Bucking the Trend

Sarah Thornton at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York

Left: Valentino with dealer Doris Ammann. Right: Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's chief auctioneer. (Photo: Erika Nusser)

OUT ON THE STREET before Sotheby’s contemporary art evening sale on Wednesday, collector Alberto Mugrabi told me that Warhol’s 200 One Dollar Bills, a rare, hand-drawn silk-screen painting from 1962, would sell for $40 million. I assumed it was strategic presale hype or wishful thinking on the part of a man whose family owns some eight hundred Warhol works. The expression “sell the rumor” came to mind.

Inside the cavernous salesroom, 200 One Dollar Bills was hung on the left, above the heads of Sotheby’s senior European specialists. Mounted behind Tobias Meyer, the house’s chief auctioneer, was a pristine Warhol self-portrait from the 1965 series in which the artist has placed his finger to one side of his mouth, transforming a thinker’s pose into a coy come-on.

Forty million dollars would be the second-highest price ever paid for a Warhol at auction, exceeding the Brandos, Lizes, and Maos that came on the block during the boom, deferring only to Green Car Crash, which sold in May 2007 to Philippe Niarchos for $71.7 million. Art-market insiders had been discussing little else. “This season is all about the dollar bill,” said Sotheby’s Cheyenne Westphal. “It’s the only real masterpiece of the week,” said uptown dealer Per Skarstedt. “It’s Pop, Minimal, and Conceptual. Everything is there right from the beginning,” said Georg Frei of Thomas Ammann Gallery. Indeed, Warhol wasn’t just fascinated by fame––he was obsessed with ubiquity. And what is more pervasive than the American dollar?

Until the day before the sale, the identity of the “distinguished private” consignor had been a well-guarded secret, then word swept around like a Factory superstar on speed: Pauline Karpidas, a collector and art-world hostess celebrated for her summer art projects in Hydra, Greece, was the seller. Despite her gregariousness, the provenance of the painting had eluded insiders because it had hung in the Athens apartment of her late husband, Dino. Back in 1986, the Karpidas had paid $385,000 for the picture, the highest price ever paid for a Warhol at auction during the artist’s lifetime.

Left: Art adviser Philippe Ségalot. Center: Dealers Larry Gagosian and Christophe Van de Weghe. Right: Collector Jane Holzer. (Photos: Erika Nusser)

Meyer opened the bidding on 200 One Dollar Bills at $6 million. Alex Rotter, a Sotheby’s specialist standing to Meyer’s left, shocked the crowd by immediately raising his hand and shouting, “$12 million,” doubling the bid. Art adviser Philippe Ségalot, sitting on the aisle, jumped in at $13 million. Abdallah Chatila, a Lebanese collector, and Jose Mugrabi, sitting next to Alberto in a baseball cap and purple sweatshirt, got involved after that. The price escalated in million-dollar increments so quickly that it was tough to tell where the bids were coming from. Sotheby’s Loic Gouzer and Bruno Vinciguerra were in the running by the time the bidding hit $30 million. It slowed at $34 million, at which point Meyer prodded, “Shall we try one more? It looks great!” Mugrabi took a moment to chew his gum before offering $35 million. Gouzer countered with $36 million. In the end, Vinciguerra won the picture for his anonymous telephone bidder for $39 million hammer, or $43.7 million with fees. After the sale, Meyer said, “I will say something a little radical: I think it’s a good buy.” Fantasists like to think that the final battle was between Niarchos and a member of the royal family of Qatar.

That seminal Warhol was followed by two more works by the Pop master: A drawing of rolled dollar bills, also from 1962, was bought by Larry Gagosian for $4.2 million, while the Warhol behind Meyer sold to diamond dealer Laurence Graff for $6.1 million. The latter had been consigned by Cathy Naso, who’d been given the work by Warhol when she worked as a receptionist in the Factory. After the sale, Naso issued the statement: “Andy has made me famous for fifteen minutes . . . and fifteen minutes of fame is more than enough.”

The fifty-five-lot auction was a spectacular success, achieving $134.4 million with an amazing 98 percent sold by value. Although “the air is thin above $5 million,” as one of Sotheby’s staff put it, the auction house managed to sell seven works for more than that figure. Twenty lots came from the estate of Ohio collectors Mary and Louis Myers. Sometimes good business is boring. The dark, goopy postwar pictures and sculptures were a consistent display of generational taste, but Sotheby’s sold almost all the lots as if they were ageless trophies with global appeal.

A few works from the estate had a fresh-faced, contemporary feel, such as Alice Neel’s Jackie Curtis and Rita Red, a 1970 portrait of the celebrated cross-dresser and her boyfriend. It sold for a record $1.65 million, triple the high estimate. “Double portraits are quite rare. Plus one of the sitters was part of Warhol’s inner circle,” noted Glenn Scott Wright, director of Victoria Miro Gallery. The painting was purchased by the Cleveland Art Museum, where it was on loan this past summer, and will travel along with Neel’s retrospectives to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, London’s Whitechapel Gallery, and Sweden’s Moderna Museet. A fitting world tour for one of America’s most important postwar portraitists.