AS WOMEN IN FIVE-INCH HEELS and men in made-to-measure suits headed to their assigned seats at Christie’s on Tuesday night, a man dressed for dog walking slipped unnoticed into a middle row toward the back. Peter Doig had never been to an auction before. He is not a Warholian “business artist,” so you wouldn’t expect him to relish the spectacle of art’s liquidation. Stranger still, the painter was sitting with the seller of the evening’s top lot, a Puerto Rican psychiatrist named César Reyes, who has been a keen supporter of dealer Gavin Brown’s artists. Reyes had consigned Doig’s Reflection (What Does Your Soul Look Like), a thoughtful painting from 1996, which depicts a man who has turned away from a pond that reflects his image.
The mysterious Doig canvas was Lot 13—an inside joke, given that many of his works refer to the Friday the 13th film series. During a recession, you rarely feel the heat of desire in an auction room, but four bidders fought to pay more than $8 million for a lot in which the high estimate was a mere $6 million. Auctioneer Christopher Burge was so amused that he warned, “I can stay here all night!” In the end, however, Burge appeared impatient and he awarded Reflection to a determined collector on the phone to Christie’s president Marc Porter for $10.2 million, which would have been a world record for the artist were it not for the volatility of dollar-pound exchange rates. The underbidder was dealer Jay Jopling, who looked none too pleased when his bid at around the time of the hammer was rejected.
Outside in the hall after the lot, Doig told me, “Everyone says artists shouldn’t attend auctions, so I wondered: What are they hiding from me? It’s my painting, after all.” Doig, who teaches at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, suggested that, “students should see auctions.” Then added, “But I don’t think I’ll need to come again.” Reyes paid $24,000 for the painting when he bought it in 1996. When I asked Brown whether Reyes would give Doig a cut of the proceeds, the dealer joked: “He’s going to use the money to buy my gallery . . . and I will learn to live!”
The auction had a few other notable highs. It opened with six works from the estate of choreographer Merce Cunningham, whose partner in life and work had been composer John Cage. The lots consisted of a stunning little Jasper Johns crosshatch painting titled Dancers on a Plane, a decent Philip Guston work on paper, and four small Rauschenbergs—one of which was a gift signed “love Bob.” The group was physical evidence of an important all-American and mostly gay creative conversation. The six works sold for a total of $7.1 million, almost double their presale high estimate.
Benedikt Taschen was selling three sculptures by Jeff Koons. Given that Taschen Books had published the closest thing to a Koons catalogue raisonné earlier this year, the decision to consign mustn’t have been easy. Large Vase of Flowers, a wooden sculpture from the “Made in Heaven” series, sold to Dominique Lévy for $5.6 million. An assisted readymade consisting of a pair of vacuum cleaners in fluorescent-lit glass cases from the “New” series was bought by art consultant Philippe Ségalot for $3.1 million, while Koons’s Wishing Well, a faux-Rococo gilded mirror from “Banality,” was rescued by Larry Gagosian for $1.1 million. The total was low compared with what Koons might have commanded in early 2008, but it still made a tidy profit for Taschen, who was able to quintuple his money on Vase of Flowers, which he had bought at auction for just less than $1 million in 2000.
If you usually sit in the salesroom, there is no better way to announce that you are selling than suddenly to opt for a skybox. Even the most seasoned sellers prefer to be surrounded by protective glass. So collector Peter Brant, whose divorce from Stephanie Seymour is daily gossip-column fodder, peered out of his private booth as Brother’s Sausage, a six-panel painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat with a heavy estimate of $9–12 million, failed to entice a single bid. His Tunafish Disaster by Warhol also failed to find a buyer.
The Mugrabi family had better luck. They consigned Warhol’s 1984 red and turquoise Michael Jackson, which sold for $812,500 to diamond dealer Laurence Graff, who was sitting in the front row as he always does. “The image is very sharp, and the colors are beautiful,” explained Graff. “I had dinners with Michael. It’s a good memento.” Christie’s Amy Cappellazzo quipped that it was important that the painting depicted the pop star from “his Thriller period, which everyone knows is his best.”
Meanwhile, Lio Malca, a cousin of the Mugrabis, had consigned an intensely expressive 1982 drawing by Basquiat, which, after fierce competition, sold for $3.1 million, a world auction record for a work on paper by the artist.
By the end of the sale, the auction house had sold thirty-nine of forty-six lots for $74.1 million, the lowest total for a Christie’s contemporary art evening since May 2003 and a marked contrast to the towering $325 million total of November 2007. However, in an economic climate in which every stock-market rise is suspected by some to be a “dead-cat bounce,” it was a solid, professional performance.