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Nov. 9, 2010 

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The headline contemporary art sale at Sotheby’s New York on the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2010, sold 49 of 54 lots offered, or almost 91 percent, for a total of $222,454,500 (with premium), exceeding the $214 million presale high estimate. Six lots sold for over $10 million, compared to only two at the firm’s contemporary sale in May. The total this time around, $222 million, shows a gradual climb from of the doldrums of the May 2008 sale ($47 million), through November 2009 ($134 million) and May 1010 ($190 million).

But who cares about that? Spotted among the bidders was a real jewel of the auction room, model Stephanie Seymour, back in the audience after an absence of almost two years. She wore a simple black sweater and flaring skirt, her brown hair pulled back in a French schoolgirl hairdo. The overhead lighting made her skin glow like porcelain. She occasionally rested her chin on her hand, or turned to smile in response to something said by her husband, Peter Brant, who was sitting beside her. Yes, the divorcing couple is back together, and even enjoying each other’s company. Now that’s something to see.

As for the auction, the top lot was Andy Warhol’s seven-foot-tall, black-and-white painting of an anthropomorphic Coca-Cola bottle, possibly his final hand-painted work, which sold for $35,362,500, well above the presale high estimate of $25 million. The seller was photographer Elizabeth Richebourg Rea, who with her late husband, the real estate and broadcasting mogul Michael Rea, bought the picture at auction for $143,000 in 1983.

Bidding for the lot started at $15 million and climbed with agonizing slowness in $500,000 increments until it was knocked down for $31.5 million at the hammer to a bidder on the phone with Sotheby’s specialist Alex Rotter. Along the way dealers David Nahmad and Dominique Levy, plus several phone bidders, took stabs at the work, but it was Jose Mugrabi who stayed in the game to the penultimate bid.

Auctioneer Tobias Meyer conducted the sale with all the speed of a tortoise, taking sizeable pauses in between each step, as if his corporate overseers -- still eyeing the firm’s wracked bottom line -- had commanded him to wring every last dollar from the assembled art lovers. This amazing performance, a kind of anti-spectacle, was repeated for all the major lots.

It’s a performance we’ll try not to imitate. The other eight-figure lots included paintings by Mark Rothko ($22.5 million), Roy Lichtenstein ($14 million), Francis Bacon ($14 million), Gerhard Richter ($13.2 million) and Gerhard Richter again ($11.3 million).

New auction records were set for Julie Mehretu ($2,322,500), Jim Hodges ($2,098,500), Cady Noland ($1,762,500), Larry Rivers ($1,142,500) and Urs Fischer ($1,082,500).

A few winning bidders were in the room, notably Houston dealer Robert McClain (sitting with art historian and former museum hand Charles Stuckey, now completing the catalogue raisonné for Yves Tanguy), who bought the lesser of the two Richters.

Other winners included Pace Gallery’s Susan Dunn, talking on a cell phone, who snagged Warhol’s violet Last Supper of 1986 for $6.8 million, and San Francisco dealer Anthony Meier, who purchased the desktop-sized bronze spider by Louise Bourgeois for $3.6 million.

Valentino, via his partner Giancarlo Giammetti, bought both a Joan Mitchell painting for $2.2 million and a Richter abstraction for $4.3 million. Larry Gagosian snagged the Warhol pencil drawing of a Coca-Cola bottle for $1,482,500.

And last but not least, Jose Mugrabi did win the Alexander Calder stabile Un blanc, trois noirs (1968) for $2,882,500. Unlike most of the other buyers, Mugrabi didn’t flash a paddle number. You could say that he "don’t need no stinkin’ paddle." He is known by the auction house, make no mistake.

Nobody bought Rudolf Stingel’s giant piece of stomped-on Styrofoam -- a nice work, but it may have conservation issues down the road -- which was estimated at $600,000-$800,000.

Prices given here include the auction-house buyer’s premium, which is 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the amount between $50,000 and $1 million, and 12 percent on the rest.

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

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