Record-breaking sales at Christie's and Sotheby's

The Contemporary evening sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s beat out all expectations this November stunning dealers and on-lookers alike by racking up nearly a billion dollars in sales. Seemingly immune to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy that hit New York just two weeks prior and the presidential election, the archrivals experienced their highest ever amount achieved for that category. Christie’s outdid Sotheby’s with a $412,253,100 overall tally but Sotheby’s astonishing $375.2-million was not too shabby either setting seven artist records with only eleven of the 69 lots failing to sell. Both houses also exceeded their expected high estimates.

Such jaw dropping results reflect the increasingly robust art market which have caused even the most savvy of collectors to scratch their heads. The figures are distorted however, due to the number of guarantees by third-party investors or speculators which has been allowed by the houses to varying degrees over the years. Christie’s evening’s auctioneer, Jussi Pylkannen stated, “clearly, there’s an enormous amount of energy in the Postwar market globally”. While that does not exactly give us a solid explanation for the sky rocketing prices, the sheer quality of the art and stellar provenance was unparalleled.

One of the highlights of the Christie’s evening sale was Andy Warhol’s iconic image of Marlon Brando from 1966 from the renowned Hannelore and Rudolf Schulhof collection which fetched $23,714,500, slightly above the high estimate. It sold to Helly Nahmad–an unusual purchase for a family that deals primarily with Impressionist and modern works. Apparently, the painting was for sale at Gagosian Gallery for around $40 million on the private market which is indicative of the significant price differential that can occur between the private and public markets. The seller was New York collector Donald Bryant Jr. who originally bought the work at auction for $5,047,500 at Christie’s in 2003 (prices include buyers premium). With these kind of returns it is no wonder why the wealthy elite is driven to buy Post-War and contemporary art.

Top lots at Christie’s included Andy Warhol’s rather patriotic “Statue of Liberty,” (1962) painted in 3-D (nifty folded glasses were inserted into each catalogue). It sold on the telephone for $43,762,500, becoming the second most expensive Warhol ever sold at auction; Franz Kline’s 1957 black and white Abstract Expressionist painting, “Untitled” which sold for a record $40,402,500; and Jeff Koons’ mirror-polished stainless steel “Tulips” which sold for $33,682,500, also a record for the artist.

My personal favorite, Roy Lichtenstein‘s impeccable “Nude with Red Shirt” (1995), sold at Christie’s for $28,082,500 above the high estimate. The buyer was unseen but I read that Christophe van de Weghe, a New York dealer and former Gagosian director, was an underbidder. Other star lots were  Francis Bacon‘s “Untitled (Pope),” also painted in 1954 which sold for $29,762,500 with at least four other bidders in pursuit. It last was bought at auction in London in 1975 for £65,000. Jackson Pollock‘s painting, “Number 4, 1951,” sold to a telephone bidder for a record $40,402,500 but was guaranteed by Sotheby’s through a third-party “irrevocable bid,” meaning it could not fail to sell.

Sotheby’s top lots included Mark Rothko’s “No.1 (Royal Red and Blue)” (1954), from the prestigious Anne and John Marion collection which eclipsed expectations. It sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for $75,122,500. Bidding opened at $29 million and slowed down around $66 million, around the moment when auctioneer Tobias Meyer chimed in and said, “I have all the time in the world.” Patience paid certainly off as it became the second most expensive Rothko ever to sell at auction after “Orange, Red, Yell” (1961), which sold at Christie’s last May for $86.8 million. Christie’s had a similar but smaller Rothko for sale at the following evening, “Black Stripe (Orange, Gold and Black)” (1957) which reached only $19 million (without premium).

The real star of the auction however, continues to be Andy Warhol who’s work accounted for $54 million of the evening’s take with works selling to top collectors such as Peter Brant who won “Green Disaster (green Disaster Twice” (1963), the first painting the artist did in the series and “Suicide” (1964) a grim silkscreen image on paper. Surprisingly, two works failed to get interest and were pulled at the last minute including “Troy” (1962), a repetitive portrait of Troy Donahue, a TV celebrity from yesteryear.

Younger artists like forty-one year old Wade Guyton (b. 1972), Mark Grotjahn (b. 1968) and Cecily Brown (b. 1969) who made the cut in this season’s evening sales also demonstrated strong prices some pieces fetching millions. Grotjahn’s stunning red painting “Untitled (Red Butterfly II Yellow Mark Grotjahn P-08)” executed in 2008 for example, sold for a remarkable $3.65 million without premium, apparently infuriating one art dealer.

The high demand for younger artists on the primary market is another indicator of the ever expanding art market. More speculators are entering the market from around the world with the aim to collect tomorrow’s Picassos, Miros and Monets. Although it is a riskier segment of the market some heady dealers and collectors believe they have the ability and wearwithal to influence the market in their favor and are willing to pay the price. Regardless of which segment they choose to focus on however, more and more are beginning to understand the importance of access in the art world and that cash is no longer king.  -Heidi Lee

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