Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Sale Boosts the Market With Strong Results
Jean-Michel Basquiat's “Untitled” (1982) sold for $57,285,000. (Christie's Images LTD. 2016)

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Untitled” (1982) sold for $57,285,000.
(Christie’s Images LTD. 2016)

In the wake of Sotheby’s rocky evening on Monday, Christie’s gave the art market a critical booster shot tonight with a Post-War and Contemporary sale that realized a reassuring $318.4 million.

Just eight of the 60 lots offered failed to sell, for a satisfyingly small buy-in rate of 13 percent by lot. And the final tally nestled comfortably within pre-sale estimate of $280.6 million to $391.2 million. (Estimates do not reflect the buyer’s premium tacked onto the hammer price of each item sold, which is calculated on a sliding scale: 25 percent of the hammer price up to and including $100,000, 20 percent of any amount over $100,000 up to and including $2 million, and 12 percent of anything beyond that.) Still, the sale’s success was relative: Though strong in the current market climate, the total was less than half last May’s $658,532,000, earned by 72 lots in the same category.

In last year’s sale, the top price, brought by Mark Rothko’s “No. 10,” from 1958, was $81.9 million. Tonight, 48 out of the 52 lots that sold made more than $1 million, and of those, nine made more than $9 million. Six artist records were set. Christie’s also cut back on the number of guarantees, with 10 in total: 3 backed by the house and 7 backed by anonymous third parties.

The surprisingly robust evening got off on a war footing with Bruce Nauman’s 1986 suspended neon tube sculpture “Eat War,” whose syncopated flashing green EAT and red WAR established a provocative and grimly funny atmosphere in the packed auction room at Rockefeller Center. It sold to a telephone bidder for $1,685,000 (est. $800,000-1.2 million). The Nauman was followed by Mike Kelley’s “Memory Ware Flat 1,” from 2000, a framed, folk-art-inspired jumble of densely packed beads, buttons, and costume jewelry on panel, which sold for an artist’s record $3,301,000 (est. $1.8-2.5 million).

Picture Generation star Richard Prince was represented in the sale by five works. His “Untitled (Fashion),” from 1982, a 40-by-28-inch Ektacolor print featuring the cropped visage of a soda-drinking model in dark glasses, sold to a telephone bidder for $2,853,000 (est. $1.5-2 million). New York/London dealer David Zwirner was the underbidder. Later in the evening, Prince’s 2007 racy and large “Runaway Nurse,” sourced from a pulp-fiction paperback titled “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” and executed in ink jet and acrylic on canvas, sold to a telephone bidder for an artist record $9,685,000 (est. $7-10 million). Los Angeles collector Bill Bell was the underbidder.

The price point jumped higher with Christopher Wool’s third-party-backed “And if You,” from 1992. The 108-by-72-inch enamel-on-aluminum text painting, which sold to another anonymous telephone bidder for $13,605,000 (est. $12-18 million). Another third-party-guaranteed highlight, Robert Gober’s seminal 1985 “Urinal,” composed of plaster, wire lath, wood, and semigloss enamel paint, went to the telephone for a modest $1,445,000 (est. $2-3 million).

Still on the sculpture front, a stunning and cohesive group of nine unique painted-sheet-metal and wire works by Alexander Calder, created in 1954-1955 during an extended trip to India on the express invitation of art and design patron Gira Sarabhai, were offered in serial fashion. The pieces had been exhibited in London at the Ordovas Gallery in 2012 as a loan only show, and all but one sold. Among the successful lots, the hanging mobile “Rouge et Noir,” from 1955, went for $3,021,000 (est. $1.8-2.2 million). The solo casualty was the largest: “Untitled,” a grand standing mobile from 1955 with a base painted in red, white, and blue and hovering disc-like elements in red and yellow. The audience gasped when the auctioneer, Christies global president Jussi Pylkkanen, announced that it had been passed at a chandelier bid of $5.6 million (est. $6-9 million).

Still, eight hits out of nine at bats is a championship batting average, and Calder, whose pieces brought a total of $25.9 million, has to be recognized as a blue-chip star. “Calder is recession-proof,” said New York private dealer Meredith Palmer, “because he invented a new form of sculpture.” Palmer wouldn’t say what lot she bid on but acknowledged she was quickly outgunned.

In that same three-dimensional realm, but seemingly from a different planet, Jeff Koons’s 1994-2009 “Smooth Egg with Bow (Magenta/Violet),” a confection cast in mirror-polished stainless steel with a transparent color coating, sold to yet another telephone bidder for $7,445,000 (est. $7-10 million). One of five unique versions of the subject, the piece had never before appeared at auction.

Among the pricier offerings of the evening and certainly one of the most dramatic, given the artist’s market cred, Mark Rothko’s electric-blue and green 1957 Abstract Expressionist painting, “No. 17,” standing tall at 91½ by 69½ inches, sold to a telephone bidder for $32,645,000 (est. $30-40 million). Despite being widely exhibited and included in the artist’s early and important European retrospective covering the years 1945-1960, which opened at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London in 1961, the painting isn’t included in scholar David Anfam’s authoritative Rothko catalogue raisonné. But that absence didn’t seem to tarnish its glowing and magisterial authenticity tonight. Although it wasn’t stated in the catalogue, the seller is understood to be the New York-based distressed-debt investor David Martinez.

