Crichton’s $29 Million Jasper Johns Flag Boosts Christie’s Sale

``Flag'' by Jasper Johns
The Jasper Johns collage, ``Flag,'' dating from 1960 to 1966. The work, owned by the late Michael Crichton, is to be auctioned in New York. Source: Christie's Images 2010 via Bloomberg.

A Jasper Johns painting of the American flag from the estate of author Michael Crichton sold for a record $28.6 million last night in New York at Christie’s International’s biggest contemporary art auction in two years.

The $231.9 million total beat the pre-auction high estimate of $207.4 million, with just five of the 79 lots failing to sell. The Johns flag was the top item, one of 31 from Crichton’s estate that fetched a total of $93.3 million.

Collectors said the buoyant sale reflected confidence in the economy, concern about impending inflation and the caliber of the art. American bidders dominated the evening, accounting for 72 percent of the sales, according to Christie’s.

“People are feeling good,” billionaire collector Eli Broad said, pointing out that gold reached a record $1,234.50 an ounce in New York yesterday. “People don’t want to hold currencies.”

Gold has climbed 12 percent in 2010, while the euro has dropped 12 percent against the dollar on concern about mounting European debt. Last week, Christie’s and rival Sotheby’s sold a combined $593.3 million of Impressionist and modern art.

Art is “an anti-currency play,” said Los Angeles money manager Jeffrey Gundlach, of DoubleLine Capital LP. “The sale benefited from that.”

Among those in the packed Rockefeller Center salesroom were fashion designer Marc Jacobs, wearing cowboy boots and a denim baseball cap, author Salman Rushdie and SAC Capital Advisors Chairman Steven A. Cohen, who observed from a skybox. The presence of tennis star John McEnroe and financier Henry Kravis at the preview promised a lively evening.

Five Records

There were five auction records -- for Sam Francis, Lee Bontecou, Christopher Wool, Mark Tansey and Johns. It was Christie’s biggest Manhattan contemporary sale since May 2008, which totaled $331.4 million.

Johns’s “Flag” was created between 1960 and 1966 with wax encaustic and newspaper. It was expected to sell for as much as $15 million. New York dealer Michael Altman, better known for such American oldies as Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth, said he bought it.

“It’s an iconic quintessential masterpiece,” Altman said in a phone interview after the sale. He declined to say who he was bidding on behalf of.

The previous Johns auction record was for “Figure 4,” an image of the numeral 4 that fetched $17.4 million at Christie’s in May 2007.

Last night’s auction followed a 4.4 percent rally the previous day in the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock Index after the European Union and others promised a loan package worth almost $1 trillion for countries struggling to finance budget deficits. The S&P 500 fell 6.4 percent last week and 0.3 percent yesterday.

Few Extra Coins

“The calming of global financial markets helps global wealth,” said Rommel T. Dionisio, a New York-based analyst who follows Sotheby’s for Wedbush Securities Inc. “There are a few extra coins in the pockets of wealthy collectors.” Sotheby’s holds its contemporary art auction tonight.

Crichton died in 2008 at 66. He and Johns, who turns 80 on Saturday, enjoyed a four-decade friendship. The writer acquired the flag directly from the artist in 1973. Johns’s flag series is considered among the linchpin images of the 1960s Pop Art movement, when artists brought figuration back into painting.

Johns asked Crichton to write the catalog for his 1977 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Crichton’s best-selling works began with “The Andromeda Strain,” which he wrote while a student at Harvard Medical School. He swiftly ditched medicine and penned blockbusters including “Jurassic Park.” He also created the hit television show “ER.”

Devotion and Dementia

Crichton characterized his collecting style as “casual.” In a 1980 interview cited in the catalog, he said: “I have neither the knowledge, the devotion, nor the dementia of the deeply committed collector.” He said he often bought works by artists he had met.

Pop art boosted the sale. Robert Rauschenberg’s 1960-61 “Studio Painting,” including a sandbag dangling on a pulley, sold for $11 million to an anonymous phone bidder. The work is from the artist’s “combine” painting series, which included random objects from everyday life affixed to the canvas, transforming painting into a pseudo sculpture.

Non-Crichton booty also found aggressive suitors.

A 1960-1961 nine-foot wide cobalt blue Yves Klein painting sold for $12.4 million, above the $8 million to $12 million estimate. “Anthropometrie ‘Le Buffle’ (ANT 93)” was created by paint smeared by nude models.

Warhol’s Liz

Andy Warhol’s two-paneled 1963 “Silver Liz,” of a sultry red-lipped Elizabeth Taylor, sold for $18.3 million to New York dealer Dominique Levy, of L & M Arts. Dealers identified Washington collector Melvin Estrin as the seller.

A second Warhol didn’t fare as well: nine repeating portraits of art dealer Holly Solomon made $5.5 million, below the $7 million to $12 million estimate. Seattle real estate developer Richard Hedreen was the seller, according to dealers.

Christie’s charges buyers 25 percent of the hammer price up to $50,000, plus 20 percent from $50,000 to $1 million, plus 12 percent above $1 million.

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