American Idols

David Velasco at Christie’s and Sotheby’s evening sales

New York

Left: Amy Cappellazzo, Christie’s International Co-Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art. Right: Artist Louise Lawler. (Photos: David Velasco)

“LADIES!—TEN TO FIFTEEN,” said a woman in gray sweatpants eyeing Lot 45, Warhol’s Silver Liz, 1963. She meant the estimate: ten to fifteen million.

“Not very well stretched,” sniffed another, wearing a quilted Burberry jacket. She meant the canvas.

“Trixie’s husband has a self-portrait Warhol did on a napkin in a restaurant,” boasted a third.

Christie’s last public “viewing,” as the house calls it, of works in Tuesday’s Post-War and Contemporary evening auction did have some of the character of a funeral visitation, with long-lost relatives gathering to size up the competition. Determined-looking women with bouffants and antique 35-mm cameras scanned the goods; men in bespoke suits juggled paper coffee cups. John McEnroe floated around the ground-floor galleries in a ball cap and white Converse, pausing to examine at length a blue Warhol “Electric Chair” from 1964–65. The art, of course, looked impeccable.

Louise Lawler was there too, hauling a medium-format Mamiya and a tripod. “I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing here—I often plan not to come, but jump in at the last moment,” she said. “Many years ago I came to shoot the actual auction, having gotten permission, but when I arrived with my camera I was confronted by someone higher up who looked at me and said, ‘I thought we’d decided not to do that.’ It was like I wasn’t a person. Now, I feel totally welcomed. I’m certainly not the only camera around.”

Indeed she wasn’t—but her presence added a bit of aura to the proceedings: art transmuted to merchandise and turned, again, into art. (Then, probably—hopefully?—back to merchandise.) One thing was clear: Auction houses seem to lean more and more heavily in the direction of the contemporary, the enduring Warholian “moment” continuing to encourage the sublime marriages (and bitter divorces) of art and commerce.

Left: Salman Rushdie. Right: Jeffrey Deitch, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. (Photos: Erika Nusser)

That night the regular crowds made their way to Rockefeller Center for Christie’s biannual contemporary evening sale. The usual, more genteel starting time of 7 PM had been pushed forward to 6:30 PM to accommodate works from author Michael Crichton’s estate, which constituted the first thirty-one lots of the immense seventy-nine-lot auction. It was going to be a long night. Salman Rushdie was there with his “good friend,” art advisor Kim Heirston. “I wish I could buy,” he said. “I did know Michael. It will be interesting to see his collection.”

People seemed in high—if slightly anxious—spirits. The fall 2009 Christie’s sale had been a nadir, with a mere thirty-nine lots selling for $74.1 million, and a solid run seemed necessary. Auctioneer Christopher Burge kicked it all off at 6:41 PM, hitting his stride early and handily steering bidders through the first six lots, all of which went for over their high estimates.

At Lot 7 there was a slight pause, murmurs. Jasper Johns’s Flag, from 1960–66, would be a bellwether for the week. Burge began the bidding at $7 million—$3 million below the low estimate—and it quickly began to rise. “I always wanted to sell a painting for a million dollars,” Crichton quotes Johns as saying, in his monograph on the artist. This one went for $28.6 million, with buyer’s premium, to New York dealer Michael Altman. A world auction record for the artist. A good way to kick off the night.

From there it was smooth sailing. The next “major” lot was the aforementioned Liz. The painting quickly hit its $15 million high estimate and soon after began to rise in $100,000 increments, a duel between Christie’s Jean-Paul Engelen on the phone and a mysterious bidder standing in the room. With no guess as to who he was, my neighbor began calling him “The Quarterback,” after his youthful, brawny appearance. At $15.9 million, dealer Dominique Lévy joined in the game, eventually picking it up for $18.3 million, with premium. “Well, you’ve had a time,” Burge said in consolation, as the mystery bidder briefly left the room.

Left: Collectors Don and Mera Rubell. (Photo: Erika Nusser) Right: Collector Jonathan Colby at Sotheby’s.

But in fact he’d just begun. The next Warhol, Lot 51, Holly Solomon, was his for $4.8 million hammer—a relative steal, being one of very few works in the sale to go under estimate (in this case, $7 million).

Outside, after the auction, Marc Jacobs stood smoking with diamond dealer (and “Rattle Ring” inventor) John Reinhold. “He really wanted that Liz,” the designer said. Jacobs himself had just picked up Ellsworth Kelly’s Yellow Curve, 1962, for a little under a million dollars. “Auctions are a lot of fun,” he remarked casually.

“Fun if you win—sad if you lose,” Reinhold clarified.

“Depressing,” Jacobs concurred.

At Sotheby’s the next night, the bidder, by now identified as Miami-based medical malpractice lawyer Jonathan Colby, could be seen in a busy skybox in the southwest corner of the room. Still, no one (not even the Rubells, who sat in an adjacent skybox) seemed to actually know him—an unusual situation in the cozy, predictable cadre of high-end collectors. Every so often, Colby would ceremoniously descend from the loge to the auction-house floor, where he would loom auspiciously. Several times he bid, crossing his arms and shaking his head when he reached his limit (as high as $27 million, when underbidding a Rothko), high-fiving his partner when he won (twice, on an early-’60s Joan Mitchell and a 2005 stainless steel Anish Kapoor). It was an inspired performance.

But the most compelling drama of the evening was the cover lot, Warhol’s 1986 “big fright wig,” being sold by Tom Ford. At Lot 9, the work would either be a kick-starter, like Johns at Christie’s, or a bump in the road. Auctioneer Tobias Meyer began bidding at $8 million but the next bid leapt to $15 million, then $18 million. It then climbed in million-dollar increments until going to an unknown buyer on the phone for a cool $32.6 million with premium, more than double the high estimate and an (unofficial) record for the artist’s late period. The only other work that night to elicit as many claps was the back-cover lot, Maurizio Cattelan’s sculptural portrait of himself peeking through a hole in the floor, which went for just under $8 million.

Left: Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s chief auctioneer. Right: Valentino and Giancarlo Giammetti. (Photos: Erika Nusser)

In the end, Christie’s pulled in an impressive $231.9 million and Sotheby’s $189.9 million, each house selling 94 percent of its lots—by all appearances two controlled, confident sales. Christie’s total was more than triple its fall auctions; Sotheby’s more than quadrupled its results from last May. Sales especially “paid off” for living artists, with Cattelan, Brice Marden, Richard Tuttle, Richard Serra, and Ellsworth Kelly achieving new records at Sotheby’s; Johns, Mark Tansey, Lee Bontecou, and Christopher Wool setting records at Christie’s. “While the euro may be falling, America is clearly in recovery,” Christie’s Amy Cappellazzo said after Tuesday’s sale.

At Sotheby’s, Meyer brought back the human angle: “May I add that Tom Ford is very happy, too.”

Left: The salesroom at Sotheby’s. Right: Art advisor Thea Westreich. (Photos: Erika Nusser)

Left: Dealer Larry Gagosian. (Photo: Erika Nusser) Right: Brett Gorvy, Christie’s International Co-Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art. (Photo: David Velasco)