No Guarantees

Sarah Thornton at Christie's Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York

Left: April Richon Jacobs, cohead of the evening sale; Robert Manley, head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie's; Brett Gorvy, international cohead of postwar and contemporary art; and Amy Cappellazzo, international cohead of postwar and contemporary art. Right: Dealer Emmanuel Perrotin and collector Adam Lindemann. (All photos: David Velasco)

WHAT DOES A COLLECTOR SAY when he has no money to spend? “This art is terrible.” But Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on Wednesday was one of the auction house’s best in terms of artistic content. After Sotheby’s had averted an art-market free fall the night before, dealers and collectors entered Rockefeller Center with a shot glass of hope. As art adviser Sandy Heller found his aisle seat, he said, “All asset classes are being repriced. Art is no different, but I think the great things will sell.”

Salma Hayek stood statuesquely in François Pinault’s skybox, while John McEnroe peered out from the window of dealer Bill Acquavella’s. After Christopher Burge’s gracious “Ladies and gentleman . . .” the first eight lots stumbled along. With the exception of a 1961 Tom Wesselman pastel (which made a record for a work on paper by the artist) and a 2007 Subodh Gupta painting (which failed to sell), the works all sold for less than their low estimates. Lot 9, Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (710), however, defied expectations when it commanded $14.9 million. Richters haven’t performed well at auction of late, but this “wealth of oils,” as it was described in the catalogue, caught more than one bidder’s attention.

Lots 15 through 17 were Louise Bourgeois sculptures—Spider V in cast bronze, Untitled (with Foot No. 2) in pink marble, and High Heels in fabric and metal—from a “Distinguished Private European Collection.” While the awkward marble sold below its estimate, the iconic domestic-scale spider and the sexy steel-heeled form sold within estimate to London-based Swiss dealer Iwan Wirth.

Lot 18 was a shallow Joseph Cornell cabinet with a mirrored back containing shells, powders, a butterfly wing, and other curios. Titled Pharmacy, the 1943 work anticipated Damien Hirst. Once owned by Pierre Matisse and “Teeny” Duchamp, the thoughtfully assembled object attracted hands all over the room and sold for $3.8 million, a world auction record for the artist.

Left: Art adviser Allan Schwartzman. Center: Collectors Jason Rubell, Michelle Rubell, and Don Rubell. Right: Collector Eli Broad (left).

Next up was the cover lot, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Boxer)—a strong image of black victory from 1982 given added luster by Obama’s election win. Consigned by Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, the canvas sold to a collector on the phone with Brett Gorvy for a muscular $13.5 million. The Basquiat was one of four works bought by paddle number 1757, including Adolph Gottlieb’s Parallels, Yves Klein’s IKB 234, and Franz Kline’s Mars Black and White for a grand total of $22.8 million. The lineup of works suggested a new big spender who was keen to have one of each. When I nabbed Gorvy after the sale for clues about the nationality of the buyer, he said amusedly, “It’s no one you know!”

Lot 20, Yayoi Kusama’s 1959 “infinity net” painting, offered nostalgic drama when it prompted an old-fashioned, bull-market bidding war between dealers Bob Mnuchin and Philippe Ségalot. Burge had fun eliciting higher bids, at one point saying, “Surprise me, sir!” to Mnuchin. When Ségalot’s bidder stalled with momentary indecision, Mnuchin chided Burge, “I might lose it if you take too long.” When Ségalot took the bidding to $4.9 million, Burge cajoled, “Brave move, that.” In the end, Ségalot won the work for $5.7 million (with premium), resulting in an auction record for Kusama and making the work one of the most expensive by a living woman artist. The seventy-nine-year-old Kusama lives in an asylum near her studio in Tokyo. “The painting had it all,” said Ségalot, who, along with his business partner Franck Giraud, was active in the sale; together, they bought a total of five lots. “It was beautiful, early, large, and rare,” he added. “It once belonged to Donald Judd. It was the dream masterpiece.”

For a dizzy moment, one might have imagined it was May 2007—but then the minibubble burst. Lucio Fontana’s Concetto spaziale (Festa sul Canal Grande) and Francis Bacon’s Study for Self-Portrait—both so expensive that their estimates were only available “on request”—failed to sell. According to the catalogue, neither was guaranteed by the house, but a virulent rumor suggests that the consignor of the Bacon is livid over the fact that he may have been deprived of a guarantee (an undisclosed sum promised to the seller regardless of the outcome of the sale), which didn’t go through because of a technicality in the paperwork.

Left: Auctioneer Christopher Burge during the sale. Right: Dealers Lucy Mitchell-Innes and David Nash.

The Bacon was followed by nine near-consecutive flops, and the auction turned ugly. By the time Burge announced the sixteen “master drawings” well known to be the property of Richard Fuld, the former CEO of Lehman Brothers, and his wife, Kathy, a trustee at the Museum of Modern Art, the reality of the greater economic world had entered the room like a herd of elephants. Back in July, the Fulds received a guarantee of $20 million. Tonight, the group of works, which included a stunning 1951 de Kooning Woman with remarkable “wall power,” as well as drawings by Arshile Gorky, Barnett Newman, and Agnes Martin, sold for $13.5 million. Perhaps more than any other, this consignment signaled the decline, if not the death, of auction-house guarantees.

Later, in a packed press conference, Christie’s press agent Milena Sales announced that the total result was $113.6 million—half of the sale’s presale low estimate—and drew our attention to the four gravity-defying artist record prices: Cornell, Kusama, Robert Irwin (for Untitled, 1963–64), and Paul McCarthy (for his fantastic bronze Michael Jackson Fucked Up [Big Head], which fetched $2.2 million).

Deputy chairman Amy Cappellazzo went with the upbeat message: “Considering people are hoarding cash right now, it was an amazing show of spending.” At the back of the room, Burge told me, “Since the 1950s, the art market has seen steady growth, with cyclical downturns in 1968–69, 1974, 1981, 1991, a minislump in 2001, and now late 2008. It tends to take the same path as the luxury real estate market.” Christie’s CEO Ed Dolman described the current economic environment as “mind-boggling” and likened the art business to “playing football on a very muddy field,” adding, “You need to interpret results in light of the environment in which you’re operating.”

In general, the Christie’s people looked relieved that the auction was over. As a press-pack colleague quipped, “Better to have the bloodshed behind you.” However, with heads rolling all over Manhattan, including Chelsea, the year ahead will no doubt require a refined sense of gallows humor.