Rockefeller Record

New York

Left: Dealer Irving Blum with Jacqueline Blum. Right: Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art Tobias Meyer. (Photos: David Velasco)

Just before 7 PM yesterday, Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s leading man, rose before the six hundred people gathered for the latest installment of his Contemporary Art Evening variety show. He wore a tuxedo and a black bow tie. In his German accent, he mumbled the usual legal disclaimers and then plunged into his dry-as-dust stand-up routine. With a gesture to the left and a straight arm to the right, he sold the first fourteen lots without a hitch. Many works edged over their previous records by a bid or two. Richard Prince’s mainstream hit Dude Ranch Nurse #2, 2002–2003, for example, a “midsize” red painting featuring a girl-next-door blonde complete with surgical face mask, sold for $2.5 million, beating the artist’s previous record by nearly a quarter-million dollars. The prices were strong but hardly big news, so the press pack chatted about the week’s other spectacles and the debut appearance of the ruble on the salesroom’s currency-exchange board.

Lot 15, an untitled 1981 Jean-Michel Basquiat painting being deaccessioned by the Israel Museum to create a contemporary-art-acquisition endowment fund, was the first lot to command respectful silence. 1981 is generally considered Basquiat’s “best year,” and the painting’s provenance—it was bought directly out of the studio by Eugene and Barbara Schwartz, who gifted it to the museum four years later—is unquestionably kosher. Isolated claps punctuated the chatter when the picture went for $14.6 million, nearly triple the artist’s previous auction record. Basquiat remains the only black artist to sell for over a million dollars at auction.

After a series of successful Pop numbers came the cover lot, Francis Bacon’s Study from Innocent X, 1962. Four or five bidders raced the price up to $35 million, when it became a relaxed call-and-response double act, the price rising in steady million-dollar increments between someone on the phone and someone in the room. The Bacon eventually sold for $52.7 million, almost double the artist’s recent record (set in February in London).

Left: Dealer James Cohan. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Rachel Mauro, Dickinson's Bona Montagu, and Sotheby's Cheyenne Westphal. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

The most inspired performance of the evening was the “Rockefeller Rothko.” Meyer introduced lot 31 dramatically. “And now . . .” he said, with genuine sparkle and a long pause. The audience tittered. At an event where most works of art are identified by lot number and artist name alone, the auctioneer took the time to pronounce every word of the title, White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950, and spell out the painting’s mesmerizingly moneyed, power-patron provenance, “From the collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller.” Prior to the sale, disbelievers grumbled. Sotheby’s had guaranteed the work for $46 million, over double the artist’s previous highest price at auction, and many naysayers saw it as a desperate act on the part of the auction house to garner attention and market share. But after what was perhaps the most intense marketing campaign for an individual work ever undertaken (“These guys can convince you to buy anything,” said one dealer), the risk paid off. The Rockefellers sat in a skybox, laughing gaily with each bid. It sold for $72,840,000, the highest price ever paid for a work of contemporary art at auction.

Another ongoing Sotheby’s success story relates to the work of Peter Doig, whose canvas The Architect’s Home in the Ravine, 1991, sold for a healthy $3.6 million. Sotheby’s London crew, which includes canny team leader Cheyenne Westphal and long-standing Doig supporter Francis Outred, bought seven paintings by the artist from Charles Saatchi for $11 million last September. They could have sold them privately “in five minutes,” but instead they held back and launched the series with White Canoe, 1990–91, last February in London. That painting sold for $11.3 million, making Doig the second-most-expensive living artist at auction (after Jasper Johns). With last night’s sale, the work of the Scottish-born Canadian who lives in Trinidad started to bring in pure profit for the auction house. Moreover, with Doig’s low output and broad international appeal (stretching from Impressionist through to emergent-art collectors), the market looks rosy for the remaining works owned by the auction house.

Of the seventy-four lots, only nine were bought in—among them three “ridiculously overpriced” Pollocks. The sale surpassed a quarter of a billion dollars, making it the house's highest contemporary total ever, but the crowd was blasé. As one long-standing auction goer commented, “It wasn’t a great night at the theater. They haven’t replaced the cast in years; even most of the extras are familiar faces. I’d like to see a British woman do the lead part, or a very angry black man. That would spice things up!”