Warhol’s $63 Million Portrait of Elizabeth Taylor Stuns Dealers

Andy Warhol’s blotchy 1962 black-and-white painting of serially married movie star Elizabeth Taylor sold for $63.4 million last night at Phillips de Pury & Co. in New York, the second-highest price for the artist at auction.

Warhol’s “Men in Her Life’’ helped the Russian-backed auction house record its highest total, $137 million, as 52 of the 59 lots offered found buyers. Nine artists achieved auction records including Cindy Sherman, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Rudolf Stingel.

The seven-foot-tall Warhol, based on a photo from Life magazine depicting a demure Taylor with third husband Mike Todd and future husband Eddie Fisher, had been estimated to sell for around $40 million, a tag some dealers said before the sale was ambitious. The price soared past the estimate in a battle between two telephone bidders.

“Two people wanted it -- as simple as that,” said New York dealer Christophe Van de Weghe. “What a great way to kick off the week.”

Phillips’s sale begins a trio of contemporary art auctions that are a benchmark for the industry’s recovery from last year’s slump. Sotheby’s and Christie’s International’s sales today and tomorrow evening are projected to sell as much as $565 million.

A year ago, Phillips’s equivalent sale tallied $7 million. It boosted the total almost 20-fold this year partly by tapping private dealer Philippe Segalot who concocted an extra sale, titled “Carte Blanche.’’ Segalot stocked the sale with names he champions and lined up bidders in exchange for a cut of the buyer’s fees. The anonymous winner of the Warhol was a client of his, he said at the post-sale press conference.

‘Huge’ Price

Jonathan P. Binstock, a senior adviser at Citi Private Bank’s Art Advisory, described the price for the Warhol as “surprisingly huge.”

Segalot’s “Carte Blanche’’ portion of the sale was estimated to reap over $80 million and brought $117 million. The rest of the sale was estimated to total as much as $34.4 million and made $19.9 million.

The estimates do not include fees. Phillips 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.

Segalot locked in buyers who contractually agreed to bid on certain works, eliminating some of the evening’s drama. The Warhol was offered subject to a pre-arranged guarantee from a third party. The same pledge underpinned a halo-topped Jean-Michel Basquiat 1982 “Self-Portrait’’ that sold for $4.6 million, near the low estimate.

Mudcaked Corpse

Cindy Sherman’s nearly six foot tall “Untitled #153,’’ featuring the artist as a mudcaked corpse, sold for a record $2.7 million, near the $3 million high estimate.

“Philippe does have his finger on the pulse, obviously,” said dealer Rachel Mauro. Segalot, whose clients include French billionaire and Christie’s owner Francois Pinault, ran Christie’s contemporary art department for four years, before becoming a private dealer.

Works not bound to pre-arranged bidding also fared well. Takashi Murakami’s 1997 Lolita-like “Miss Ko2’’ statue of a girl sporting a Hooters-style waitress ensemble fetched $6.8 million, topping the $6 million estimate. The artist, hair piled high in a top knot, observed proceedings from the back of the salesroom. The buyer was dealer Jose Mugrabi, whom other dealers identified as the seller of the $63 million Warhol.

New Saleroom

Last night’s event was the first held in Phillips’s new midtown Manhattan salesroom at 450 Park Avenue, an expansion geared to help the company compete with uptown rivals Sotheby’s and Christie’s. It’s Phillips’s second attempt at moving after an ill-fated effort in 2001 to operate from a 57th Street address under the ownership of French retailer Bernard Arnault. Phillips has retained its old 15th Street outpost.

Not everything sold well last night. A Jeff Koons painting and sculpture both flopped.

“We put aggressive prices, but the Koons market wasn’t there to support it,” said Michael McGinnis, Phillips worldwide head of contemporary art.

Paul McCarthy’s 2005 life-like sculpture of a slumbering pig, “Mechanical Pig,” estimated to sell for $3.5 million on behalf of Chicago collectors Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson, also didn’t sell.

“It’s an auction, and an auction is not a perfect science,” said Segalot.

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