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Two plump catalogues prove the major auction houses can drive the contemporary market

A week of new records will leave dealers wondering how to set their prices

New York

In another awesome demonstration of auctions’ power to drive the market, two plump catalogues offered by the two leading houses on the consecutive evenings of Tuesday 10 and Wednesday 11 May generated total proceeds of just more than $200 million, with Christie’s accounting for two-thirds of the tally. In the finely balanced business of auction competition, the margin of its achievement, which exactly matched the situation in the previous week’s Impressionist and Modern Art results (see p.50), represents a significant advantage for Christie’s proprietor François Pinault and his department staff.

Whichever category of contemporary art is selected, there was cause for celebration and a parade of new auction records: the Abstract Expressionism of Franz Kline and Philip Guston; Roy Lichtenstein and Chuck Close; Yayoi Kusama; the German photography of Andreas Gursky and Thomas Demand; and the new painting stars of our times; each contributed to the image of a market continuing to expand. Only Maurizio Cattelan, an expensive artist with a thin market, failed to perform to expectations with neither of the two more important works offered at Christie’s, Frank and Jamie and Ostrich, attracting bids.

Sotheby’s

Although the bald evidence will show a satisfactory performance for Sotheby’s, with 10 new auction records including Andreas Gursky, whose May day, 2000, made $632,000 (£335,831. est. $500/600,000); Friedman, Marisol Escobar, Robert Gober and Kara Walker, it was not a happy evening for auctioneer Tobias Meyer who struggled to inject enthusiasm into his audience.

Arguably the more important of two Robert Gober sculptures consigned by the Logan Collection and guaranteed by the house, failed to attract any bids; two admittedly problematic Dubuffet paintings (Corps de dame aux cheveux de coté and Intervention) were ignored; and other lots performed within, rather than above, the estimates.

Chuck Close, John, 1971-72, sold for $4.832 million (est. $5/7 million)

By far the most significant of eight lots consigned to this auction by Beatrice “Buddy” Cummings Mayer, this uncompromisingly obsessive portrait of John Roy (cover lot), a faculty colleague at the University of Massachussetts, may have been the most important work of art to have been offered at either house during the course of the week. To be sure, its rarity was reflected in a bold estimate which appeared to ignore any existing evidence of Close’s market. The current auction record for the artist had been set at Christie’s New York on 11 May 2004 when GAP proprietor Donald Fisher paid $2,807,500 for his portrait Gwynne. Tonight, Los Angeles collector Eli Broad, bidding, as usual, through Broad Art Foundation director Joanne Heyler, and encountering surprisingly thin competition, acquired the canvas for what appears to be a remarkable price but which may turn out to be one of the shrewdest decisions in a volatile situation. The consignor and her husband, the late Robert B. Mayer, had paid $9,000 for the lot in 1972, the year of its execution. A second portrait in Close’s more recent style, of fellow painter Eric Fischel (lot 43, est. $2.8/3.5 million) was purchased by C&M Arts director Robert Mnuchin for $3,040,000.

Andy Warhol, Liz, 1963, sold for $12.616 million (est. $9/12 million),

Whether she is measured by popular curiosity or the taste of the contemporary art market, Elizabeth Taylor has never matched the appeal of Marilyn Monroe who remains the definitive glamour icon in the galaxy of Warhol’s painted stars. Indeed, Orange Marilyn continues to hold the artist’s auction record of $17,327,500 set at Sotheby’s New York on 14 May 1998 although at least one hand-painted canvas of Superman is believed to have traded in the secondary market for $30 million. By comparison, the 13 canvases which comprise the original Liz series have been reliable rather than spectacular performers during their regular appearances at auction: a silver version fetched $1,982,500 at Sotheby’s New York on 17 November 1999; a celadon green colourway cost $3,580,750 at the same house on 14 November 2001; and a blue ground picture reached $4,406,000, the highest Liz valuation to date, at Christie’s New York on 15 November 2000. But this particular example, with its striking scarlet palette and impeccable provenance, was recognised as a special situation as soon as it was consigned by Ferus Gallery proprietor Irving Blum who had purchased it from the artist in 1965. Its new owner is international jeweller Laurence Graff, who is accumulating an impressive collection of Warhol and Francis Bacon, against competition from Zurich dealer Doris Amman.

