De Kooning painting sells for record $66m at Christie’s New York

Post-war and contemporary evening auction sees several big sales but still falls short of last year’s total

Christie’s post-war and contemporary auction last night saw a new record for Willem de Kooning, whose large, richly coloured abstract work from 1977, Untitled XXV, sold for $59m ($66.3m with premium) to a buyer identified by the house as “international”.

This was over double the $27.1m that was paid when the painting sold at the Christie's New York autumn evening sale ten years prior, a record for a post-war painting at the time. Even so, bidding on the work was far from spirited, and typical for the auction in that it slowly crept up in $2m increments from its $30m opener, with Conor Jordan, the deputy chairman of Impressionist and Modern art, and Brett Gorvy, the chairman and international head of post-war and contemporary art, volleying phone bids. (At the press conference after the sale, Gorvy said that this represented a depth of interest, since he and Jordan work in different departments in the building.)

The most contested piece, and a surprise hit from the collection of Chiara and Francesco Carraro, was a jangly oil, acrylic and encaustic work by Giuseppe Gallo from 2011 that sold for $300,000 hammer (est $40,000-$60,000)—ten times its opening bid—with three phone bidders and three more in the room.

Stand-out lots did well, and the work by de Kooning was followed by Jean Dubuffet's frenetic Les Grandes Artères (1961), from his Paris Circus series, which sold for $21m hammer (est $15m-$20m), and Gerhard Richter's Abstraktes Bild (809-2) (1994), from the collection of Eric Clapton, which sold for $19.5m hammer (est $18m-$25m). Along with de Kooning and Gallo, the evening also saw new auction records for Jonathan Horowitz and John Currin. Two paintings by Adrian Ghenie, a breakout star of the October sales in London, also found eager takers, with The Bridge (2015) selling for $3.3m after a bidding war pushed it above its $2.5m high estimate.

Overall, it was a largely by-the-numbers sale that took few risks in a shaky market but managed a solid hammer total of $239.5m, beating a low estimate of $216.6m but falling short of the $296.6m it might have brought in. “Even in the toughest times, supreme quality raises all ships,” Gorvy said at the press conference, noting that 55% of all bidders were American, proving art's desirability even with market “mood swings” following the results of the US presidential election.

But the results could only be spun so positively. While 54 of the 61 lots on offer sold, for a sell-through rate of 89% by lot, the total included some notable failures, among them both paintings by Ed Ruscha on offer, each estimated to sell for $4m to $6m. Moreover, the sale total with premium, $276.9m, still fell short of last year's $331.8m, and paled in comparison to the record $852.8m the house netted in autumn 2014.

“I think it was slightly on the weak side”, said the dealer David Nahmad, who all the same picked up an Alexander Calder mobile from 1948 for $3.7m. “I think there were fewer good works. This is the first season that I don't see a Rothko on the stage. Remember last year? They had a nude by Modigliani, they had [Pablo Picasso's] Women of Algiers, they had Van Gogh, Cezanne. There's a scarcity.” But, he added, in times of economic uncertainty, “I think people feel better with art than with something else.”