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May 13, 2010 

Can big money ever be dull? Sotheby’s New York did a wonderful job with its contemporary art evening sale on May 12, 2010, reaching a total of $189,969,000 and selling 50 of 53 lots, or more than 94 percent. The result reflects a gradual climb from the depths of the recession -- up from $47 million in May 2009 and $134.4 million in November 2009. We should be right back to that bubblicious $350 million level in no time.

"Collectors seek out trophies and go for them," said Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer (in so many words). "There’s a global hunger for great art."

That hunger was certainly in evidence when Andy Warhol’s billboard-sized (80 x 80 in.) "fright wig" self-portrait in lavender from 1986, which had been consigned by the fashion designer Tom Ford, sold for $29 million at the hammer. The bidding started calmly enough at $8 million, excitedly jumped to $15 million and $18 million, and then slowed to a torturous ascension, $1,000,000 at a time, until it was bought by a phone bidder.

With the premium, the price for the Warhol is $32,562,400, nicely doubling its presale high estimate of $15,000,000. The work is now the third highest-priced Warhol to sell at auction.

Big money was also paid for Mark Rothko’s untitled red painting from 1961, which sold for $31,442,500, in another slow climb with a phone bidder coming out on top. The painting comes with an amusing lawsuit attached, having been sold privately by Dallas collector Marguerite Hoffman to a couple of art dealers who promised to keep the deal confidential-- she says -- who then turned around and put the thing in a highly public auction. (Before she sold the picture, Hoffman had promised to give her collection to the Dallas Museum of Art, where she is a trustee, thus her desire for discretion).

In its post-sale release, by the way, Sotheby’s points out that the Warhol and the Rothko brought "the top two prices at auction this week" -- meaning that they sold for more than the $28,642,500 paid for that silly Jasper Johns Flag at Christie’s the night before.

Back at Sotheby’s, Brice Marden’s scraggly but large (ca. 93 x 80 in.) Cold Mountain I (Path) abstraction from 1988-89 made the third highest price, an impressive $9,602,500, below the work’s presale low estimate of $10,000,000 but nevertheless a new auction record for the artist. His previous high, $4,297,000, was less than half as much, so expect his prices to rise in general. An earlier effort to goose Marden up into the eight-figure range, back in November 2008, failed to draw a bid.

In addition to Marden, the sale set new auction records for Richard Tuttle ($1,762,500), Richard Serra ($1,986,500), Juan Munoz ($1,202,500) and, most impressively, art-world jester Maurizio Cattelan ($7,922,500). Cattelan’s cartoon-like sculpture of himself peering into a gallery through a hole cut in the floor had been bought in 2004 for $2,080,000 by superdealer William Acquavella, who was the seller this time, according to New York Times reporter Carol Vogel. No wonder the guy owns his own yacht.

The new record is more than double Cattelan’s old auction high, set of course for his famous sculpture of the Pope hit by a meteorite, which was bought way back in 1999 for a mere $3,032,000. Time to reprice your Cattelan works.

One bit of drama in the sale involved Cecily Brown’s scrappy (if Willem de Kooning-esque) abstraction from 1999 titled Suddenly Last Summer. Everyone’s favorite designer, Valentino, with his partner Giancarlo Giammetti, were sitting in their usual spot in the front row, and clearly had the Brown painting in their sights. Giametti bid up to $650,000, and then dropped out, only to jump right back in again at $850,000, just when it seemed the picture might be theirs. Alas, it was knocked down to a telephone bidder for $900,000, or $1,082,500 with premium.

Won’t someone tell Valentino that Brown’s new paintings, now on view at Contemporary Fine Arts in Berlin, are more beautiful, and priced at a level that is a relative bargain compared to those in the auction rooms?

Like the auction at Christie’s the night before, the sale was notable for being conservative and American: few lots were by any of the trendy European artists who have made news in the last decade. Those works seem reserved for London sales -- and for Phillips, de Pury & Company, whose ca. $25-million auction goes off tonight, May 13, 2010.

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.

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

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