High Times

New York

Left: Tobey Maguire. Right: Christie's Brett Gorvy with Christopher Burge. (Except where noted, all photos: David Velasco)

Tobey Maguire was wearing a gray baseball cap. As he took his seat in the tenth row next to LA collector Stavros Merjos, John McEnroe peered out from the box of dealer William Acquavella. François Pinault, Christie’s owner, stood omnisciently behind the glass in his own lofty lodge. Slinky Stephanie Seymour attracted appreciative looks as she entered the salesroom with collector Peter Brant. Larry Gagosian dropped down into his usual seat on the center aisle. At five past seven, the auction still hadn’t started. Perhaps the rain had delayed someone expected to bid during the first few rounds? Auctioneer Christopher Burge surveyed the crowd with an avuncular smile, then began: “Ladies and gentlemen . . .”

The first fourteen lots chugged slowly but smoothly beyond their high estimates. The market was so “deep” with aggressive buyers that Burge had to perform gymnastic swivels to field the bids. Lots 2, 3, 5, 8, 10, 11, and 13 set new worldwide auction records for their respective artists. They included a luminous blue Judd stack that went for $9.8 million (over double the artist’s previous record) and a black-on-cream text painting by John Baldessari titled Quality Material—-…, 1967–68. The new consensus is that the LA guru has been undervalued, and this artwork went for $4.4 million, more than quadruple his recently established record. (As one Christie’s specialist put it, “Baldessari is so fresh and historical. He can be Minimal, Pop, Conceptual. You can hang that painting anywhere.”)

The night’s highlight, Andy Warhol’s Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I), 1963, rolled in at lot 15. Presale prattle had been concerned with how green was a “difficult color.” As Brett Gorvy, Christie’s international cohead of contemporary art, told me, “At the end of the '80s, the commodity artist in Europe was Lucio Fontana. Putting aside gold and silver because they were rare, the grading from most to least salable was: red, white, blue, yellow, green, black. Of course, there are some artists for whom black is the color, but generally speaking that is the ranking.” When it comes to Warhol, however, one must remember that green is the color of money.

Burge opened the bidding on Green Car Crash at $17 million, the highest sum ever previously paid for a Warhol (Mao, 1972, bought last November by Hong Kong–based Joseph Lau). Five or six bidders raised the price in clean million-dollar increments. At $35 million, there was a pause. Only two suitors seemed to remain—one was on the phone with Christie’s president Marc Porter, the other was bidding through Ken Yeh, deputy chairman of Christie’s Asia. Yeh, who deals with the growing number of billionaire collectors in the Pacific Rim, bid by raising one of the two phones he had pressed tightly to either side of his head. Porter, on behalf of his client, “split” the bids, then batted back every price so quickly that the effect was comic. The price escalated by five hundred thousand dollars at a time. . . all the way to $61 million, when the auctioneer raised his gavel and said, “Fair warning and selling…” Burge was about to give the emerald disaster to Yeh’s man. But then, from the floor, with a dramatic finger jolt, Larry Gagosian yelled an urgent “Bidding!” The crowd gasped and laughed. Eyes widened. Larry was on a Christie’s wireless landline to hedge-fund manager Steve Cohen (as the Baer Faxt has it) because cellular reception in the salesroom is nerve-rackingly patchy. When the lot finally sold to Yeh’s bidder for sixty-four million dollars hammer, the audience burst into authentic applause.

Left: Dealer David Zwirner. Right: Ken Yeh, deputy chairman of Christie's Asia.

The next twenty works mostly flew off the block, with worldwide auction records set for Damien Hirst, Jasper Johns, Agnes Martin, Richard Diebenkorn, and Gerhard Richter. By lot 36, not a single piece had gone unsold, and the crowd started to entertain fantasies of a “white glove” sale (in which there are no “buy-ins.”) But then, a scribble on paper by Arshile Gorky failed to reach its low estimate. Sad sighs followed, accompanied by asides of “What’s that doing in an evening sale?”

Similar grumbles about “day-sale lots” in evening auctions were made by primary dealers irritated that Charles Saatchi was turfing recent work by Wilhem Sasnal, Matthias Weischer, Cecily Brown, and Thomas Scheibitz. Although the first three made record prices, one has to wonder whether Saatchi’s provenance might leave a brighter mark if he could muster the willpower to hang on to his art a little longer.

In the end, the $384,654,400 total smashed all records. It was the highest total ever for a contemporary art sale and the second highest for any kind of art auction. A whopping 95 percent of the lots sold, 74 percent of them above their high estimates. Thirty-six percent of the night’s proceeds came from Warhol works. After the auction, Burge claimed that he was “stunned, exhausted, and thrilled,” while Robert Manley, Christie’s young head of the Evening Sale, admitted, “I’d like to say that we knew this was going to happen, but fuck no. We dreamed of the three-hundred-million mark, but. . .” Manley’s favorite work of the night was Eva Hesse’s Untitled (“Bochner Compart”), 1966—a grey double-D-cup coil on a papier-mâché square—which she gave to fellow artist Mel Bochner in 1966. (It sold for three million dollars with the buyer’s premium.) “Mel held onto that work for forty years,” said Manley. “Now he’s going to buy an apartment. Tonight, we all went from one to three bedrooms.”

Left: Right: Collector Michael Ovitz with Gil. Right: Dealer Larry Gagosian.

Left: Stephanie Seymour and Peter Brant. Right: Collector Anita Kahn with Christie's Robert Manley. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)