Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Sale Reaffirms Market Confidence
Willem de Kooning's "Untitled XXV" from 1977 sold for $66,327,500. (Christie's)

Willem de Kooning’s “Untitled XXV” from 1977 sold for $66,327,500.
(Christie’s)

Powered by a record-shattering Willem de Kooning painting that sold for more that $66 million, Christie’s racked up an impressive $276,972,500 in a market-stabilizing Post-War and Contemporary art auction on Tuesday night.

Only seven of the 61 lots offered went unsold, making for a crisp 11 percent buy-in rate by lot.

The tally surged towards the upper end of pre-sale expectations, which ranged from $216.6 to 306.6 million.

Still, it lagged behind last November’s $331.8 million result.

All prices reported reflect the hammer price (final bid) plus the tacked-on buyer’s premium for each lot sold, calculated at 25 percent up to and including $150,000, 20 percent of the hammer price over that and up to and including $3 million, and 12 percent of that part for anything above. Estimates do include the buyer’s premium.

Forty-three of the 54 lots that sold made over a million dollars and of those, five exceeded $10 million. Five artist records were set.

The evening got off to a historical start with Jonathan Horowitz’s “Obama ’08,” a wall sized installation of 43 digital chromogenic prints of all the American presidents, from George Washington to Barack Obama, mounted in individual artist frames. The group sold for a record $223,500 (est. $100,000-150,000).

Mark Grotjahn’s “Untitled (Creamsicle 865),” a striated abstraction from 2010, executed in color pencil on paper, brought $907,500 (est. $800,000-1.2 million) and Adrian Ghenie’s cinematic “Flight into Egypt” from 2008, richly painted in oil on canvas and depicting a bleak interior scene with two shabbily dressed men and a charging German Shepard, sold for $1,387,500 (est. $800,000-1.2 million).

Ghenie, at 40, has become a darling of the secondary market, as evidenced last month at Christie’s London when his “Nickelodeon” from 2008 sold for a record £7.1/$8.9 million.

A second Ghenie in Tuesday evening’s sale, “The Bridge” from 2015, sold to an anonymous Asian bidder standing at the back of the salesroom for $3,943,500 (est. $1.5-2.5 million).

The price points continued to climb with Christopher Wool’s brawny, black on white word painting “Untitled” from 1990, executed in enamel on paper, which sold to a telephone bidder for $3,127,500 (est. $2-3 million). New York dealer Stellan Holm was the underbidder.

A second Wool text painting, “Untitled” from 1988, bearing the repetitive phrase “HELTERHELTER,” was consigned by noted New York collector Neda Young and sold for $5.5 million (est. $6-8 million). It also carried a Christie’s financial guarantee.

On the increasingly rare-to-market Pop Art front, Andy Warhol’s “Statue of Liberty” from 1986, reprised from a close up photograph of Lady Liberty’s head and transformed in a camouflage pattern, sold to Zurich dealer Doris Ammann for $3,719,500 (est. $3-6 million). The 72-inch-square painting last sold at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg New York in May 2002 for $574,000.

An earlier and decidedly iconic work, Warhol’s “Self-Portrait” from 1966, featuring the artist thoughtfully posed with fingers touching his chin against a fire-engine red ground, sold to New York private dealer Neal Meltzer for $6,519,500 (est. $4-6 million). The self-portrait last sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 2002 for $1,769,000.

In that same Pop Art vein, Roy Lichtenstein’s Brancusi-inspired, patinated bronze “Sleeping Muse” from 1983, sold for $4,167,500 (est. $3.5-5.5 million). The sculpture is number six from an edition of six.

But Lichtenstein’s “Double Mirror,” an optically dizzying oil and Magna on two stretched canvases from 1970, bought in at $1.5 million (est. $2.2-2.8 million), as did “Reverie/Color Separation Drawing” from 1965, comprised of tempera, felt-tip pen, printed paper and paper collage, which tanked at $3.2 million (est. $4-6 million).

“Double Mirror” was backed in full by a Christie’s guarantee, so the house, in effect, took ownership of the spurned painting.

Figurative painting scored mixed marks with Richard Prince’s 93-by-56 inch “Nurse Elsa” from 2002, executed in acrylic and inkjet on canvas, going for a tepid $5,847,500 (est. $5-7 million), and John Currin’s playful 44-by-34-inch depiction of nude nymphs, “Nice ’n Easy” from 1999, squeaking by at $12,007,500 (est. $12-18 million), which was nevertheless a record for the artist at auction. The Currin last sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2008 for $5,458,500. It was one of 13 works backed by a third party guarantee, and certainly went to that bidder, judging by the dearth of bidding.

