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Art Market Watch


May 10, 2012 

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The art market fell back to earth, or at least back to the upper stratosphere, with the evening auction of contemporary art at Sotheby’s New York on May 9, 2012. The sale totaled $266,591,000 (with premium), with 46 of 57 lots selling, or almost 81 percent. The Sotheby’s sale followed the record-setting $388.5 million evening at Christie’s New York the day before, which was 95 percent sold.

Still, the “modest” results included seven lots in the eight-figure club:

* Francis Bacon, Figure Writing Reflected in a Mirror, 1976, $44,882,500 (est. $30 million-$40 million). The picture had been included in the 1986-87 traveling Bacon retrospective.

* Roy Lichtenstein, Sleeping Girl, 1964, $44,882,500 (est. $30 million-$40 million). The painting was being sold by the heirs of Hollywood agent Phil Gersh, who could be seen in a skybox carrying on as the bidding climbed higher and higher in million-dollar increments. The price is a new auction record for the artist.

* Andy Warhol, Double Elvis, 1963, $37,042,500 (est. $15 million-$20 million). The painting was bought by an intense Jose Mugrabi, chewing gum and conferring with his son Alberto sitting next to him.

* Cy Twombly, Untitled (New York City), 1970, $17,442,500 ($15 million-$20 million). The price is a new auction record for the artist. The buyer of the minimalist “blackboard painting” was Los Angeles collector Stavros Merjos, according to observers in the room.

* Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild, 1992, $16,882,500 (est. $8 million-$10 million).

* Roy Lichtenstein, Sailboats III, 1974, $11,842,500 (est. $6 million-$8 million).

* Andy Warhol, Flowers, $10,722,500 (est. $9 million-$12 million).

Buyers identifiable in the room included California vintner and Museum of Modern Art trustee Don Bryant, sitting in the front row with his wife Bettina, who bought Francis Bacon’s rather elegant Study for a Portrait (1978) for $4,282,500, and Upper East Side art dealer Jack Tilton, who bought Arshile Gorky’s Khorkom (ca. 1938) for $2,770,500.

Robert Mnuchin, barely moving a muscle, was the winning bidder for Alexander Calder’s red mobile Sumac VI (1952), which sold for $5,905,500. A second Calder -- the artist is definitely hot this spring -- Un Noior et Un Jaune (1972) sold for $1,482,500 to David Nahmad, also sitting in the front row. The Calder had sold at auction in 1988 for $220,000.

Montreal collector Francois Odermatt bought Christopher Wool’s Untitled (1996), black block letters that read “crass conceited vulgar and unpleasant,” for $5,122,500, and Jörg-Michael Bertz, former head of Sotheby’s Germany, bought Joan Mitchell’s Le Temps des Lilas (1966) for $2,994,500.

The ton of handmade porcelain sunflower seeds by Ai Weiwei, Kui Hua Zi (2008-10), inspired no interest in the room, but it sold for $782,500 to a lone phone bidder, a new auction record for the artist (the work is one from an edition of ten with one artist’s proof). Late in the sale were works by Wade Guyton ($542,500) and Mark Bradford ($866,500, a new record).

Unsold lots included an impressive Willem de Kooning collage painting from 1951; an Ed Ruscha Everest view (sans palindrome); a drab Luc Tuymans kitchen scene; a gray Brice Marden abstraction; an unseductive Cindy Sherman from her “Centerfold” series; a simple Jean-Michel Basquiat canvas that had passed through the hands of dealers Vrej Baghoomian, Lio Malca and Max Lang; and a stumpy female nude in painted aluminum by Charles Ray.

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.

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