Freudian Analysis

New York

Left: Collector François Pinault. Center: Giancarlo Giammetti with designer Valentino. Right: Dealer Larry Gagosian. (All photos: David Velasco)

What happens to the art market when other financial markets are suffering a grim credit crunch and liquidity crisis? It experiences an unexpectedly high volume of rich and varied gossip. Whisper campaigns about who is guaranteeing what for more than the high estimate, apprehensive speculation about foreigners’ taste in art, and fractious squabbles about the quality of competing “masterworks” by the same artist punctuated the days leading up to Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on Tuesday night. Against this background, the Christie’s team was methodically peddling forty-three paintings, eight sculptures, two works on paper, an installation by Mike Kelley, and a house designed by cult modernist architect Richard Neutra. They called it “a smarter, tighter, sober sale, which accurately reads the market.”

The auction began sluggishly but then started to ascend when Lot 11, Tom Wesselmann’s erotically charged Smoker #9, 1973, sold for $6.8 million, a world auction record for the artist. Next up was Andy Warhol’s black and beige Double Marlon, 1966. Peter Simon, the British-based owner of fashion retailer Monsoon, was selling, and David Martinez, the Mexican megacollector, was said to have guaranteed. The auction house had thrown an over-the-top party meant to “bring the cultural history of the painting to life” at the Soho Grand Hotel. Evidently, the marketing hoo-haw paid off. After a ping-pong of telephone bids taken by Christie’s Brett Gorvy and Ken Yeh, the work sold for $32.5 million.

Next up was Richard Prince’s gory Man-Crazy Nurse #2, 2002, which was being sold by Douglas Cramer, the producer of the television series Dynasty. Ever since art-industry newsletter the Baer Faxt made the pithy announcement that “Richard Prince is working independently,” the rumor mill has been in the kind of overdrive that would befit the 1980s-era soap. Some say Prince sold paintings out of his Guggenheim show directly to billionaire Ukrainian collector Viktor Pinchuk. Others say Larry Gagosian took a commission on the deal. A dealer colleague of Barbara Gladstone, Prince’s gallerist since 1988, said, “His lack of loyalty is less than appealing.” Indeed, word has it that Gagosian Gallery has lined up an exhibition in Rome. Although the gallery would not confirm that Prince had joined the roster, one of its senior directors was willing to assert, “Unlike other artists whose markets are ahead of their reputations, Prince has earned his market and will sustain it. A new gallery with a new tier of collectors can take an artist up an echelon. The Gagosian empire competes more with the auction houses than with the galleries.” Needless to say, a world auction record for the artist was set when dealer Christophe Van de Weghe bought the Prince painting for $7.4 million.

Left: Dealers David Zwirner and Philippe Ségalot. Right: Lucian Freud's Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995.

From there, the auction mostly glided along, with auctioneer Christopher Burge conducting the momentum like a maestro. The bidding on Lot 22, Adolph Gottlieb’s Cool Blast, 1960, ended with a genuine burst of applause. Robert Manley, head of the evening sale, described the painting of a red orb above a black blast, as “a perfect-storm picture, similar in size and color to one in MoMA,” and the lot had the additional support of a Gottlieb solo show at PaceWildenstein on Fifty-seventh Street. The iconic picture sold for $6.5 million, almost quintupling the urbane Abstract Expressionist’s previous auction record.

Next up was Mark Rothko’s red and yellow No. 15 from 1952, described by Christie’s Brett Gorvy as a “rare wow painting, with glorious color relationships and an ideal scale, offering both monumentality and an intimate exchange.” Like the Gottlieb, it was put up by top-tier California collector Roger Evans and, after a well-mannered volley of bids, sold for $50.4 million to Andreas Rumbler, head of Christie’s Germany, suggesting the lot went to Europe, perhaps even to a Russian with a taste for happy abstraction.

When Warhol’s 1978 Oxidation Painting, Lot 25, hit the block, I was treated to some minor comic relief. In the back row, I overheard an endearing conversation between two upscale Beavis and Butt-heads.

“That’s a Warhol, you know,” said one gentleman to the other.

“No, it’s not!” said the other.

“Yes, seriously, they call it a ‘piss painting,’” the first one snickered.

“No!” replied his incredulous friend.

The work, whose materials are described as “copper metallic pigment and urine on canvas,” sold for a wholesome $1.9 million.

Left: Collector Peter Simon. Center: Collectors Jacqueline and Irving Blum with art adviser Mark Fletcher. Right: Auctioneer Christopher Burge.

Everyone took a deep breath when Lot 37, Lucian Freud’s large-scale Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995, appeared on the revolving turntable, if only because it was a miracle that Christie’s art handlers had managed to get the big girl on there. The chunky nude, a modern-day Rubens/Renoir, was perhaps too visceral to be “commercial,” but the bidding started at $20 million and someone on the phone with Gorvy took it for $30 million ($33.6 million with buyer’s premium), the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist. Lucian, the grandson of Sigmund, is eighty-five years old. A respectful round of applause ensued.

At Lot 42, Burge said, “A slight change of pace, ladies and gentleman,” then introduced Kathleen Coumou from Christie’s Realty International, who announced Neutra’s five bedroom, five-and-a-half bathroom Kaufmann House, 1946–47. Earlier in the day, she had explained that “putting the house in the evening sale was a competitive part of our pitch to the consignor. We’re presenting it as an art object, which has never been done in quite this way before.” She added that they’d received positive responses from “people who collect significant properties,” as well as from international buyers who usually purchase in Manhattan or Palm Beach but were considering Palm Springs. The house sold for its low estimate: $15 million hammer.

In the end, the auction totaled $348 million, the second-highest total ever, with 95 percent of lots sold. Only three works, including Roy Lichtenstein’s Ball of Twine, 1963, failed to sell. Moreover, eight world records were set. Toward the end of the press conference, I congratulated Marc Porter, president of Christie’s Americas, on the tremendous price achieved by Freud’s thought-provoking fat lady. He smiled and said, “Yes, the painting makes you go home and look at your own body. On that note, I think I’ll be off now!”

Sarah Thornton

Left: Christie's Robert Manley, Laura Paulson, Amy Cappellazzo, and Brett Gorvy. Right: Collector Douglas Cramer with writer Joyce Haber.

Left: Avi Stern and New Museum trustee Jerome Stern. Right: Amalia Dayan and collector Adam Lindemann.

Left: Collector Jane Holzer. Right: Art appraiser Brian Cummings with writer Michael Musto.