Another figurative work, Peter Doig’s dramatic and widely exhibited airborne ski jumper, “Olin MK IV Part 2” from 1995-95, a huge 114-by- 79 inch oil on canvas, sold on a single telephone bid for $5,847,500 (est. $5-7 million).

Doig made headlines earlier this year after he was sued in Chicago by a former corrections officer for denying that he was the artist “Pete Doige,” the maker of a juvenile desert landscape painting that the owner wanted to sell. The judge ultimately ruled in Doig’s favor.

Of the outlier star lot offerings, Willem de Kooning’s masterful and luscious abstraction “Untitled XXV” from 1977, royally scaled at 77 by 88 inches, set off an epic bidding battle, finally selling to the telephone for a record-shattering and phenomenal $66,327,500 (unpublished estimate in excess of $40 million).

It last sold at Christie’s in November 2006 for a then-record $27.1 million.

Another version, “Untitled VII” from 1977, hit a record $32 million at Christie’s New York in November 2013, in an earlier sign of how rare and in-demand these stellar abstractions have become. Remarkably, Tuesday night’s painting more than doubled that record.

“It’s always fun to have a passionate collector who loves to buy,” said Brett Gorvy, Christie’s world-wide chairman of Post-War and Contemporary art and who took the winning de Kooning bid.

“True masterpieces,” Gorvy added, “attract the greatest prices.”

Another star contender, Gerhard Richter’s color-saturated “Abstraktes Bild (809-2)” from 1994, offered by rock legend Eric Clapton, sold to Chicago dealer Paul Gray of the Richard Gray Gallery for $22,087,500 (est. $18-25 million).

It was a jackpot for Clapton, who had acquired the painting, along with two related canvases, for $3,415,750 at Sotheby’s New York in November 2001, two months after 9/11, against an estimate for the trio of $1-1.5 million.

The paintings were first exhibited together as they were intended to be in Richter’s 1995 solo, “Paintings in the Nineties,” at the Anthony D’Offay Gallery in London. Of the other two, “809-4” sold at Sotheby’s London in October 2012 for £21.3/$34.2 million and “809.1” sold at Christie’s New York in November 2013 for $20.8 million.

The only rival to the magnificent de Kooning and the big Richter for top billing was Jean Dubuffet’s extraordinary and joyous street scape, “Les Grandes Arteres” from 1961, comprised of Parisian shop fronts, a promenade of all sorts of ambling characters and a parade of American and French cars, complete with etched license plate numbers. It sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for $23,767,500 (est. $15-20 million) and came backed with a third party guarantee. The seller acquired the painting from the Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery in 1964.

Other important lots included Jean-Michel Basquiat’s fierce “Untitled” from 1982, executed in acrylic and enamel on blanket and mounted on a tied wood support with twine. The painting, of a halo-headed figure, also carried a third party backing and sold to a telephone bidder for $5,847,500 (est. $5-7 million). It last sold at Christie’s Paris in December 2010 for €1,465,000.

In sharp contrast, two Minimal paintings made waves, with Robert Ryman’s white on white canvas, “Connect” from 2002 selling for $10,775,500 (est. $10-15 million) and Agnes Martin’s almost invisible grid painting, “Untitled #6” from 1983, in acrylic and graphite on canvas, going for $6,743,500 (est. $5-7 million).

You can still see her retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum (through January 11) and check how it compares to rest of the oeuvre.

There were pockets of strength percolating throughout the long evening, as evidenced by a small group of Italian works from the collection of Chiara and Francesco Carraro, led by Alberto Burri’s scorched and melted “Rosso Combustione Plastica” from 1957, which sold for $4,951,500 (est. $3-4 million), and a sublime Alighiero Boetti “Mappa” from 1990, executed in embroidery on linen, which sold to New York/L.A. advisors Guggenheim Asher for $2,167,500 (est. $800,000-1.2 million).

“We were thrilled to get it at that price level,” said partner Abigail Asher, “and were prepared to go much higher.”

What is the take-away from tonight’s strong yet at times beleaguered sale?

“I have one thing to say,” said New York private dealer Alberto Mugrabi who bought Damien Hirst’s “Do You Know What I like About You?,” an 84-square-inch Butterfly painting from 1994, which made $1,039,500 (est. $900,000-1.2 million). “Great pictures sold for great prices. These are the things we have to focus on. Look at the de Kooning — that tells you where the market is.”

The auction action resumes on Wednesday with a double-header of evening sales, Phillips’ 20th Century and Contemporary Art and Christie’s Impressionist and Modern.

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