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New York

Left: Christie's Christopher Burge at the left-hand podium. Right: Dealer Barbara Gladstone with Marc Jacobs. (Photos: David Velasco)

A blue-haired Marc Jacobs waved a cigarette outside Christie’s on Tuesday night. He didn’t have any predictions about the evening sale, but he did admit to loving Liz Taylor. “She’s one of my favorite Warhols,” he enthused. “I love her more than the other gals, but I won’t be bidding—unless I get a huge raise in the next half hour.” This turquoise Liz, one of thirteen made in 1963, was estimated to fetch between $25 and $35 million—a sum that many thought was hazardously high. “She’s a dog with heavy lips and thin hair,” said one dealer. “She isn’t fresh to the market,” said another, referring to the fact that actor Hugh Grant had bought the canvas at Sotheby’s for $3.5 million and only lived with her for six years. The Warhol portrait was just one of several lots over which “Adam Smith’s invisible hand was hovering,” as John Good of Gagosian Gallery put it. “This is the last bastion of laissez-faire capitalism, and it’s kinda fun, but the auction houses have got to stop pushing B material for A+ prices.”

At 7:10 PM, as stragglers squeezed into the jam-packed saleroom, Christopher Burge whacked his hammer, and despite all the jitters in the American financial markets, seven of the first ten lots—an international lineup that included Rudolf Stingel, Fred Tomaselli, and Zhang Xiaogang—sold swiftly for record prices.

At least six bidders strode into battle for Lot 6, Richard Prince’s Piney Woods Nurse, 2002, which was being cast off by Norah and Norman Stone of San Francisco. Many new buyers have come into the Prince market since his retrospective, “Spiritual America,” opened at the Guggenheim. In the end, Jay Jopling, owner of London’s White Cube gallery, beat a bidder on the phone with Pilar Ordovas (the head of Christie’s London department) for the bloodstained blond nurse. The hammer price of $5.4 million ($6.1 million with buyer’s premium) doubled the artist’s previous auction record and reminded those in the room that dollars are funny money for those who trade in pounds. A few lots later, dealer Perry Rubenstein walked by and whispered: “I guess these people aren’t holding subprime mortgages.”

Left: Hugh Grant. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Gagosian Gallery's John Good. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

Lot 12, Untitled (Red, Blue, Orange), 1955, was the first of three Mark Rothko paintings to hit the block. “Rothko is an emotional market,” one dealer told me. “It’s solid but choosy, and gets thin at high prices.” One of my press-pack colleagues muttered ominously, “This is a test,” as Burge began the bidding at $14 million. Three telephone bidders took it steadily up to $24.5 million. The crowd went quiet, and a chorus of BlackBerry messages chimed. Finally, the price leveled off at $34.2 million with premium, not a record for the artist, but a healthy precedent for the next two Rothko paintings being sold by Valentino, the couturier known only by his first name and described in the catalogue as a “distinguished European collector.” Untitled (Black and Gray), 1969, one of the last paintings Rothko made before committing suicide in early 1970, sold for $10.6 million, while a smaller work from 1954 entitled No. 7 (Dark over Light) went for twice that, at $21 million. Artist Subodh Gupta, who had never attended a major auction and was sitting in the eighth row with Philippe Ségalot, was disappointed that one of his favorite works in the sale, the depressed Rothko, had sold for so much less than the others. “I like people spending money on art. I like numbers, but there were surprises,” he said, shaking his head. “The most meaningful is not the most expensive.”

Lot 28, Burning Gas Station, “signed and dated E. Ruscha 1965–66,” is the kind of small-scale masterpiece that would dignify many living rooms. Kent Logan (described by a Los Angeles dealer as “one of the original members of the contemporary art club—he’s philanthropic, but, like everybody, he occasionally trades”) was selling a potent synthesis of coveted Ruscha traits—in this case an adventurous diagonal composition and the word STANDARD half-covered in flames. There was no shortage of interest in the room, and Burge relaxed into the genuinely deep demand. The work sold for a record $6.2 million hammer ($7 million with premium) to Larry Gagosian, who sat in his usual seat on the aisle.

Burge then took a deep breath. “Lot 29,” he said slowly. “Andy Warhol’s Liz as seen on the turntable to my right and in your catalogues.” After another breath, he began. A telephone buyer and Alberto Mugrabi, a reliable underbidder on anything Warhol, had a very polite back and forth until the work sold for $21 million hammer. Word had it that the one Liz with whom Grant has trouble parting, Ms. Hurley, was sitting with him in a private skybox. Later, a London-based dealer on the inside track suggested: “Burge is so good that he should go independent and charge a million dollars per evening sale.”

Left: Dealer Jay Jopling. (Photo: David Velasco) Center: Amy Cappellazzo, Christie's International Co-Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Collector Michael Ovitz. (Photo: David Velasco)

From thereon in, the auction rolled along with what looked like relative ease. Diamond dealer Laurence Graff, sitting in his favorite spot in the front row, was feeling carefree. He bought Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Sugar Ray Robinson for $7.3 million and Warhol’s Elvis 2-Times for $15.7 million and underbid on Warhol’s Muhammad Ali, which soared past its $2 to $3 million estimate to $9.2 million.

In the end, the event brought in $325 million, the second-highest total in the department’s history, with 82 percent of the lots sold achieving over a million dollars. Only five lots were “bought in,” and world auction records were set for sixteen artists, including Lucian Freud, Gerhard Richter, Jeff Koons, On Kawara, Thomas Struth, Yoshitomo Nara, and Liza Lou. After the sale, looking much relieved with a glass of white in hand, International Co-head of Post-war and Contemporary Art Amy Cappellazzo said, “We held up the sky for another whole day, but we didn’t do it alone. Everyone at the sale tonight was a believer in the value of art.”

Sarah Thornton

Left: Art adviser Philippe Ségalot. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Collector Stavros Merjos with dealer Honor Fraser. (Photo: David Velasco)

Left: Collector David Teiger and adviser Kati Lovaas. Right: Collectors Emily Wei and Mitchell Rales. (Photos: David Velasco)

Left: Ken Yeh, deputy chairman of Christie's Asia. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Gagosian's Sam Orlofsky with dealer Tim Blum and Gagosian's Stefan Ratibor. (Photo: David Velasco)

Left: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Collector Laurence Graff. (Photo: David Velasco)