Wild Carte

David Velasco at Phillips de Pury, Sotheby’s, and Christie’s evening sales

Left: Artist Abdi Farah with Simon de Pury. Right: Amy Cappellazzo, Christie’s international co-head of postwar and contemporary art. (Photos: David Velasco)

“GOOD EVENING! And now let’s start with Carte Blanche—Philippe Ségalot!” Kicking off a dizzy week of contemporary art sales, Monday night’s auction at Phillips de Pury & Company’s freshly unwrapped Park Avenue HQ got off at 6:14 PM, a fashionably late start for the inaugural haul. Ségalot’s Carte Blanche program of works, “curated” according to mysterious but supposedly nonfinancial criteria by the private dealer (and former head of contemporary art for Christie’s), opened the two-part evening sale. It drew a real crowd: Larry Gagosian, the Mugrabi family, Aby Rosen, Peter Brant, Maria Baibakova, Adam Lindemann and Amalia Dayan, and, as it goes, all the rest. There were no hoi polloi in attendance.

The first Cindy Sherman, Lot 14, Untitled #153, 1985, secured a new record for the artist ($2.8 million, with buyer’s premium), but it was the second Sherman, Untitled #420 from the “Clown” series, that set my neighbors off. “$1.2 million . . . I never would have guessed. Champagne and caviar tonight!” Was it theirs? “Not even—we have a better one at home.” Everyone’s a winner.

Between Ségalot’s thirty-three-lot kitty and the regular twenty-six-lot Contemporary Art Part I sale that immediately followed, Phillips de Pury raked in $137 million, more than twice the amount made for any evening sale in the house’s history. Nearly half that number came from one big Warhol, Men in Her Life, 1962, a silk screen of Liz and her exes, which sold for $63.3 million with premium, the second-highest amount ever paid for a Warhol at auction.

According to de Pury, who lingered in the auction room in the aftermath, the sale was “a self-portrait of Philippe” and had “the aura of a private collection.” (Earlier, someone had invoked Christie’s controversial 2007 sale of dealer Pierre Huber’s personal collection—a “Carte Blanche,” some argued, avant la lettre.) Ségalot himself continued in this vein in manifesto-like rhetoric: “The sale was very personal to me, telling the outside world that this is where we are, this is who I am, this is my taste, and these are the artists I believe in.” The next thing in conspicuous consumption: the statement auction.

Left: Dealers Dominique Lévy and Robert Mnuchin. (Photo: Erika Nusser) Right: Dealer and Carte Blanche curator Philippe Ségalot. (Photo: David Velasco)

A visibly excited de Pury contextualized his house as a sort of grand private academy. “Some of the artists from the Part II (morning) sale will someday become the artists of the Part I sale, and part of the great future blue-chip artists!” One of those Part II artists was in fact present that evening: Abdi Farah, the first winner of Bravo’s reality program Work of Art, an artist de Pury had “mentored” on that show. Part of his prize package was to have a work sent to auction (remember when Rauschenberg punched Robert Scull for putting his work on the block?), and his large work on paper Baptism was kicking off the Part II sale the next day at 10 AM. (Estimated at $6,000–$8,000, it ended up fetching an eyebrow-raising $20,000.) Farah thought it was all “pretty darned exciting.”

For those dealers and collectors impatient with $5,000 bidding increments, there were Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales on Tuesday and Wednesday evening, respectively. At Sotheby’s, Tobias Meyer hammered out four new artist records (Urs Fischer [$1.1 million], Jim Hodges [$2.1 million], Cady Noland [$1.8 million], and Larry Rivers [$1.1 million]) in the first eleven lots. They rang like the opening bars to a highly produced pop song. With Lot 12 came Warhol’s 1962 Coca Cola (4) (Large Coca-Cola) and the evening’s big moneymaker: $35.4 million, with buyer’s premium. “What you saw tonight was a single global iconic market,” Meyer later explained to the press.

After the sale, Takashi Murakami, perhaps the only artist who is a habitué of the auction circuit, was enthusiastic, a stark contrast to his crew of soigné attendants. “I really learn from this environment,” he said. (In more ways than one, no doubt. His 1997 sculpture Miss ko² had sold for $6.8 million to Warhol wallah Jose Mugrabi during Ségalot’s sale the night prior.) “Tobias is amazing—bam bam bam. Asia sales are much slower. Hong Kong Christie’s can go on for nine hours.”

The next night’s auction at Christie’s at Rockefeller Center wasn’t nearly that long, but with seventy-five lots on the docket, punters were grouching before it even began. “Well, this’ll be a quick one . . . ” Christie’s chief auctioneer Christopher Burge started shortly after 7 PM and ended a little over two hours later, after some fifteen Warhols, seven Lichtensteins, six Calders, five Twomblys, and four Richard Lindners (?), among others, had had their shot at art-market immortality.

Left: Dealer Tim Blum with artist Takashi Murakami. Right: Tobias Meyer at Sotheby’s. (Photos: Erika Nusser)

“Right here is the mirage of capitalism. It proves its power by accruing around arbitrary objects,” a colleague averred. “We’re lucky that rich people like art. It’s trickle-down Reaganomics in action. They could just like yachts and cars. Then we’d all be doing something else. Making documentary movies, maybe.” Just philosophizing in the press pack.

The night’s star was also the catalogue’s cover, Lot 5, Lichtenstein’s 1964 painting Ohhh . . . Alright . . . Bidding began at 7:16 PM at $29 million and ended roughly a minute later at $38 million, or $42.6 million with buyer’s premium, a new world record for the artist. There was some scattered applause, and small bills changed hands as a guy who’d made the right bet on the price point took his pot. “Too easy,” he announced brusquely.

Thirty minutes later, with the sale not even half over, men in suits were sheepishly passing out a three-page, stapled, and color-illustrated “Media Alert” announcing that Christie’s had “made history” with the sale of this “striking and subtly and humorous” painting [sic].

In the end, Christie’s brought in $272.8 million after premiums, well within its estimate. On Tuesday, Sotheby’s reached $222.4 million with nearly a third fewer lots. Both results were considerably higher than last spring’s already dramatic rebounds, and at the nocturne sales records were set for more than twenty artists—Noland, Hodges, Fischer, Rivers, Sherman, and Lichtenstein, of course, but also Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Lee Lozano, Thomas Schütte, Wade Guyton, and Julie Mehretu, among others: the entering class of 2010.

Leaving Rockefeller Center Wednesday evening, during a week in which more than three-quarters of a billion dollars were publicly spilled on contemporary art, a bemused Mera Rubell put it best: “It’s another reality in there.” Out here, it was simply cold.