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Hockney sets new auction record for a living artist, but were strings pulled behind the no-reserve sale?

The Yorkshireman's 1970s Californian scene, Portrait of an Artist, sold on the nose at $80m at Christie's in New York last night

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures, 1972), touted as the "holy grail" of David Hockney's paintings, sold for $80m ($90.3m with fees) Courtesy of Christie's

Could Christie’s be the new Camelot? Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures, 1972), touted as the “holy grail” of David Hockney’s paintings, sold for $80m ($90.3m with fees) at Christie’s post-war and contemporary evening sale in New York last night, 15 November, making the British painter the most expensive living artist to date. Controversially sold without a guarantee and without reserve, audience anticipation for the sale was as high as the estimate for Hockney’s rare double pool portrait, particularly during a week of sales peppered by aggressively priced lots that failed to sell.

A hush fell over the room as Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie’s global president and the night’s auctioneer, took to the rostrum, and bidding started off frenzied. Overall, the evening’s sale brought in $311.8m in total ($357.6 with fees), just shy of Sotheby’s $362.6m (with fees) contemporary sale the night before. However, more lots were bought in at Christie’s; of the 48 offered, six failed to sell, representing a passable sell-through rate of 85% by lot versus a princely 97% at Sotheby’s.

Post-war results proved less predictable overall. Robert Colescott’s Cultural Exchange fared well, fetching $750,000—well over its $350,000 estimate—and possibly buoyed by the strong sales of works by African American artists at Sotheby’s the night before. Yet a neon work by Bruce Nauman from 1972 was the first lot to go unsold, followed by a small, early Robert Rauschenberg and a large-scale gestural painting by Helen Frankenthaler, among a handful of others.

Vija Celmin's Star Field I, sold for $2m ($2.4m with fees) Courtesy of Christie's

It is not because bidders were just gunning for the trophy works, however. Philip Guston’s small drawing, Window—the first lot of the evening—volleyed between three bidders before selling for $2.6m ($3.1m with fees), more than quadruple its high estimate of $500,000 and marking an auction record for a work on paper. Vija Celmin’s Star Field I quickly followed, selling for $2m ($2.4m with fees) on a $800,000-$1.2m estimate.

“It was encouraging that some of the less commercial, more academic works—like the small Guston drawing and the Celmins work on paper—saw extremely active bidding and prices well above estimate,” says Betsy Bickar, an adviser with Citi Private Bank Art Advisory and Finance. Both of the works came from the esteemed collection of Mary Margaret Anderson.

Indeed, strong sales ensued for many of the top works from important estates. Joseph Cornell’s Story Without a Name—for Max Ernst went for double its estimate at $1.2m ($1.4m with fees) and a small but sought-after Francis Bacon portrait from the collection of magazine magnate S.I. Newhouse fetched $19m ($21.6m with fees), proving that “provenance still matters,” Bickar says.

Perhaps provenance played a factor in the big Hockney lot, too. Portrait of an Artist belonged to the British billionaire and currency trader Joe Lewis, who has a considerable collection of works by British artists such as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. But Lewis is not afraid to part with them—provided he’s assured it will get a good price. Bidding opened at $18m and it was catapulted quickly to $50m where multiple buyers continued to jostle for it—an achievement in a week where bidding was thin on top lots.

Christie’s ploy of publicising the work’s lack of reserve added an extra layer of mystery and speculation, ensuring that the Hockney work was front and centre throughout the week. Nevertheless, the auction house worked hard to reach the $80m goal—bidding went on for nearly ten minutes and by the time the painting hit $70m, the players had thinned out to two in the room and five on the phones.

Francis Bacon's Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing, from the collection of magazine magnate S.I. Newhouse Courtesy of Christie's

The buyer, on the phone with Marc Porter, the chairman of Christie’s Americas, bid with unusually little hesitation; clearly, they knew what they wanted. The hammer fell at exactly its unofficial $80m estimate—almost as if its price was pre-ordained.

The exceptionally tidy deal, however, does seem the stuff of stories and prompted some speculative chatter about possible strings behind the sale. Josh Baer—who broke the news that the painting would be sold without reserve, claiming it to be an opportunity to establish true market transparency—quickly issued his industry-insider newsletter post-sale dissuading potential cynics: “Another solid night with of course the Hockney being sold (unless you are a conspiracy NUT) for a big price.”

Yet the art dealer, collector and journalist Kenny Schachter says that “like an Egyptian statue with hands extended both front and back”, a deal like this Hockney painting is never quite what it appears to be. “Christie's all but agreed to forego a commission. If no fees are exchanged, self buying has ends in itself. Money coming, money going—propping up your painting price has ends of its own,” he says.

Bickar explains the record-breaking sale more simply, however. “The market obviously has not lost its appetite for masterpieces or trophies,” she says, adding that colourful monumental works—like Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist, as well as works by numerous other artists—have fared well across all of the November sales. Interestingly, an hour before the start of the Christie’s sale, Phillips bought in a work on paper by Hockney and withdrew another in its own contemporary art evening sale, proving that not all Hockneys are equal and even fewer can inspire a legendary price.