NEW YORK — Powered by a record-breaking Andy Warhol disaster painting, Sotheby’s Contemporary Art evening sale made an impressive $380,642,000. It represents the highest price achieved for any auction session in the firm’s history. But what does it mean?
Forty-seven of the 54 lots that sold made over $1 million. Of those, two made over $10 million, and seven made over $20 million. Dollars. Additionally, seven artist records were set.
The evening started out on a spirited note with a number of recently minted art stars, including The Bruce High Quality Foundation’s politically charged “Hooverville,” an acrylic-and-silkscreen on canvas composition that sold for a record $425,000 (est. $200-300,000); as well as Mark Bradford’s densely layered “Mithra” (2008) abstraction, in mixed-media and collage on canvas, which sold for a record $2,629,000 (est. $600-800,000). London dealer Jay Jopling was the underbidder on the latter and Julian Schnabel’s son on the former which means that the prices were artificially inflated by their dealers.
Ambitious works such as “Untitled” (1981), Martin Kippenberger’s stunning, large-scale billboard style painting featuring the artist posed in a fur-collared coat and cowboy hat in front of the Berlin Wall (which was executed by a hired sign-painter), sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for a record $6,437,000 (est. $6-8 million). The Kippenberger carried a financial guarantee, backed in full by Sotheby’s. Overall, Sotheby’s had a dozen lots financed by the house or anonymous third-party investors which means that they also could be artificially inflated through loans given by Sotheby’s against their own guarantees. Are we back to bubble times practices?
Every auction is filled with back stories, some better than others — and Sotheby’s was no exception, judging by a small-yet-choice group of guaranteed paintings from the collection of distressed hedge-fund manager Steve Cohen, whose firm pleaded guilty to fraud charges last week following a lengthy investigation into insider trading.
Of the Cohen kit, Brice Marden’s elegant, loopily lined abstraction “The Attended” (1996-99) sold to a telephone bidder for $10,917,000 (est. $7-10 million), setting a record for the artist; andGerhard Richter’s large-scaled “A.B. Courbet” (1986) sold to another telephone for $26,485,000 (est. $15-20 million). Andrew Fabricant of New York’s Richard Gray Gallery was the underbidder on the Marden work, which made art market news when Cohen acquired it (for an undisclosed price, in the region of $20 million) at Pace Gallery during last year’s Art Basel Miami Beach. Here it is evident how it works. The gallerists are bidding against the people to whom they sold them to maintain the price of their stock. Artificially inflated again.
Cohen’s most valuable and high-profile piece was Andy Warhol’s “Liz #1 (Early Colored Liz)” (November 1963), an alluring portrait against a lemon-yellow background. Formerly in the esteemed collection of art-world legend Ileana Sonnabend, it was acquired by Cohen acquired in 2008 when, following Sonnabend’s death the year before, her estate was compelled to privately sell some $600 million of art in order to pay estate taxes. Estimated at $20-30 million, it brought an underwhelming $20,325,000, attracting a single telephone bid. This means that the heirs sold in tax free fashion their assets in order to pay taxes which means that they already used tax payers money through exemption. I would really like to know the name of the bidder because everytime that a Warhol sells slightly over the lower estimate, it is Mugrabi or Aby Rosen protecting Warhol prices…am I wrong?
The second Warhol on sale confirms my theory. It was another Sonnabend-provenanced Warhol from the guaranteed Cohen trove, the gruesome “Five Deaths on Turquoise” (1963), sold to New York dealer Stellan Holm for $7,333,000 (est. $7-10 million). Really? Did she buy it or are the same people behind?
In addition to the chatter surrounding the Cohen sales, there was some short-lived drama over Sotheby’s choice consignment of some $20-million worth of art offerings from the Dia Art Foundation, when foundation founders Heiner Friedrich and Fariha de Menil Friedrichfiled suit in New York State court in an attempt to get an injunction against the Dia and Sotheby’s to halt the sale, claiming it would be a breach of “…good faith and fair dealing.” The suit was withdrawn on Monday, bringing a collective sigh of relief from the auction house and the foundation, which intends to use the proceeds to establish an acquisitions fund.
