No Ifs, Ands, or Butts

Sarah Thornton at Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York

Left: Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art. Right: Collector Dakis Joannou (left).

LOOMING BEHIND THE HEAD of chief auctioneer Tobias Meyer at Sotheby’s on Tuesday evening, in large black capital letters, was the word COMEDIAN. The 1989 Christopher Wool painting captured the gallows humor of an uptown crowd that had none of its usual horse-at-the-gate nervous energy. As one collector, ambling to his aisle seat, commented, “The art market is like Disneyland without Mickey Mouse, or maybe it’s just Gilligan’s Island without Ginger.”

Both the Wool, Lot 3, and a Martin Kippenberger self-portrait, Lot 7, were consigned by the discerning Dakis Joannou, who observed the proceedings from a skybox. Joannou’s choices were astute; these works were the only two in the sale to command “irrevocable bids,” the new, happier term used to describe third-party guarantees. The deadpan Wool sold to someone (likely the irrevocable bidder) on the phone with Alex Rotter for $1.9 million, a record for the artist at auction, while the 1988 Kippenberger offered even stronger results. The work is one of seven self-portraits inspired by a photo of an absurdly pompous Pablo Picasso; Kippenberger transformed his source material into a deflated painting of himself in oversize white underpants. Ironically, the image of a “failed painter” sold for $4.1 million, over three times the artist’s previous auction record. Dealer Iwan Wirth won the work in the room, which was rumored to go to the European mega-collector Friedrich Christian “Mick” Flick.

The evening was less triumphant for a life-size sculpture of a hairy butt by Robert Gober. Consigned by Jean-Pierre and Rachel Lehmann, the gay icon was described by Meyer as “very unique, very rare, with an extremely specific market.” Indeed, Gober has made only two “bad asses” with musical notes painted on them. (They pay homage to a figure in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.) Connoisseurs recognize the work as important but, as consultant Philippe Ségalot explained, “The people who love it can’t necessarily afford it.”

Left: Dealer Philippe Ségalot. Center: Samantha Rosen, art consultant Andrew Ruth, and collector Aby Rosen. Right: Dealer Iwan Wirth.

All in all, Sotheby’s put on a decent show against a dire financial backdrop, selling 81 percent of lots. They can be credited with finally relieving hedge-fund manager Daniel Loeb of his Jeff Koons Baroque Egg with Bow (Turquoise/Magenta), which had been on the market since at least last September when Larry Gagosian shipped it to Moscow (and back), reputedly asking over $20 million for it. “Celebration” is clearly a boom-time activity, as the sculpture sold to none other than Gagosian for a drastically “corrected” $4.8 million hammer ($5.5 million with fees).

Perhaps the best buy of the evening was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 Red Man One, which sold for $3.5 million to a bidder on the phone with Sotheby’s Loic Gouzer. Word has it that the dashing Swiss specialist was talking to Maria “Masha” Baibakova, a curator-collector with an MA from the Courtauld whose Moscow project space hosted highlights from this sale, including the Basquiat and a few smaller Warhols. Baibakova would not discuss acquisitions, but she did admit, “The dynamic between auction houses and their clients has changed. I’m being courted by big fish, which is a sign in itself.”

Six lots, described in the catalogue as “Property from a Distinguished American Collection,” were thought to be consigned by Drs. Marc and Livia Straus. Symptomatically, some works sold well, others didn’t. A Juan Muñoz sculpture Two Seated Figures (Mouth) set an auction record for the artist, while a Jeff Wall light box and Yayoi Kusama wall piece sold neatly within their estimates. However, a red Yan Pei-Ming self-portrait sold for less than expected, and Richard Serra’s Square Bar Choker and Frank Stella’s Flin Flon failed to find buyers at all.

On his way out of the auction room, Straus described the evening, whose forty-eight lots achieved a total of $47 million (down from last May’s $362 million) as “Fine.” Others were more verbose. “Carrion without the expected number of flies” was how one wag put it.

Left: Sotheby's Anthony Grant. Right: Actor Owen Wilson with collector Peter Brant.

Left: Collector Irving Blum and dealer Perry Rubenstein. Right: Collector Alberto Mugrabi (right).