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Nov. 12, 2009 

It was just another day in the art market at the evening sale of contemporary art at Sotheby’s New York on Nov. 11, 2009 -- though admittedly it was a pretty good day. Sotheby’s sold 52 of 54 lots, or more than 96 percent, for a total of $134,438,000 with premium. The sum is well above the $74.1 million total at Christie’s New York the night before, and a bit more than the $125 million Sotheby’s did in May 2009, when we were less far along in our jobless economic recovery. The total remains down considerably from the record $362 million of only one year ago.

The sale’s star lot, Andy Warhol’s 200 One Dollar Bills (1962) -- one big-time dealer predicted, mistakenly, that the auction would be a "one-lot sale" -- opened at $6 million, and steadily moved in $1 million jumps up to a total of $39 million at the hammer, or $43,762,500 with premium. That’s a lot of territory to cover, but no one minded waiting. "It’s a masterpiece," auctioneer Tobias Meyer reverently said, as the bidding passed $38 million. You gotta admit, there’s something about the work that just seems perfect for a high-rolling art collector.

The house had given a conservative presale estimate of $8,000,000-$12,000,000 to the picture, which was ostensibly Warhol’s first silkscreen painting. It had last seen light of day in 1986, when it sold from the estate of Robert C. Scull for $385,000. Several potential buyers vied for the work, including Warhol supercollector Jose Mugrabi, who sat in the seventh row wearing a black baseball cap, though it finally went to an anonymous phone bidder. The sale was greeted with applause.

Several of the top lots were won by telephone buyers, lending a certain air of disappointment to the proceedings, however munificent, as hopeful dealers in the room were edged out by the mysterious, deep-pocked telephones. Veteran New York dealer Jack Tilton, for instance, made a valiant effort to snag Jasper Johns encaustic Gray Numbers (1957) before being outbid by a phone buyer at $8,706,500. The picture is a "connoisseur’s piece" according to Meyer, and was once owned by legendary Museum of Modern Art curator Dorothy Miller.

One winner in the room was London jeweler Lawrence Graff, a big auction player, who purchased the much-ballyhooed Warhol Self-Portrait from 1965, which had sat in the Pop artist’s one-time secretary’s closet for several decades, for $6,130,500. Graff was sitting in the front row beside an enthusiastically beaming Tony Shafrazi, who was flanked on his other side by Hollywood mogul Mike Ovitz.

Also in the front row, in their usual aisle spots, were Valentino and his partner, Giancarlo Giammetti (any reader who has not yet seen the documentary about these two men, The Last Emperor, is urged to do so). With Giammetti bidding -- Valentino never touches money -- the two won David Hockney’s early painting, California Art Collector (1964), for $5,458,500 ("They let you in their homes," Hockney remarked, "but you never see the husbands.")

Plenty of buyers of "cheaper" lots were in the room, including Jeffrey Deitch, who purchased Alexander Calder’s spare Extreme Cantilever from 1940 for $842,500; art consultant Kim Heirston, who won William Baziotes’ 1953 Jungle Night for $338,500; private dealer Neal Meltzer, a former Christie’s contemporary expert, who snagged Lee Krasner’s 12 Hour Crossing (1981) for $722,500; and Paris dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, who won Alex Katz’s Nabil’s Loft (1976) for $350,500.

The auction got off to a notable start when Alice Neel’s dramatic 1970 portrait of Warhol superstars Jackie Curtis and Rita Red sold for $1,650,500, a new action record for the artist. It was one of some 20 lots from the extensive holdings of Akron collectors Mary Schiller Myers and Louis S. Myers. The tire magnate and his wife would regularly roll into town and buy then-fresh works from Pace, Marlborough and Xavier Fourcade. The buyer, sitting in the back of the room, was Chelsea dealer James Cohan (or at least he looked like Cohan).

The Mugrabi clan -- Jose and son Alfredo were there together -- also won the cropped-in version of Warhol’s Tunafish Disaster (1963) for $1,202,500 and Richard Prince’s Doctor’s Nurse (2002) for $1,706,500, while Larry Gagosian was the winning bidder for Warhol’s 1962 Roll of Dollar Bills drawing for $4,226,500 and John Currin’s Old Couple (1993) for $842,500.

New auction records were set for Jean Dubuffet, whose Trinite-Champs-Elysees (1961) sold for $6,130,500; Germaine Richier, whose La Feuille (1948), a five-foot-tall bronze figure of a twisting nude, went for $842,500; and Juan Munoz, whose Five Seated Figures from 1996 sold for $1,202,500.

One unsold lot was Jeff Koons’ admirably tacky but soft-core Ilona on Top (1990), estimated at $2,000,000-$3,000,000, which failed to draw a bid. Gagosian, who works with the artist, could be seen shaking his head.

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