Other Ab-Ex offerings included the stalactite-patterned cover lot, Clyfford Still’s 1948 “PH-234,” which fetched $28,165,000 (est. $25-35 million). The painting was included in the artist’s solo show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1951 and his retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 2001.

Neither the Rothko nor the Still came armed with any type of guarantee, so their prices indicated exactly what they are worth at this seemingly uneasy juncture of the global art market.

Another post-war stalwart represented in the sale was Willem de Kooning, whose late and almost minimal abstraction in oil on canvas “Untitled XVIII” from 1984 [lot 19] that sold for $4,757,000 (est. $4-6 million). The painting last sold at Phillips New York in November 2014 for $4,869,000. The current discount indicate that it came back prematurely to the market. A second late de Kooning from another consignor, the 1986 “Untitled XXIX,” identically scaled at 77 by 88 inches, went for $4,477,000 (est. $4-6 million). It was acquired by collectors Kenneth and Susan Kaiserman in 1987 from Xavier Fourcade, de Kooning’s primary market dealer, a provenance that further burnished its fresh-to-market profile. Oddly, that didn’t make a difference.

The blue chip name parade continued with Agnes Martin, whose faintly gridded abstraction “Orange Grove,” from 1965, realized an artist record $10,693,000 (est. $6.5-8.5 million). It last sold at auction at Christie’s New York in May 1987 for $132,000. Also an overachiever was Joan Mitchell’s huge and lushly colored 1969 abstraction “Noon,” measuring 103 by 79 inches, which sold to Abigail Asher, of Guggenheim Asher Associates, for an artist record $9,797,036 (est. $5-7 million). It was fully backed by a Christie’s guarantee.

Another widely exhibited work, with both gallery and museum citations, Sam Francis’s 1953 color-infused abstraction “Red No. 1,” from the collection of Guy and Marie-Helene Weill, made $4,421,000 (est. $2-3 million). It was painted during the American artist’s extended residence in Paris, where he maintained a studio on Rue Tiphaine on the Left Bank and worked under the heady influence of both Rothko and Still.

Staying on the European side of the pond, Yves Klein’s “Untitled Blue Monochrome (IKB 108),” from 1956, executed in dry pigment and synthetic resin on canvas, sold for $3,301,000 (est. $3-4 million) to Beijing collector Edward Zeng, the founding partner of China Bridge Capital, who bid from a front-row seat in the salesroom. “I only know about this artist one week ago,” Zeng said after the sale, explaining that he had arrived from Beijing just in time for the auction, the first he’s ever attended. “China needs a blue sky like this,” the brand-new collector observed when asked why he liked the Klein, adding, “Pretty soon we’ll buy more art. Today is just testing the water, and we just want to observe.”

Klein’s fellow countryman, Jean Dubuffet, was represented by his chaotic, pedestrian-choked composition “Rue de l’Entourloupe,” from 1963, which made $4,869,000 (est. $4-6 million).

Among the casualties, Gerhard Richter’s 1985 photo-derived oil on canvas “Venice (Island),” presenting a wide-angle view of the floating city, expired at an imaginary bid of $6.5 million (est. $7-10 million). It was fully backed by a Christie’s guarantee, so the auction house now owns the panting. A second Richter, the apartment-scaled “Abstraktes Bild (903-7),” from 2008, fared better, bringing $4,085,000 (est. $3-4 million).

Andy Warhol’s homage-like 1982 appropriation “The Two Sisters (After de Chirico)” sold to dealer Jose Mugrabi for $1,805,000 (est. $1-1.5 million).

Warhol’s short-lived collaborator, Jean-Michel Basquiat, was represented by the monumentally scaled, sixteen-foot-wide “Untitled,” from 1982, which sold to a telephone bidder for a record and rousing $57,285,000 (unpublished estimate in excess of $40 million). The sum eclipsed that earned by ‘Dustheads,” from 1982, which sold for $48.8 million at Christie’s New York in May 2013.

The painting’s fierce image of a devilish horned creature, floating at the center of the acrylic on canvas, faces the viewer against a richly painted and rather battered, graffiti-splashed background. Referred to in the artist’s catalogue raisonné as “The Devil,” it is thought to be a self-portrait by the then-22-year-old artist. Though not identified in the catalogue, the work, last exhibited at the Fondation Beyeler Basquiat retrospective in 2010, was sold by New York collector and gallerist Adam Lindemann, who acquired it at Sotheby’s London in June 2004 for £2.4 million ($4.4 million). This time it came to market with a third-party guarantee rumored to be backed by Martinez. The winning telephone bid was taken by Koji Inou, Christie’s America head of client strategy, and the otherwise anonymous buyer is understood to be Asian. While racial profiling is a no-no in most contexts, in the global art market, the fact that someone from that part of the world paid such as staggering amount for a Basquiat, bodes well for the contemporary market.

Another artist’s record was achieved by Kerry James Marshal’s 1992 “Plunge,” a brashly composed and grandly scaled acrylic-and-paper collage on canvas depicting a black female diver in a leopard-skin bathing suit poised at the edge of a diving board. It made $2,165,000 {est. $1-1.5 million). New York private dealer Philippe Segalot was the underbidder.

The serial evening action continues at Sotheby’s Contemporary auction on Wednesday.

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