Christie’s Smashes Record With $852.9 Million N.Y. Sale

Christie’s sold a record $852.9 million of postwar and contemporary art in a New York auction that set 11 all-time-high prices for artists including Georg Baselitz, Cy Twombly, Ed Ruscha and Cindy Sherman.

Last night’s sale smashed Christie’s $745 million record set on May 13 for postwar and contemporary art and the $691 million tally from last November’s equivalent evening sales. Christie’s, beating its high estimate of $836 million, sold 75 of the 80 lots in just over 2 1/2 hours.

“It proves the market is globally very strong,” said Sandra Nedvetskaia, director of the contemporary art fair Cosmoscow and the former director of Christie’s Russia. “There were so many international bidders.”

Christie’s sale comes in the middle of the second week of the fall auction season in Manhattan that has the potential to become a record if high prices continue. In May, $2.2 billion of Impressionist, modern, postwar and contemporary art was sold in New York. Last November, the total for these categories was $1.8 billion. Christie’s will conduct day sales today while Phillips’s postwar and contemporary evening sale is set for tonight; its Nov. 14 day sale rounds out the season.

The auction at Christie’s last night had more than 500 registered bidders from 43 countries, said Brett Gorvy, Christie’s chairman and international head of postwar and contemporary art. About 10,000 visitors viewed the works in Christie’s Rockefeller Center galleries in the weeks leading up to the sale. Three works sold above $50 million, 23 above $10 million and 69 above $1 million.

Packed Salesroom

More than 750 people packed the salesroom last night including Francois Pinault, the billionaire owner of Christie’s, and J. Tomilson Hill, vice chairman of Blackstone Group LP.

The top two lots were Andy Warhol paintings of Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando that sold for a combined $151.5 million. The works had been owned by a German casino company since the late 1970s. For the last five years they’d been in storage, Christie’s said.

“Triple Elvis,” a 1963 silkscreen of Presley in a publicity image for the movie “Flaming Star” in which he is shown as a cowboy with a gun, sold for $81.9 million. The almost 7-foot-tall work, in which Warhol repeated the image three times, had an estimate of more than $60 million.

Twombly Record

“Four Marlons,” depicting four identical images of a young Marlon Brando wearing a leather jacket and a cap in a still from the movie “The Wild One,” fetched $69.6 million. The 1966 work, which is 6.75-feet-high, also had a $60 million estimate.

A rare 1970 painting by Cy Twombly from his “Blackboard” series set an auction record for the artist, fetching $69.6 million. The 5-foot-high canvas, with white concentric loops on a gray background, had been valued at $35 million to $55 million.

“It sold in the range I thought it would,” said Amy Cappellazzo, a founder and principal of the advisory firm Art Agency Partners in New York. “There was a lot of pent up demand.”

Twombly’s previous record was set last year, when his 24-piece oil, crayon, and house paint painting “24 Works: Poems to the Sea” sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $21.7 million. The previous record for his chalkboard-style paintings was in 2012, when “Untitled (New York City)” sold for $17.4 million at Sotheby’s in New York.

Papal Figure

“Seated Figure,” a 1960 painting by Francis Bacon of a papal figure on a red chair set against a deep red background, sold for $44.9 million. It had been valued at $40 million to $60 million. The work last sold for 1.5 million pounds ($2.5 million) at Christie’s in London in 1996.

“I was a little bit surprised by the Bacon,” said Nedvetskaia. “I thought it would go higher.”

Bacon’s triptych “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” sold to Elaine Wynn in New York last November at Christie’s for $142.4 million, which holds the world auction record.

“Clamdigger,” a rare bronze sculpture by Willem de Kooning, sold for $29.2 million, an auction record for a sculpture by the artist. Executed in 1972 and one of an edition of seven, it had remained in the De Kooning family since its creation. Just under 5-feet-tall, the sculpture was estimated between $25 million and $35 million.