The Dia trove realized a bullish $38.4 million compared against pre-sale expectations of $19.1-$25.6 million. Of its top-class highlights, John Chamberlain’s early painted and chromium-plated steel sculpture “Candy Andy” (1963) sold to New York/London dealer Christopher Eykynof Eykyn Maclean for $4,645,000 (est. $2-3 million); and Cy Twombly’s sublime “Poems to the Sea” (July 1959), a 24-part work in oil-based house paint, pencil and wax crayon on paper, sold to a telephone bidder for a record $21,669,000. Larry Gagosian was the direct underbidder on this one, and New York private dealer Philippe Segalot was also part of the Twombly-chasing posse.“I didn’t get anything tonight,” said Segalot later as he exited the salesroom, “because what you want goes for the highest prices.”
Abstract Expressionist game was also on offer, including Willem de Kooning’s richly painted, fresh-to-market, 70-by-80 inch “Untitled V” (1975), considered part of an important series celebrating the artist’s return to painting after a concentrated spell of sculpture-making. Having come to market with a Sotheby’s financial guarantee, it sold for $24,805,000 (est. $25-35 million).
Women artists from the New York School also starred, as Joan Mitchell’s “Atlantic Side” (1960-61), a thickly impastoed abstraction executed in a large, square format, sold for $6,885,0000 (est. $5-7 million). Agnes Martin’s mystical oil-and-pencil on canvas “On the Beach” (1964) sold to New York dealer Neal Meltzer for a record $6,549,000 (est. $2.5-3.5 million). Former L.A. MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch was part of the posse of underbidders, as was Nicolo Cardi of Milan’s Cardi Black Box. Again look at the buyers. They are the dealers holding prices up.
But the unopposed highlight of the evening, and a major contender for the season’s greatest offering, was Andy Warhol’s cover lot, “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)” (1963), a massive diptych in silkscreen-ink and silver-spraypaint on canvas, which sold to another anonymous telephone bidder for a record $105,445,000 (est. $60-80 million). Anonymous again? I think that the Warhol market is crashing. I know it sounds paradoxical but it is very interesting what happens in just one auction with three almost identical Warhols.
Auctioneer Tobias Meyer opened the bidding at $50 million, and a telephone bidder immediately jumped that to $60 million; from then on, it was a snail-paced climb of million-dollar increment bids to the winning hammer price of $94 million (prior to the tacked-on buyer’s premium). Believed to have come from a private Swiss collection, the work’s grotesque image, sourced from a newspaper photo of a fatal car wreck, is repeated in silkscreen 20 times across 4 rows of carnage, with a silver-painted void of space on the right side of the piece. Warhol painted four versions of the double-panel disaster in 1963, and this version has passed through the hands of several great dealers and collectors, including Bruno Bischofberger, Gian Enzo Sperone, the Saatchi Collection and Thomas Ammann.
It went on a block as a straight on consignment, without a guarantee, and incinerated the Warhol auction record set at Christie’s New York in May 2007 when “Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I)” from 1963 sold for $71.7 million. It also ranks as the second highest price for a work of Post-War art at auction, in the vapor trail of Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” which sold for $142.4-million on Tuesday evening at Christie’s. The Warhol stands as the fourth-most-expensive work to sell at auction, with only Edvard Munch and Pablo Picasso ahead before Bacon in the line.
Sotheby’s offered other tough subject matter, including Jean-Michel Basquiat’s searing diptych “Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers)” (1982), in acrylic, oilstick, crayon, paper collage and feathers on joined wood panels. The large-scale work sold to New York dealer Jose Mugrabi for $25,925,000 (est. $15-20 million). Peter Brant and private dealer Philippe Segalot were competing underbidders. Asked about the greatness of the painting, buyer Jose Mugrabi, exiting the salesroom, quipped, “It’s as great as 26 million dollars.”
The Basquiat was sold by seasoned collectors Ivan and Zoya Gerhath, who acquired the work in 1982 from the Larry Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, where Basquiat held his debut West Coast solo show that same year. The diptych was also included in the first major Basquiat retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1992, four years after the artist’s death at age 27.
There were still plenty of living artists in the evening mix, as Rudolf Stingel’s powerful self-portrait “Untitled” (2010) enormous at 131 by 102 inches, sold for $2,517,000 (est. $3-5 million). It came along with a guarantee.
While Sotheby’s had an unquestionably fine evening and super result, the two-hour sale felt flat in comparison to Tuesday evening’s $691.6-million grand fireworks display at Christie’s. “It was a difficult act to follow, frankly,” said London dealer Offer Waterman as he exited the salesroom. “There was definitely not the buzz you felt at Christie’s.” That concludes the evening auction action for the super-charged contemporary art market. I think it is crazy and very tricky. Very!