Barnett Newman Leads Sotheby’s NYC $294 Million Auction

A monumental Barnett Newman canvas fetched a record $43.8 million at a $294 million Sotheby’s auction last night, as contemporary art prices rose with stocks.

“The speculative element is returning to the market,” said Jonathan Binstock, senior adviser in postwar and contemporary art at Citi Private Bank. “There’s more money to spend on riskier opportunities, ones that would have seemed unappealing just a few years prior.”

Hours earlier, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index stock benchmark climbed to its eighth high in nine sessions.

The auction’s tally surpassed the presale low estimate of $284 million but fell short of the $383 million high estimate. Records were set for four artists, including Gerhard Richter and Nate Lowman, while 11 of the 64 lots didn’t sell. Bidders from 35 countries registered for the sale, Sotheby’s said.

Consigned by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft Corp., Newman’s 8.5-by-10-foot “Onement VI” was estimated at $30 million to $40 million. Its sale was ensured by an undisclosed third-party guarantee.

Claudia Dwek, deputy chairman of contemporary art in Europe for Sotheby’s, bought the painting for a phone client. The price smashed Newman’s previous auction record of $22.5 million, set last May at Christie’s. At least five bidders competed for the work.

Richter’s 1968 “Domplatz, Mailand (Cathedral Square, Milan)” fetched $37.1 million against the presale estimate of $30 million to $40 million. It set a record for the German artist and was the highest price at auction for a living artist. Donald Bryant, a New York collector, bought it in the saleroom.

Bacon Burned

The biggest casualty was a Francis Bacon portrait of his lover that was estimated at $30 million to $40 million. Another high-profile casualty: a sculpture of four vacuum cleaners by Jeff Koons, who has two major gallery exhibitions in New York. It was estimated at $10 million to $15 million.

“Tonight was not the night of the Hoovers,” said Tobias Meyer, the evening’s auctioneer, clad in a white tuxedo top.

The auction had a respectable mogul quotient -- Barnes & Noble Inc. founder Leonard Riggio and developer Harry Macklowe attended and designer Valentino Garavani bought at least two works.

Yves Klein’s 1959 sculpture made with sea sponges drenched in the artist’s trademark blue pigment fetched $22 million, the highest price paid for a sculpture by the artist. Estimated in the region of $20 million, it has been shown in numerous museum exhibitions.

Wry Italian

Maurizio Cattelan’s “Stadium” sold for $2.6 million, below its $3.5 million high estimate, but still dear for a 23-foot-long foosball game. Created in 1991, it was the first major sculpture by the wry Italian, according to the auction catalog.

Art dealer David Zwirner won Jackson Pollock’s 1946 painting “The Blue Unconscious” at $20.9 million. He said he bought it on behalf of a collector.

The Newman painting has an unusual history. It was purchased in 1961 by the Beverly Hills collectors Marcia and Frederick Weisman. For years it hung in the living room of the late Marcia Weisman, said her granddaughter Abby Weisman, who attended the sale.

“That’s such a classic painting,” said Abby Weisman. “It was hanging there until 1989.”

Tax Evasion

In 1990 “Onement VI” became part of an art trove acquired by Contemporary Art Holding Corp., a company formed by people including art dealer Larry Gagosian and newsprint mogul Peter Brant.

In 2003, both men were charged with tax evasion related to the one-day transaction which included acquiring 62 works of art, selling 58 works of art, and earning about $17 million in taxable capital gains, according to a civil lawsuit filed against Gagosian and Brant by then-U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Comey in Manhattan.

The Newman was one of four remaining paintings that weren’t sold. In 2000, Brant sold “Onement VI,” according to the 2004 order of settlement and dismissal of the case.

The seller of the painting at Sotheby’s acquired the painting in 2000, according to the catalog.

Eight lots in the sale were donated by artists and art foundations to raise money for the construction of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new building at the High Line. The group tallied $11.8 million, surpassing its high estimate of $6.6 million.

Making his evening-sale debut at Sotheby’s was Lowman, whose “Black Escalade” (2005) fetched $665,000, surpassing the high estimate of $450,000 and setting an auction record for the artist. He was born in 1979.

Muse highlights include Greg Evans and Craig Seligman on movies.

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