Pop Artist

Another work that came to auction for the first time was “Julie and Martin,” a 2001 painting by Lucian Freud. The work, depicting a nude woman resting her head in the lap of a fully clothed man, sold for just under $17 million.

Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein had seven works up for sale, ranging from “10c” a 2.5-foot-wide ink on paper drawing from 1961 that sold for $2.7 million. A surreal landscape painting over 8-feet-wide from 1977 sold for $18 million, within its estimate of $15 million to $20 million. The work had been in the same collection since 1978. A black, white, and yellow painting, “Keds,” failed to sell. The work was bought in by the auction house at $19 million.

“Lichtenstein isn’t at the top of everyone’s wish list at the moment,” said Thea Westreich, a principal of Thea Westreich Art Advisory Services in New York. “Warhol seems to have gained ascendancy in the Pop market, and has for some years now.”

Four Richters

The other artist represented in force was Gerhard Richter. Four paintings by the German artist had high estimates ranging from $7 million to $30 million. Three of the works sold within their estimates, while the painting with the lowest estimate at $5 million to $7 million fetched $9.25 million.

The records began with the first lot, when a golden, vacuum formed polysterene piece by Seth Price called “Vintage Bomber” sold for $785,000, sweeping past its high estimate of $70,000.

The next record came seconds later when Baselitz’s colorful, semi-abstract painting of four figures from 1981 sold for $7.4 million, breaking his 2011 auction record of $5.2 million at Sotheby’s in London.

More than eight bidders competed for Yayoi Kusama’s “White No. 28,” one of her infinity paintings from 1960. It sold for $7.1 million, breaking her 2008 auction record of $5.8 million at Christie’s in New York. Ruscha’s “Smash,” a vivid blue and yellow Pop painting with the words of the title, also set an artist auction record at $3.4 million. Records also were set for Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” and Martin Kippenberger’s 1988 self-portrait of himself in his underwear.

By the end, world auction records were set for 11 artists and four records were for artists in a medium.

Little Known

Last night’s auction promoted some desirable if little-known artists like Kazuo Shiraga, a Japanese avant-garde expressionist painter.

Shiraga’s “BB56” from 1961, in which the artist placed the canvas on the floor and painted with his feet, is a blend of red, blue, and yellow paint. It sold for $4.9 million to Cappellazzo, just below its high estimate of $5 million. Shiraga’s works will be exhibited at Dominique Levy gallery in New York starting Jan. 29, and at Mnuchin Gallery in the city starting March 2.

“It may look like an aggressive number,” said dealer Robert Mnuchin, who bid on the work. “But there’s a strong interest in very high-quality works by Shiraga, particularly red works, and particularly from the 1960s.”

Though Mnuchin lost the Shiraga, he bought a white Robert Ryman painting for $11.4 million that was valued at $8 million to $12 million.

Aggressive Estimates

Several works with aggressive estimates sold at the lower end of the spectrum. “Balloon Monkey (Orange),” an orange stainless steel sculpture by Jeff Koons, fetched $25.9 million. The 12.5-foot-tall work, which looks like an inflated balloon, had an estimate of $20 million to $30 million. It has been displayed outside Christie’s Rockefeller Center headquarters. The sale came a day after his yellow “Moon (Yellow)” sculpture, with an estimate of $12 million to $18 million, failed to sell at Sotheby’s.

A 1958 Franz Kline painting valued at as much as $30 million sold for $26.4 million. The seller of “King Oliver” is billionaire money manager Steven A. Cohen, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Some market players wonder how long rising prices can last. Of the 80 lots, 14 were guaranteed by third parties and Sotheby’s guaranteed 23 lots. Guarantees are when the auction house or a third party agrees to pay the seller a minimum sum, regardless of whether or not the work finds a bidder.

“We’re dealing with a very small percentage of buyers and sellers,” said Westreich, the adviser. “The fact that auction houses have to put up guarantees means that sellers are nervous and are going to play the game only if they’re going to win it. How many people do you know walking around that have $25 million to spend, season after season, on a work of art?”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE