Basquiat, Schutz Boost $87 Million Phillips de Pury Sale

"Untitled" by Jean-Michel Basquiat. The 1981 painting sold for a record $16.3 million at Phillips, New York, in May 2012. Source: Phillips de Pury & Company via Bloomberg

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1981 painting of a skeletal, Christ-like figure sold for $16.3 million at Phillips de Pury’s contemporary-art auction last night, setting a record for the late Neo-expressionist painter.

The auction house estimated a price between $8 million and $12 million for the 6-by-4-foot canvas, which was consigned by collector Robert Lehrman. It attracted three telephone bidders but no one in the midtown Manhattan sales room where lots of seats were empty.

The painting, one of 11 in the sale guaranteed to sell, was the top lot of an auction that totaled $86.9 million, within the expected range of $75.9 million to $110.7 million. Of the 44 lots, nine failed to sell, including pieces by Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly and Richard Prince.

“Things that are desirable and iconic sell very well,” said Simone Battisti, who recently joined the Gladstone Gallery in New York and Brussels as associate director. “Others don’t.”

Owned by the Russian retailer Mercury Group, the Phillips sale was the last of five evening auctions that produced records, including a $120 million Munch and an $87 million Rothko.

Two of Phillips’s three auction records were achieved in the last few minutes.

A vibrant 10-by-6.5-foot painting by Dana Schutz titled “Death Comes to Us All” (2003) sold for $482,500, surpassing its high estimate and the Brooklyn artist’s previous auction record of $288,000, set in May 2007.

‘Dana Was a Star’

The work depicts a semi-human form with a beak nose holding a cigarette in its hand and standing in the middle of a road.

“Dana was a star from the first time we saw her work,” said Miami-based collector Mera Rubell, exiting the room after the sale. “We bought from her first show.”

How much did she pay?

“I don’t remember: $5,000? $10,000?” she said. She didn’t buy the record-setting work.

Seth Price’s 2009 brown polystyrene panel with ropes sold for $92,500, topping the estimate of $50,000 to $70,000 and establishing a record for the artist.

Willem de Kooning’s 1975 painting “Untitled VI” sold for $12.4 million, within the expected range of $10 million to $15 million. The guaranteed lot last sold at auction for $1.4 million at Sotheby’s in May 2000.

Christopher Wool’s 1998 aluminum panel with floral pattern fetched $722,500, or about 25 times the amount paid by the consigner for the work at Christie’s in May 2001.

‘Emergency Nurse’

The seller of Claes Oldenburg’s humorous sculpture “Popsicle, Hamburger, Price” (1961-1962) was not so lucky. It went for $458,500, a 27 percent decline from the seller’s purchase price of $632,000 at Christie’s in 2006.

When Prince’s 2004 canvas “Emergency Nurse” came on the block with a presale estimate of $3 million to $5 million, auctioneer Simon de Pury tried humor after the work failed to elicit a single bid.

“It can come in very handy, the emergency nurse,” he implored.

The audience wasn’t convinced.

“Passed,” de Pury said and hit the gavel on the unsold lot.

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and Lewis Lapham on books.

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