Warhol, Rothko, Sherman Fuel $301.7 Million Tally at Christie’s

"Self-Portrait" (1963-1964) by Andy Warhol sold for $38.4 million at Christie’s on May 11. Source: Christie's via Bloomberg

The market for trophy art roared back after a three-night case of the blahs as Christie’s International saw its biggest tally for a New York evening contemporary-art sale since May 2008.

All but three of the 65 lots sold last night, with Cy Twombly and Richard Diebenkorn paintings setting records and a Cindy Sherman fetching the highest price ever for a photo at auction, $3.9 million.

The $301.7 million total surpassed the $299 million high presale estimate and was the closely held auctioneer’s largest in the category since the market was sideswiped by the world financial crisis.

The top lot was Andy Warhol’s 1963-64 “Self-Portrait,” made of four photo-booth-strip images in different shades of blue.

It went for $38.4 million, above the $30 million high estimate, after a tortuous -- some dealers said tedious -- bidding war between private art dealer Philippe Segalot and a telephone client of Brett Gorvy, deputy chairman and international head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s. The price was an auction record for a Warhol portrait.

Dealers said the evening offered rarer works than Sotheby’s $128.1 million contemporary sale the previous night. Collectors and dealers had likewise complained that the two Impressionist and modern evening sales last week skimped on masterpieces.

‘Night and Day’

“It’s like night and day,” said Lucy Mitchell-Innes, a New York art dealer. Sotheby’s on Tuesday night “was dreary and a real struggle. It’s all about quality.”

Both of the major Sotheby’s New York evening sales were at the low end of their estimates. The auctioneer’s shares are off 23 percent since April 5.

Another highlight at Christie’s was an undocumented 1961 painting by Mark Rothko that went for $33.7 million, above the high presale estimate of $22 million. Classical postwar works by Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Calder and Sam Francis brought strong results.

“Quality speaks,” said Daniella Luxembourg, private art dealer in New York and London. “The rarity of things like Rothko is covering the aggressive estimates.”

‘Because I Love It’

The most aggressively estimated Warhol of the season didn’t fare as well. A 1986 self-portrait of the artist in a spiky wig sold for $27.5 million, missing the low estimate of $30 million. It landed with the Mugrabi family, known for its vast Warhol collection and steadfast support of the artist’s market.

When asked why he bought the Warhol, Jose Mugrabi said, “Why? Because I love it. I have no client for it.”

Projected to fetch $30 million to $40 million, the haunting 9-foot-square canvas had the highest forecast during two weeks of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art sales in New York.

Warhol’s auction record of $71.7 million was achieved at Christie’s in 2007 with the sale of a 1963 canvas, “Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I).”

Rothko’s “Untitled No. 17” features pink and red rectangles on a tangerine-yellow background. The 1961 painting, which hasn’t been seen publicly since 1965, is one of 10 of his discovered since the publication of the artist’s catalogue raisonne in 1998.

“It’s one of the very few that got away,” said David Anfam, London-based art historian, recently. “It went to a private collection soon after it was made and those collectors just kept a very low profile.”

Bear by Urs

A giant, 35,000-pound yellow teddy bear by Urs Fischer, parked for the past month outside of Manhattan’s Seagram building, sold for $6.8 million, a record for the artist -- and for a teddy bear.

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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