Christie’s $691M Night Smashes Auction, Sale Records, With $142M Bacon

NEW YORK — Launched by a rare and record-shattering Francis Bacon triptych that became the most expensive art work ever sold at auction, Christie’s New York Post-War & Contemporary Art evening sale blew past pre-sale expectations, bringing in a total of $691,583,000.

The tally defied its $470.5-670.4 million pre-sale estimate, as 63 of the 69 lots offered sold for a buy-in rate of nine percent by lot, and only two percent by value. This two-hour-long historic sale became the highest-priced auction in any category, trumping the $495 million watermark set by Christie’s in the same category last May.
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Sixteen lots sold for more than $10 million, and of those, eleven made over $20 million, while three exceeded $50 million. Additionally, ten artist records were set. The results smashed last November’s $412.2 million result for 67 lots sold; and when you include the hefty buyer’s premium to each of the 63 lots that sold, the average lot price comes out to $10,977,508.

Christie’s front-loaded the sale with multimillion-dollar material, as Jean-Michel Basquiat’s wild-eyed “Head of a Madman” (1982) sold for $12,037,000 (est. $7-9 milllion). The work was the first of some 22 lots bearing either direct or third-party financial guarantees, with outcomes assured before the bidding began. Montreal collector Francois Odermatt was one of the underbidders to the winning telephone.

The Basquiat was followed by Andy Warhol’s garishly colored “Mao” (1973), which made $3,525,000 (est. $2-3 million); next by the evening’s first “masterpiece” offering, Christopher Wool’s signature text painting “Apocalypse Now” (1988), which bears the boldly capitalized words “SELL THE HOUSE SELL THE CAR SELL THE KIDS” in alkyd and flashe on aluminum and steel, and which sold to New York dealer Christophe van de Weghe for a record $26,485,000 (est. $15-20 million).

Formerly in the collection of former hedge-fund manager and one-time Guggenheim Museum board member David Ganek, the painting sold on the heels of the October 25 opening of Wool’s current retrospective at the Guggenheim. It widely surpassed the previous mark set by another Wool text painting, “Untitled” (1990), which sold for £4.9 million ($7.7 million) at Christie’s London in February 2012.

“The Wool is off-category,” said van de Weghe, as he strode out of the salesroom, “and my buyer wanted the absolute best example by that artist and it is the best of the best. It’s in another league. There’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ and then everything else.”

In a last-minute and somewhat unprecedented switch, Christie’s moved Francis Bacon’s rare triptych, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” (1969) from its catalogued slot to go up right after the Wool, a kind of nimble chess move anticipating that the market was waiting to see what the Bacon would bring. Delaying its entry might impact what buyers might spend on other offerings.

This strategy paid off handsomely. The Bacon, which had received an 11th-hour third-party guarantee, sold to a telephone bidder on behalf of New York’s Acquavella Galleries for a rousing $142,405,000, setting a record as the highest-priced sale held at auction.

Bidding opened at $80 million, instantly attracting five bidders who quickly drove the price skyward before the winning hammer price of $127 million. Remarkably, there were still three bidders when the price climbed to $120 million, including a young Asian gentleman near the front of the salesrooms. When the bid increased another million dollars to $123 million, auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen quipped, “Of course, a million dollars is a lot of money,” drawing bursts of laughter from the packed salesroom.

The painting itself, with its intensely yellow background on three panels — each showing a different contorted view of the cross-legged sitter — mesmerized the market. Freud, a relatively unknown artist at the time the painting was made, appears uneasy under Bacon’s penetrating eye in the work; then fast friends, the two would later become permanently estranged, adding to the emotional intensity of the composition.

The original Italian owner of the triptych spent 20 years tracking down and buying the other two panels after they were originally sold separately by Turin’s Galleria Galatea, one of which (the left-hand panel) was purchased from a hotel owner in Rome.

The triptych was first in play last year by London’s Dickinson Gallery before Christie’s got hold of it, apparently orchestrating a private sale. Unconfirmed rumors in the trade peg that deal in the region of $100 million; that buyer decided to flip it at auction. Christie’s issued a statement before the sale, stating, “There is some speculation as to the ownership of the work and it is not Christie’s policy to disclose the confidential identity of our clients.”

In any event, the Bacon obliterated the previous artist’s mark set by “Triptych (in three parts)” (1976), which sold to Roman Abramovich at Sotheby’s New York in May 2008 for $86,281,000. Tonight’s Bacon sale broke the record previously set by Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” at $119,922,496 at Sotheby’s New York in May 2012.

Given that 9 of the 69 lots offered carried estimates in excess of $20 million, the evening felt increasingly surreal, seemingly easy to blink and miss a multi-million dollar lot. Within that remarkable cavalcade, Jeff Koons’ guaranteed “Balloon Dog (Orange),” a 10-foot, mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating work from 1994-2000, sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for $58,405,000 (est. $35-55 million). New York/London dealer David Zwirner was the underbidder.

