I ♡ Sotheby's

New York

Left: Sotheby's Tobias Meyer and Anthony Grant. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Sotheby's Helyn Goldenberg. (Photo: David Velasco)

Larry Gagosian was sucking a red lollipop as he walked to his seat at Sotheby’s on Wednesday evening. Others tossed their silver spoons and settled in by biting their nails. Sotheby’s stock had plummeted 37 percent after last week’s disastrous Impressionist and Modern Art sale, so the pressure on the postwar and contemporary department had rarely been higher.

After the usual “Ladies and Gentlemen” introduction and a reading of the rules, auctioneer Tobias Meyer announced Lot 1, an untitled work by Robert Ryman from circa 1960–62. It was the first of a dozen pieces scattered through the evening sale that were described in the catalogue as “Property from a Distinguished Private Collection.” While the list was illustrious (two Rymans, two Mardens, two Kellys, one Serra, one Stella, a Twombly, a Lichtenstein, a Calder, and a late Warhol), it seemed a tad misleading given that the unidentified consignor was actually long-standing Sotheby’s employee Helyn D. Goldenberg. In a restrained beige cardigan and outgoing orangey-red hair, the sweet seventy-four-year-old sat in her usual spot with the Sotheby’s sales staff (though, unlike them, she refrained from fielding telephone bids on this occasion). Goldenberg had lived with much of the art for twenty years. Of the Warhol painting that had hung in her dining room—Self-Portrait (Green Camouflage), 1986—she told me, “Andy was almost a member of the family. He was very good company, and he didn’t eat a lot. We have dinner with Ellsworth now. Don’t worry, there are no holes on the wall.”

The sale’s first eleven lots, all but two of them unsullied by previous appearances at auction, went for strong prices, with Sol LeWitt’s white wood Corner Piece No. 2, 1976, and John Chamberlain’s Big E, a crumpled-car sculpture from 1962, nearly doubling their artists’ previous auction records. But the atmosphere was still tense when Meyer called out Lot 12, a rare Warhol silk screen on paper titled Suicide, 1964, which depicts a figure free-falling from a skyscraper. I’d heard that “scary Warhols are much hotter than pretty Warhols” and that “everyone wants a disaster,” but this work’s evocation of 9/11 wasn’t obvious living-room fare. Nonetheless, real demand was evident, and the work sold to super-high-end dealer Doris Ammann for $5.2 million, nearly double the previous auction record for a Warhol work on paper.

Lot 14, Jeff Koons’s Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold), 1994–2006, brought the assembled to the edge of their seats. The painted stainless-steel sculpture conspicuously adorned the front and back covers of the Sotheby’s catalogue. It was the acknowledged “anchor” of the sale and certainly one of a handful of works that could single-handedly sink it. Ironically, the sculpture weighs over thirty-five hundred pounds, but Sotheby’s portrayed the icon’s weight problem as “the purest, plumpest and most glorious of valentines.” As one dealer assured me, “There are so many rich people supporting Koons that the buyer can build a house around it.”

Left: Collector Peter Brant. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Dealer Ivor Braka. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

While Adam Lindemann, the Heart’s seller, either hid in a skybox or, uncharacteristically, didn’t attend, the third party who’d underwritten the Sotheby’s guarantee—Greenwich, Connecticut–based publisher Peter Brant—was sitting in the sixth row in a pin-striped suit, next to a gum-chewing Tony Shafrazi and within spitting distance of many of the other men who provide “liquidity” to the art market. Brant is said to have one of the biggest contemporary art collections in the world, with an unrivaled selection of Warhols, Basquiats, and Koonses—not to mention a rarely seen ensemble of fifty Julian Schnabels. As the bidding ascended in half-million-dollar increments from the $10 million opener, Brant looked imperiously over the top of his black frames. He clenched his lips at $16.5 million. He half-raised his eyebrows at $18 million. He cracked a broad grin at $19 million, then laughed and clapped when the work sold to Larry Gagosian for $21 million hammer ($23.6 million with buyer’s premium)—a splendid sum given that Diamond (Blue), a sculpture of the same size from the same series, had commanded only $10.5 million at Christie’s the night before.

$21 million hammer, however, was exactly the price that a discerning dealer (who may or may not be bidding on behalf of a collector) had to pay if he wanted his boy to hold the world record for the most expensive work by a living artist. For eighteen years, Jasper Johns was the title holder (for False Start, 1959), but Damien Hirst’s stainless-steel pill cabinet Lullaby Spring, 2002, sold for $19.1 million on June 21. What makes the Koons’ “win” outlandish is that the Hanging Heart is in an edition of five “uniquely colored” sculptures, and this “Magenta/Gold” one was produced only last year. The red one is in the collection of Christie’s owner François Pinault. Apparently, the yellow one swings from reinforced rafters somewhere in the UK, and the blue one sits in a crate in Los Angeles. But one has to wonder: in whose penthouse-size closet is the fifth Heart?

Lots 19 and 29, both Francis Bacon paintings consigned by the Germany-based Langen family, provided the next two high points in the sale. First up was an exquisitely tortured self-portrait from 1969. Multiple bidders took the price well past its high estimate, and Meyer happily banged his hammer at $29.5 million ($33 million with premium). After a string of snappily sold lots, the audience hushed for the larger, more controversial Bacon, Second Version of Study for Bullfight No. 1, also from 1969. The auction house had marketed the painting with the Bacon quote “Bullfighting is like boxing—a marvelous aperitif to sex.” Indeed, Bacon had inscribed his sexual identity into the dynamic composition of a matador wrestling with a bull. As one Bacon fan explained, “The painting is about something, and it ain’t bullfighting. It’s all about that animal’s ass.”

Left: Collector Adam Lindemann with his daughter at Christie's on Tuesday night. Right: Tobias Meyer auctions Cy Twombly's Untitled, 1959. (Photos: David Velasco)

Sitting in row E between Brant (in F) and Gagosian (in D) was longtime Bacon dealer Ivor Braka. Bidding for Bullfight opened at $32 million, and Braka, who reminds me of a good-natured Afghan hound, was rubbernecking in his seat to keep track of the action. The lot climbed steadily to $36 million and might have been about to sell when dealer Philippe Ségalot, sitting at the edge of the room, snapped his fingers with an outstretched arm, as if beckoning “Garçon!” to Meyer, whose gaze was concentrated elsewhere. With his cell phone pressed to one ear and his hand covering the bottom half of his face, Ségalot bid forcefully, eventually buying the work for $46 million. It was the highest price in two weeks of auction-house trading. When I later asked Braka about the Bacon bidding, he exclaimed, “Totally justified! It’s the triumph of intelligence and art history over fashionable status collecting!”

In the end, the sale brought in a shocking $315.9 million—the highest grand total in Sotheby’s history. Only six works went unsold, and thirteen artist world records were achieved (even more if you include records by medium). The Sotheby’s crew were jubilant. Specialist Francis Outred affirmed, “The sale had something for everybody: great postwar, quality Chinese, sensational Warhols.” Certainly, the sale bore witness to many terrific works, but let’s not fail to acknowledge the tremendously skillful engineering. For some insiders (who refused to be named), the happy truth of the matter is that the art market probably peaked last May.