Roy Lichtenstein, Blue Nude, 1995, sold for $4.832 million (est. $2.5/3.5 million)

With its loaded title and handsome dimensions, this fine composition (lot 56) was the outstanding example of five lots of Lichtenstein material consigned to this auction, with additional pictures by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel, by the estate of Gianni Versace. Painted in 1995, it belongs to the final chapter of the artist’s career and is a rare, and particularly good, illustration of his figurative interests at a time when the subject of the room interior was his leading preoccupation. Does the remarkable price paid by an unidentified telephone bidder, against competition from London dealer Hugh Gibson and his father Thomas, suggest that a more favourable market appraisal of Lichtenstein’s later career is taking place? For it should be noted that a pair of commissions (lots 59 and 60) painted for the fashion designer in 1997, the year of Lichtenstein’s death, confounded the market’s rather sceptical assessment by selling well above the house’s expectations. The previous auction record for a work from the final years had been set at Christie’s New York on 16 May 2001 when Interior with restful paintings had fetched $1,326,000.

Christie’s

What a famous night 11 May turned out to be for auctioneer Christopher Burge and his invigorated contemporary art department. A new tally of $134 million comfortably surpassed any existing benchmark for the event and came within a whisker of matching what the same house earned for its catalogue of Impressionist and Modern art material a week ago. Remarkable results, indeed, and the consequence of investing in expertise, at a time when Christie’s proprietor François Pinault is rumoured to be searching for a new owner for the auction house. For who would not have been impressed by the formidable parade of talent flanking the rostrum, the department’s muscle augmented by recent contracts for former Sotheby’s director Laura Paulson and former C&M Arts director Jennifer Vorbach. The evening set 16 new auction records for artists, who include Philip Guston, Franz Kline, James Rosenquist and Thomas Demand.

Elizabeth Peyton, John Lennon, 1964, sold for $800,000 (est. $200/300,000)

Enhanced by the irresistible appeal of the subject and its dramatic scarlet colourway, this small picture, which is a study in languor as much as a fantasy portrait of John Lennon at the height of Beatlemania, was expected to demolish the existing auction record for the artist’s work set at Christie’s London on 27 June 2002 when Matthew fetched $135,899. But just how comprehensively it would elevate Elizabeth Peyton to auction stardom was not anticipated. An unidentified telephone bidder captured the lot against determined competition from New York dealers David Zwirner and Jeffrey Deitch. As collectors who acquired the work at a fraction of its current valuation ponder the lure of auction, a new, but not entirely unpleasant, dilemma confronts her international agents Gavin Brown and Sadie Coles wondering how to price the new material which, at least in theory, used to be available for $50,000,

Luc Tuymans, Sculpture, 2000, sold for $1.3 million (est. $500/700,000

To open an important contemporary art catalogue with the reliable performers of German photography has become an expectation to which Sotheby’s continues to subscribe, but tonight its rival rewrote the rule book and led with the current painting fashions, for which it was rewarded with new auction records for Richard Prince. Peter Doig and this striking picture which featured in Tuyman’s Beautiful white man pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2003. San Francisco collectors John and Frances Bowes were bidding well beyond the high estimate but were forced to leave the field of competition to the persistence of the artist’s New York dealer David Zwirner. The previous auction record had been set at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg New York on 13 November 2003 when Charles Saatchi purchased Within for $427,500.

Edward Hopper, Chair car, 1965, sold for $14.016 million (unpublished est. $15 million)

The fact that leading American art dealer Berry-Hill paid a new auction record for this picture, which had been consigned by Helen and David Pall, was less remarkable than its appearance in a catalogue of contemporary art where Edward Hopper has never previously been situated. But with current photography, in particular, referencing his imagery, Christie’s hoped to bring Hopper’s work to the attention of the most elastic segment of the art market. And if the gamble did not produce any immediately tangible results beyond being the week’s most expensive lot, it caused discussion and favourable publicity which can be developed in subsequent seasons. In a similar expansion of the catalogue’s usual parameters, a celebrated study in American patriotism by Diane Arbus (lot 51) was withdrawn from the department of photography and supplied with the new label of contemporary art where it was acquired by leading art advisor Thea Westreich.