Seller Peter Brant was in the elite fraternity of five original owners of the sculpture, which has been made in unique versions of blue, magenta, orange, red and yellow. Francois Pinault, Eli Broad, Dakis Joannou, and Stephen Cohen are still holding on to the other four Koons works.

Sold to benefit The Brant Foundation Study Center in Greenwich, CT, where “Balloon Dog” currently resides on a polo field, the sale cracked the previous mark set by “Tulips” (1995-2004), which sold for $33.6 million at Christie’s New York in November 2012 and also became the most expensive artwork sold by a living artist. As Brant left the salesroom, he ignored a reporter’s question of whether he was happy with the price, sullenly stating, “I’ll miss the piece.”

Of the other four Jean-Michel Basquiat works offered, “Untitled” (1982), featuring a gold-crowned black warrior figure with a raised arm, sold for $29,285,000 (est. $25-35 million), also carrying a third-party guarantee. It last sold at Christie’s London in July 1992 for £63,800 ($122,362) — you could say times and prices have changed.

Andy Warhol, Basquiat’s one-time mentor, had seven works in the evening sale, led by his iconic and hand-painted and ”Coca-Cola [3]” (1962) at $57,285,000 (est. $40-60 million). According to the Warhol catalogue raisonne, the painting belongs to Jose Mugrabi, an entry which will now need to be updated.

Fellow Pop Art star Roy Lichtenstein had three entries in Christie’s marathon, as his guaranteed, Ben-Day dot siren “Seductive Girl” (1996) — a 50 by 72 inch close-up of a blonde nude — sold to another telephone bidder for $31,525,000 (est. $22-28 million).

An early, fresh-to-market Donald Judd wall relief, “Untitled (DSS 42)” (1963), consigned by architect Robert A.M Stern and completed in the artist’s favorite shade of light cadmium red, comprised of wood, galvanized iron and aluminum, sold to a telephone bidder for a record $14,165,000 (est. $10-15 million).

Other blockbuster lots ranged from a large-scale Gerhard Richter, the ethereal and color-saturated “Abstraktes Bild (809.1)” (1994), sold by rock legend Eric Clapton. It went to an anonymous telephone bidder for a rather reasonable $20,885,000.

Clapton acquired the large-scale painting at Sotheby’s New York in November 2001 for $3,415,750.

In the American Abstract Expressionist realm, Mark Rothko’s luminous, grandly scaled “No. 11 (Untitled)” (1957), bearing a shade of orange close to that of Koons’ “Balloon Dog,: sold to Christophe van de Weghe for $46,085,000 (est. $25-35 million). The work last sold at Christie’s New York in November 1992 for $1.1 million. As van de Weghe took the landing bid, auctioneer Pylkkanen observed, in the tone of a TV news broadcaster, “The room is winning tonight against the telephones.”

Other Ab-Ex era entries ranged from Willem de Kooning’s 70-by-80 inch “Untitled VIII” (1977), which sold to New York private dealer Nancy Whyte for a record $32,085,00 (est. $20-30 million); to a considerably smaller Jackson Pollock, “Number 26, 1949” (1949) (in oil and enamel on paper mounted on Masonite), which sold to the telephone for $32,645,000 (est. $25-35 million). Whyte had one word for the evening sale as she exited: “Phenomenal.”

Additionally, Ad Reinhardt’s “Abstract Painting, Red” (1953) sold to New York dealer Michael Altman for a record $2,741,00 (est. $1.4-1.8 million), and Joan Mitchell’s guaranteed “The 14th of July” (ca. 1956), sold to Altman for $7,109,000 (est. $6-8 million). “The Mitchell was really inexpensive,” said Altman as he dashed out of the salesroom, “and is a great picture.”

On the European front, Lucio Fontana’s cratered, ovoid-shaped canvas “Concetto Spaziale, La Fine Di Dio” (1963), sold to New York dealer Dominique Levy for a record $20,885,000 (est. $15-20 million); while Yves Klein’s dry pigment monocolor composition, “Ikb 64” (1964) sold for $4,869,000 (est. $1.8-2.5 million). Levy was the underbidder.

In the sub-$10 million category, Cindy Sherman’s film-still, silver-gelatin print “Untitled #48” (1979) (number five from an edition of ten), featuring the artist as a hitchhiking teenager perched on the edge of a highway, sold for $1,565,000 (est. $1-1.5 million). It last sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 1996 for $66,300. Maurizio Cattelan’s upside-down pair of New York City policemen, “Frank and Jamie” (2003), sold to New York dealer Albert Mugrabi for $965,000 (est. $2-3 million).

In a post-sale press conference, Brett Gorvy, Christie’s world-wide head of Post-War/Contemporary art said, “This isn’t a bubble, it’s the beginning of something new.” The evening action resumes on Wednesday at arch-rival Sotheby’s.

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