of the buyers were American.

This last stat got some non-clarification at the press conference following the sale, as Christie’s expert Amy Cappallazzo stressed that many of the American dealers were buying for international clients, while her colleague Brett Gorvy hastened to add that many of the works in the auction appealed specifically to U.S. buyers.

Among the top lots was Jeff KoonsLarge Vase of Flowers, a rather massive polychromed wood sculpture from 1991, in an edition of three, which sold for $5,682,500, in the middle of its presale estimate, to Dominique Lévy of L&M Arts.

Joan Mitchell’s Untitled abstraction from 1958, a work right in the "sweet spot" of her oeuvre (according to Christie’s expert Robert Manley), was hammered down for $4.8 million, or $5,458,500 with premium. The painting, which measures about six feet square, was acquired at auction in 1989 -- 20 years ago -- for $506,000. Can you figure out the annualized return?

At any rate, the Mitchell lot apparently carried a third-party guarantee, meaning that someone agreed to buy the painting at the minimum price acceptable to the consignor, with the possibility of sharing in the profit with the auction house if the lot sold for more (the auction firms themselves have stopped offering guarantees). This time around, it seems likely that the guarantor ended up with the work.

The first six lots in the sale, including a Robert Rauschenberg black painting from 1951 and a mud painting from 1953 (realized in ’92) and a small Jasper Johns crosshatch painting, were from the collection of the late Merce Cunningham and were sold to benefit the Merce Cunningham Trust. All six works found buyers, for a hammer total of $6 million -- worth a dance or two.

Among the buyers, London dealer Timothy Taylor won an untitled Alexander Calder mobile from ca. 1950 for $3,554,500, fighting off a determined phone bidder and eventually paying more than double the presale high estimate. He could be seen fanning himself after the auction battle.

Other buyers in the room included Philippe Segalot, who snagged a suite of 14 Basquiat drawings for $1,986,500 and a Jeff Koons vacuum-cleaner sculpture for $3,106,500, and New York dealer Larry Gagosian, who stepped in and bought a couple of pieces of furniture at their reserves: a Koons baroque mirror work for $1,142,500 and Marc Newson’s Pod of Drawers, the final lot in the sale, for $458,500.

Among the passed works were Martin Puryear’s much-exhibited sculpture Confessional (1996-2000), estimated at $500,000-$700,000, and Kerry James Marshall’s ca. 8 x 9 ft. painting, Great America, estimated at $400,000-$600,000. Also bought in was Larry Bell’s California Light and Space sculpture from 1962-63, L. Bell’s House, Part II, which was estimated at $300,000-$500,000. It was the first time a work like this has made it into the evening sale in recent memory.

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