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Medici princess), about 1952, sold for $2.592 million (est. $700,000/1 million)

Wearing a distinctive powder blue Armani suit and designer sunglasses, a collector seated in the third row and identified as West Coast fund manager Jeffrey Gundlach paid a new auction record for this superb box, which was one of 13 lots consigned to this catalogue by New York collectors Donald and Barbara Jonas for the benefit of the Jewish Communal Fund. In a fine illustration of the theatre of auction, his bidding rival, C&M Arts proprietor Robert Mnuchin, relinquished the lot by waving his white scarf in the air and announcing his surrender. The same collector acquired the following lot, a second Cornell box decorated with a portrait of a young boy by Pinturicchio.

Phillips de Pury & Co

The niche auction house capped off the New York contemporary art sales with a rousing finale. By the end of the evening session, the house cleared $23.7 million, close to the top end of its $17.5/$24.9 pre-sale aspirations. Phillips’ chairman and auctioneer, Simon de Pury, whose frenetic selling style created a sense of urgency and drama, slammed down 12 auction records for artists, who include Kai Althoff, Chris Ofili, Yoshitomo Nara, Martin Kippenberger, Richard Prince and Rosemarie Trockel. “Contemporary art is the new Impressionism”, declared dealer Robert Pincus Witten, of C&M Arts, seated in the boisterous salesroom.

The auction, coming on the heels of sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, was the hippest affair of the week. The audience was young, and trade bidding was intense, with David Zwirner, Jeffrey Deitch and Larry Gagosian giving their paddles a serious work out.

The following day sale’s results suggest that the market is strong at all price levels. This totalled $11.5 million, just under the $11.9 million estimate. The top lot was a 1983 Christopher Wool black and white painting, enamel on aluminum, Untitled, which brought more than double the $120,000 high estimate.

Rosemarie Trockel, Fritz I and Fritz II, 1993, unique prints, sold for $72,000 (est. $40/60,000)

Phillips’ made a smart move starting the sale with 10 photographs from a private collector, said by dealers to be Robert Kaye, a Trustee of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Barbara Gladstone had sold Mr Kaye all of the works in this group. Trockel’s pups sold to a phone bidder, while a record was achieved for her geometric 1988 wool wall covering, mounted on muslin, Untitled (After Toroni), est. $80/120,000, and selling for $168,000. Another 1993 Trockel, also a portrait of an expressive canine, sold to gem dealer, and folk art collector, Ralph Esmerian, for $50,400.

Richard Prince, A nurse involved, 2002, sold for $1.024 million (est. $200/300,00)

There were a number of occasions of high drama in the front row when a portly man roiled with laughter and fired off bids as he joked with Mr de Pury, while being egged on by real estate developer Aby Rosen. The man fought hard for works by Richard Prince, taking home the pulpy nurse, a record for Prince (the short-lived prior record had been set at Christie’s a night earlier when the 1994 The wrong joke, sold for $800,000). The same jolly buyer took home Untitled (Fashion) Prince’s 1984 work from an edition of two, based on an image from a fashion magazine, paying $408,000, well above the $150/200,000 estimate.

Chris Ofili, Afrodizzia, 1996, sold for $1 million (est. $500/700,000)

Charles Saatchi took advantage of the heady market to unload some of his works at Phillips. Among these consignments was this large psychedelic homage to the Afro, bought by New York hedge fund collector, Adam Sender. (Mr Sender also picked up Richard Prince’s 1987-88 Spiritual America for $198,000). Also reported to be ex-Saatchi were two works which failed to ignite the room. Ron Mueck’s 1996 unique work Pinocchio, of a world weary boy in white cotton briefs, est. $500/700,000 fetched just $531,200, a record but with sluggish interest, and Damien Hirst’s black fly extravaganza, the 2002 Cancer chronicles (malaria), also received a lacklustre reception, selling for $419,200, just over the estimate.

Marlene Dumas Cracking the whip, 2000, sold for $1.08 million (est. $800,000/1.2 million)

High estimates and unimpressive goods caused Dumas to stumble all week at the sales, so expectations for the two paintings at Phillips were very pessimistic. Dealers said the $800/$1.2 million estimates on each of the long vertical paintings of larger-than-life strippers were going to be hard sells. Both came from a series Dumas made following her study of Amsterdam’s red-light district. The first work, showing a bosomy red-headed pole dancer, appeared only to interest an absentee bidder, who paid $912,000. This painting, a rear view with S&M overtones, sold to Chicago collector Stefan Edlis.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘A week of new records will leave dealers wondering how to set their prices'