Bringing Home the Bacon

Sarah Thornton at Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York

Left: Artist Takashi Murkami. Right: Dealers David Nash and Robert Mnuchin. (All photos: David Velasco)

A few decades ago, people spoke of the shock of the new. On Wednesday night, Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale was all about the incredible wealth of the few. The auction, which totaled $362 million, was the biggest in the company’s history. Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s chief auctioneer, said the sale was the result of “global hunger” on the part of “global individuals” who “live everywhere.”

Facing eighty-three lots, Meyer began by speed-reading the rules. The first few works flew off the block with remarkable efficiency, but it wasn’t until Lot 9, Takashi Murakami’s naked and fully erect My Lonesome Cowboy, 1998, that mouths began to drop. Word had it that dealer Marianne Boesky had consigned the work and that, some time ago, Meyer himself had almost bought the seminal sculpture. (Meyer told me that he'd decided against it because his mother was coming to visit.) The crowd delighted in a virile volley of bids between Philippe Ségalot on the aisle and Sotheby’s Alexander Rotter, who was on the phone with someone who many suspected was Steve Cohen but others thought might be Viktor Pinchuk (although the Ukrainian billionaire usually has a dealer like Larry Gagosian or Jay Jopling bid for him in the room). Eventually, Rotter’s client won the sculpture for $15.2 million, nearly four times its $4 million high estimate. Even Murakami, who was sitting at the back of the room with artist Chiho Aoshima, was wide-eyed with amazement.

The next battle was for Yves Klein’s shimmering, gold-leaf MG9, circa 1962, the first of twenty-one lots consigned from the collection of Helga and Walther Lauffs, which had been on long-term loan to the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Krefeld. Mrs. Lauffs (Walther died in 1981) had sold 155 stellar connoisseur’s pieces, including a fantastic Bruce Nauman, a Cy Twombly, and a Lee Bontecou, to David Zwirner and Iwan Wirth and consigned about 150 equally credible but slightly flashier works to Sotheby’s.

Some fantasized quaintly that the bidding on MG9 was a style war between French luxury-goods rivals François Pinault and Bernard Arnault, as Ségalot (Pinault’s main consultant) bid against Gregoire Billault, Sotheby’s Paris rep, who could have been on the line to Arnault, a known Klein supporter. The canvas carried an estimate of $6 million to $8 million, but the bidding increased to an engorged $23.6 million, the price at which the gloriously outsize bullion sold to Ségalot.

Left: Art adviser Sandy Heller. Center: Dealers Rachel Lehmann, Jean-Pierre Lehmann, and Emmanuel Perrotin. Right: Dealer Jay Jopling.

The six Lauffs daughters sat in a row at the window of a large skybox and watched another Klein (a signature IKB), a folded white Piero Manzoni canvas, a copper Carl Andre floor piece, a much-admired cadmium-red Donald Judd, and a set of four Warhol boxes, among other artworks, command high and often record prices. By the end of the evening, the Lauffs lots had brought in $96 million, double their low estimate, but as my press-pack colleague Walter Robinson observed, “They look bored up there. Do you think they’re knitting?”

The next breath-holding episode in this pecuniary pageant was Lot 33, Francis Bacon’s allegorical Triptych, 1976, a complex picture whose central panel depicts a black bird of prey devouring the innards of a headless human figure. Despite the challenging subject matter, the bidding started at $60 million. Three telephone bidders took it up to $67 million, then one dropped out, and a client on the phone to Sotheby’s London-based Oliver Barker and another on the line with Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, knocked it back and forth in million-dollar increments.

At $76 million, the bidding stalled. Meyer, who seemed to be having fun, cajoled Wong’s bidder by saying, “Look at it in euros, it’s cheaper,” then, “Be brave,” and finally, “I can feel one more.” When Wong’s client split the bid and offered only half a million more, Meyer replied gallantly, “$76.5 million, of course.” Then Barker’s bidder offered $77 million, and Wong was back into protracted negotiations with her caller, who declined to go higher. “Are you sure, Patti? What if I beg?” asked Meyer. The hammer finally came down and set a worldwide record price not just for Bacon but for any postwar work of art. The final figure with buyer’s premium was a massive $86.3 million. Gerard Faggionato, a dealer who represents the Bacon estate, told me there are twenty-eight major triptychs, but only eight or nine in private hands. Appreciative of the landmark price, he said, “It gives me confidence in the value of art!”

But who bought and underbid the work? Why would Meyer evoke euros if Wong’s client came from the region in which she is chairwoman? The bids were so slow, one got the feeling that Wong might be on the end of a chain of phone calls. With regard to Barker’s collector, the auction house admitted he was “European private.” Rumors were circulating that the intellectual Bacon went to London but was not bought by Damien Hirst. The tall, dashing Barker explained, “Of the group of postwar artists who are ordained by the market, Bacon is the only non-American. The market clearly understands that he is a groundbreaking artist. A year ago, we sold the Rockefeller Rothko. Now, in a completely different financial climate, we have shattered that price.” Indeed, that Rothko went to Qatar, and the power axes of the art world continue to shift.

Left: Sotheby's Oliver Barker. Right: Collector Aby Rosen.

One very American and less successful part of the sale involved the lots consigned by newsprint magnate Peter Brant, who is said to have eked guarantees worth $70 million to $80 million out of the auction house. In the age of the Internet, it is hard to believe the official line that Brant was “raising money to buy another paper mill,” and some suggested that he was seeking cash to pay for his rumored half of Larry Gagosian’s $200 million purchase of Warhols from the Sonnabend estate.

Absolutely everyone describes Brant as extremely shrewd, but Perry Rubenstein waxed most lyric: “Peter is a genius. His level of connoisseurship is above and beyond. His sophistication allows him to sell these things without compromising his collection.” Indeed, looking at the lots, which did not fare well, one would assume he was better off without them. Dealer Jose Mugrabi ended up buying Warhol’s vast Detail of the Last Supper (Christ 112 Times), 1986, for $9.5 million, while Gagosian got lumbered with Jeff Koons’s Caterpillar Chains for $5.9 million.

When the hammer came down on the final lot (Yoshitomo Nara’s Light My Fire, which was picked up by Murakami for $1.2 million), eight works of art had sold for more than $10 million and fourteen for over $5 million. There were loads of highs. The late Robert Rauschenberg’s homage to lower Manhattan, Overdrive, 1963, commanded $14.6 million, a new record for the artist. And a few lows. Rothko’s limpid Orange, Red, Yellow, 1956, which was owned entirely or in part by Sotheby’s, was “bought in,” i.e., didn’t sell, at $33 million. Sotheby’s staff seemed relieved and happy. As Francis Outred, a London-based specialist, quipped, “The art-market boom has only just begun!”

Left: Trader Liam Culman with art dealer Marianne Boesky. Right: Sotheby's Alexander Rotter, Tobias Meyer, and Anthony Grant.

Left: Collector Alberto Mugrabi. Right: Sotheby's Francis Outred and TV presenter Ben Lewis.

Left: Sotheby's Lisa Dennison. Right: Dealer John Berggruen with art adviser Allan Schwartzman.

Left: Artist Gardar Eide Einarsson with collector Stavros Merjos. Right: Artist Chiho Aoshima.

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