Worldwide Warhol

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

New York

Left: Christie's chief auctioneer Christopher Burge. Right: Art consultant Philippe Ségalot with artist Takashi Murakami. (Photos: David Velasco)

A few dealers were literally drunk at Christie’s evening sale on Wednesday, but most of the swanky crowd had prepared by simply knocking back the Kool-Aid. What does it mean when a single auction of contemporary art rakes in $240 million and establishes nineteen(!) record prices? Amy Cappellazzo, the outspoken international cohead of Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art division, had an answer: “Belief in the contemporary art market is at an all-time high. After you have a fourth home and a G5 jet, what else is there? Art is extremely enriching. Why shouldn’t people want to be exposed to ideas and artists?”

Takashi Murakami and I were guests of art consultant Philippe Ségalot, so we sat in prime seats in the sixth row, surrounded by big spenders. Murakami had never been to a sale before and had bid by phone only once. In his sashimi-style English, he told me, “I totally freaked out. No control. Bid, bid, bid! Twenty thousand dollars my maximum. In end, paid forty-seven thousand dollars for Aya Takano work at Christie’s Hong Kong.”

I asked the artist for his favorite piece in the sale, and he pointed to lot 16, Andy Warhol’s majestic Mao, 1972. As Warhol is the art market’s top-traded star, and newfound Chinese wealth is contributing to the endless art boom, it’s the perfect symbol of the season. “Which do you like better, Mao or Sixteen Jackies?” If I heard it once, I heard it half a dozen times. One’s answer apparently reveals a lot about one’s taste. The unique assemblage of sixteen canvases chronicling the tragedy of Mrs. Kennedy resonated with those for whom Warhol’s disaster paintings are his greatest achievement. For others, Mao, featuring a globally important icon whose features suture the tension between capitalism and communism, had “stronger wall power." In the end, Mao commanded the higher price, selling for $17.4 million to Joseph Lau, a fifty-four-year-old Hong Kong real estate tycoon with an appetite for international art said to be atypical of Chinese collectors. The painting had toured China as part of an effort to drum up interest, clearly a successful marketing ploy.

Left: Collector Mitchell P. Rales. Center: Georg Frei with dealer Doris Ammann. Right: L&M Arts' Robert Pincus-Witten and Adriana Mnuchin. (Photos: David Velasco)

Lot 29 was Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XXV, 1977. The bidding was fast and furious on the crashing abstraction with the fleshy pink paint that harked back to the artist’s '50s heyday. Bidders tend to dwindle to a determined pair as the stakes climb, but this did not happen here until the contest topped twenty million dollars, when it turned into a duel of split bids (of smaller-than-standard increments). The soaring numbers commanded a respectful silence, but when the hammer came down at $24.2 million ($27.1 million with the buyer’s premium), the room erupted in chatter so loud that you could barely hear the progress of the next lot. It was the highest price ever paid for a work of postwar art at auction. (Though, a few weeks ago, Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, 1948 sold behind the scenes at Sotheby’s for $140 million.) Bought by dealer Nick MacLean on behalf of a client, the work was also sought by Mary Hoeveler from Citigroup Art Advisory, representing a bidder apparently willing to go even higher if cell-phone contact had not been lost at the crucial moment.

The real trophy de Kooning was up next: a small drawing entitled Woman (Seated Woman I), 1952, on offer from its original, now octagenarian, owner who had acquired the work from the Sidney Janis Gallery for the neat sum of $150 in 1953. The wantonly ravishing figure sold for double its estimate at $9.6 million. A nice return on the original investment.

Christopher Burge, Christie’s chief auctioneer, was in outstanding form. Good-humored and ever so patient, he raised his eyebrows here, lingered quizzically there, and teased the hesitant: “If you want it, you have to bid.” Orange Marilyn, 1962, on the block for a fourth time, was being cast off after only five years by California collector Roger Evans—a sad provenance befitting the life story of the lost bombshell. When the bidding got slow and sticky, Burge skillfully extracted further bids, banging his hammer at $14.5 million. Bob Mnuchin was so impressed he hollered, “How about a hand for Christopher?”

Left: Helena Skarstedt with dealer Per Skarstedt and Christie's Alain Jathiere. Right: Collector Stavros Merjos with Leonard Riggio, chairman of Barnes & Noble. (Photos: David Velasco)

Lot 44, Clyfford Still’s large red 1947-R-NO. 1 provided more high drama. Rumored to be on the market last year for $4.5 million, it was estimated at $5 million to $7 million but sold for a staggering $21.2 million, almost seven times Still’s previous record. The rare, soulful painting received the evening’s loudest round of scattered applause.

Comic relief was offered by dealer Marc Glimcher’s goofy (klezmer-style violin?) ringtone. “Is that your phone?” asked art consultant Abigail Asher, aghast. “You gotta do something about that, Marc,” advised supercollector Aby Rosen.

The sale was exhausting and invigorating in equal measure. Records were set for an older generation of living artists, including Carl Andre, John Baldessari, Sol Lewitt, Robert Mangold, and Louise Bourgeois; by contrast to their younger peers, they now seem reasonably priced. What were the verdicts of my companions? Ségalot, full of apt asides like the skeptical “a signature is not enough,” put it this way: “The sale sets a new level in the contemporary art market. The biggest stars were American, and most sold to American buyers.” Of the triumphs—and the casualties—Murakami, whose Zen-like calm was punctuated by occasional giggles, summed it up nicely: “Artists survive. They can anytime have a revival, coming up like zombies. Auction like cemetery. Maybe I come back in May.”

Left: Dealer Tim Blum. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Public relations specialist Sara Fitzmaurice, Rafaela, and dealer Perry Rubenstein. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)