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Basquiat, Pollock Lead Christie’s $495 Million Record

"Dustheads" (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. It was estimated at $25 million to $35 million and sold for $48.8 million in a New York auction in May 2013. Source: Christie's Images Ltd. 2013 via Bloomberg

Records were smashed for Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein and auctions themselves as Christie’s sold $495 million of contemporary art last night in New York.

It was the biggest art auction in history, said Marc Porter, chairman of Christie’s Americas.

“You have a lot of foreign money, a lot of hedge-fund money,” said Miami collector Martin Margulies after he exited the packed salesroom. “Stocks could go down 50 percent. If this goes down, it will eventually go back up. These are historical pieces.”

The auction established 12 records -- including milestones for Joseph Cornell, Hans Hofmann, Piero Manzoni, Philip Guston, Richard Serra, Luc Tuymans and Julie Mehretu. Just four of the 70 lots failed to find buyers.

Anchored by two collections -- of the late crooner Andy Williams and philanthropists Celeste and Armand Bartos -- the sale attracted intense bidding. Actor Owen Wilson sat in the third row, flanked by dealer Tony Shafrazi and collector Peter Brant.

“It was amazing,” said dealer Asher Edelman. “Nobody knows what to do with their money, I guess.”

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index yesterday rose for the ninth time in 10 sessions. The benchmark for U.S. equities is up 16 percent this year and has more than doubled since March 2009.

Earlier Record

A dozen lots were guaranteed by either a third party or Christie’s. The tally narrowly surpassed the previous auction record of $491.5 million, which Christie’s set in November 2006 for Impressionist and modern works. The top lot then was an $88 million Gustav Klimt portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

Adjusted for inflation, that sale exceeded $560 million in today’s dollars.

Last night, Basquiat’s “Dustheads” estimated to bring $25 million to $35 million, went for $48.8 million to an unnamed client on the phone for whom Christie’s international specialist Loic Gouzer was bidding. Gouzer worked with Leonardo DiCaprio on Christie’s May 13 auction to benefit conservation.

Minutes later, Pollock’s “Number 19,” a 1948 drip painting, sold for $58.4 million. It was the evening’s top lot, with a high presale estimate of $35 million. Brett Gorvy, Christie’s chairman and international head of postwar and contemporary art, bought it for a client.

The price surpassed the previous Pollock record, $40.4 million, set at Sotheby’s in November. Prices include the buyer’s premium; estimates do not.

‘New Era’

“We are in a new era of the art market,” auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen told reporters after the sale. “Pictures are making prices we couldn’t have imagined only a few years ago.”

Lichtenstein’s 1963 riff on Picasso, “Woman With Flowered Hat,” went for $56.1 million in a battle between Gorvy and jeweler Laurence Graff. Graff won after almost giving up at $46.5 million.

“I always saw it in the textbooks,” Graff said, adding that it was one of his priciest purchases. “I’ve got a big birthday coming up and I bought it for my birthday.”

The previous Lichtenstein record, $44.9 million, was set in May 2012 at Sotheby’s.

Willem de Kooning’s 1953 “Woman (Blue Eyes)” fetched $19.2 million. It was bought by New York dealer Dominique Levy. She was an under-bidder for Guston’s 1958 abstract canvas, “To Fellini,” which sold for a record $25.9 million over the phone.

Angel Dust

The record Basquiat canvas depicts two colorful, big-headed characters on a black background; one looks dazed, the other confused. The title refers to the street slang for the users of the drug PCP, or angel dust. The neo-expressionist painter died at 27 in 1988.

Although Christie’s didn’t identify the seller, dealers said the painting was consigned by collector Tiqui Atencio.

The Basquiat market has been on the rise. In 2012, his auction sales totaled $161.5 million, more than doubling from the previous year, according to Artnet. He ranked 8th last year, compared to 18th in 2011, overtaking Lichtenstein and de Kooning.

Last year, Basquiat records were set and toppled. In November, his untitled canvas depicting a fisherman with a halo sold for $26.4 million at Christie’s in New York. Less than five months earlier, a 1981 self-portrait sold for $20.2 million at Christie’s in London.

Muse highlights include Rich Jaroslovsky on technology.

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