Real Housewife of Beverly Hills

Sarah Thornton at Christie's Postwar and Contemporary Evening Sale

New York

Left: Collector François Pinault and Gil. Right: Auctioneer Christopher Burge. (All photos: Ryan McNamara)

ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT, the market for postwar and contemporary art took the form of several dozen huddles on the sidewalk of Forty-ninth Street just west of Fifth Avenue. Although the women had blinged down and the men flaunted somber ties, the talk outside Christie’s was about a “disconnect in the market”; some people, after all, are still very rich. Moreover, in a hellish economic climate where it is hard to persuade collectors to put work up for public sale, Christie’s had “bagged an estate.” So a refined little buzz enlivened the mob, which rejoiced in the “old-school estimates.” Many buyers were also delighted that not one of the fifty-four lots was guaranteed. As dealer Jeffrey Deitch explained, “There’s going to be a real auction for these works tonight.”

Once François Pinault and Steve Cohen were safely ensconced in their skyboxes, auctioneer Christopher Burge called the salesroom to order, then clipped his impeccable way through the first twenty lots, most of which were from the estate of the Los Angeles arts patron Betty Freeman. Douglas Wheeler’s 1968 white Plexiglas light work made $290,500, more than triple his 2007 record, while Claes Oldenburg’s 1976 Typewriter Eraser was bought for $2.2 million by Citigroup Art Advisory. While the perky rubber by the artist, who systematically giganticized things years before Koons, achieved a record price, the other Oldenburg from the Freeman collection, a 1968 sculpture of two limp baseball bats, failed to find a buyer. As one dealer put it, “What scares major collectors more than a flaccid sculpture? A pair of flaccid sculptures.”

Roy Lichtenstein’s 1977 Frolic, a tribute to Picasso that features a blond cyclops with a beach ball, might be hard to live with, but that didn’t stop three bidders from driving the price up to $6 million. Larry Gagosian won the lot. Later, the dealer went on to buy Lichtenstein’s Still Life with Cash Box. (Woefully, the box is depicted without a single dollar bill in it.) He then underbid the artist’s Mirror #3 and let Brushstroke (a tabletop sculpture) pass. As one savvy collector explained, “Larry uses his power wisely. He is not supporting goats. He picks artists who he thinks will have longevity and keeps them pumped.”

Left: Gagosian's Stefan Ratibor and Robin Vousden with dealers Larry Gagosian and Michael Kohn. Right: Collector Michael Ovitz and dealer Tony Shafrazi.

Lot 14, the night’s top prize, was David Hockney’s A Beverly Hills Housewife from 1966–67. The twelve-foot-long double canvas painted from the perspective of Freeman’s swimming pool is a museum-worthy combination of cool Pop and naive Rousseau. Deitch put in an early bid, then Burge oversaw a duel between Christie’s Brett Gorvy and Laura Paulson. Gorvy’s telephone bidder eventually won the work for a record $7.9 million, which could be considered a good deal given that, exactly one year ago, Lucian Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (aka “Big Sue”), a more recent work by another living British painter, cost its buyer, Roman Abramovich, four times as much ($33.6 million).

With the exception of five works that failed to sell, the auction went from one firm foothold to another. Peter Doig’s 1993 Night Fishing, consigned by Daniel Loeb, sold for $4.7 million (above its high estimate) to a collector on the phone with Russian-speaking, Ukrainian-friendly Gagosian director Victoria Gelfand. Richard Diebenkorn’s 1979 Ocean Park No. 117 also exceeded its high estimate when it went to an unidentified telephone bidder for $6.6 million. Alexander Calder continued to command sturdy prices. His untitled 1943 wire-and-wood wall relief (with a high estimate of $1.8 million) went for $2.8 million.

In the end, the sale totaled $93.7 million. Although it was less than a third of last May’s total ($348 million), it was a welcome sign of art-market stability. Los Angeles dealer Tim Blum remarked, “Good material at ‘fair’ value equals strong sales. It is the same at every level of the market.” Then added the common observation that “Christie’s is trouncing Sotheby’s. You wouldn’t catch them putting Dan Colen at Lot 5.”

At the press conference after the sale, Christie’s CEO Ed Dolman told me, “Tonight, we got it spot-on. This sale will give people confidence to consign. At the moment, our problem is not prices but supply.” When asked where the market was in its rise and fall, Dolman replied, “We might be at the bottom, but I’m superstitious; I don’t want to call it too early.”

Left: Collector Christophe de Menil. Right: Dealers Perry Rubenstein and David Zwirner.

Left: Dealers Robert Mnuchin and Dominique Lévy. Right: Christie's Amy Cappellazzo, Brett Gorvy, and Laura Paulson.