Christie's $745 Million Evening Sale Astonishes

Jeff Koons Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Train  (1986) stainless steel and bourbon. Sold for $tk million.  Estimate: Approximately $30 million. Photo: Courtesy Christies.

Jeff KoonsJim Beam – J.B. Turner Train (1986)
Sold for $33.8 million. Estimate: Approximately $30 million. Photo: Courtesy Christies.

Christie's made history tonight with a $745 million sale in which one jaw-dropping price followed another. Incredibly the sale exceeded the previous $691 million overall total set at this past November's evening contemporary sale, and the year-ago spring contemporary auction that pulled in a then–record $495 million. Tonight's expectation had been "in the region of $500 million."

But if prices were staggering, so was the material on offer. Observers agreed such a top-notch group of blue chip contemporary works will rarely be offered together at one sale anytime soon again. The sale featured no fewer than nine lots priced at a minimum of $20 million each, but there was no shortage of eager buyers. New records were set for Alexander Calder, Joseph Cornell, Robert Gober, Joan Mitchell, Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, and Salvatore Scarpitta. Of 72 lots on offer, 68, or 92 percent, were sold. By value the sale achieved 98 percent.

The top lot of the night was Barnett Newman's Black Fire I (1961) which sold for $84.2 million (estimate: approximately $50 million). It also marked a new auction record for the artist, far surpassing the previous one set this past May at Sotheby's New York: $43.8 million for the vibrant blue Onement VI (1953) on an estimate of $30–40 million.

The lot with the highest asking price “in the region of $75 million" was a Francis Bacon triptychThree Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards (1984). It sold for $80.8 million, after just a few bids, to Xin Li, the New York—based deputy chairman for Christie's Asia, believed to be bidding for an Asian buyer on the phone. Bacon's painting of fellow artist Lucian Freud made history at Christie's in November when its $142.4 million sale price set the record for the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction.

After a lengthy bidding war, mega-dealer Larry Gagosian, seated in the room on a cellphone, talking to a client, won Andy Warhol's Race Riot (1964), which had an estimate around $45 million. It was hammered down when Gagosian gave a final bid of $56 million, at which point, his opponent, bidding through Christie's contemporary specialist Koji Inoue, finally backed off. With premium the final price was $62.9 million. 

Warhol's Disaster paintings account for his two highest auction prices—including $105.4 million at Sotheby's New York this past November for Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) (1963). The Pop artist was way ahead of his time with this series, exploring the darker side of American life with images of racism, social unrest, violence, and death.

Numerous bidders went for Alexander Calder's prehistoric-looking Poisson volant (Flying Fish) (1957) that dangled above the audience in the salesroom (estimate: $9-12 million). As auctioneer Jussi Pylkkannen playfully urged the audience to look at it up there "enjoying the evening," he deftly handled a bidding contest between Gagosian and the phone bidder on the line with Xin Li. Gagosian bid up to $22.5 million before finally dropping out to a hammer bid of $23 million. With premium, the final price for the Calder was just under $26 million ($25.9 million) a new auction record. The previous record, set at Christie's New York in May 2012 for a standing mobile made in 1945, was $18.6 million.

Gagosian also bought Christopher Wool's word painting If You (1992), (the full text reads in block letters "If you can't take a joke you can get the fuck out of my house") for $23.7 million, encountering the same nosebleed territory seen this past November for Apocalypse Now (1988) at Christie's ($26.5 million).

An abstract painting by Joan Mitchell Untitled (1960), set a new record for the artist when it fetched $11.9 million from a client bidding via telephone with Brett Gorvy. The previous record at auction for Mitchell was $9.3 million, set at Sotheby's New York in November 2011, for an abstract painting, also from 1960.

Jeff Koons's Jim Beam – J.B. Turner Train (1986), stainless steel and bourbon, sold for $33.8 million on an estimate in the region of $30 million. Once again, the work was won by Xin Li, bidding for a client, though it appeared to be a different client than the buyer of the Bacon several lots earlier.

Still, the current record for Koons would have been hard to beat. It stands at $58.4 million, the price paid for Balloon Dog (Orange) (1994–2000) when it was sold at Christie's New York this past November (estimate: $35–55 million).

Art adviser Kim Heirston, in the salesroom, bought Morris Louis's Number 10 (1961) for $2.85 million, far above the $700,000–$1 million estimate.

Jean-Michel Basquiat's large, fiery Untitled (1981), sold for $34.9 million (estimate: $20–$30 million) to a client bidding on the phone with Christie's head of contemporary art, Brett Gorvy.  The current record for Basquiat is $48.8 million for Dustheads (1982), an  acrylic, oilstick, spray enamel, and metallic paint on canvas that sold at Christie's New York this past May on an estimate of $25–35 million.

Jean-Michel Basquiat Untitled (1981)  acrylic, oilstick and metallic spray enamel on canvas. Sold for $TK milllion. Estimate: $20-30 million. Photo: Courtesy Christie's

Jean-Michel BasquiatUntitled (1981)
Sold for $34.9 milllion. Estimate: $20–30 million. Photo: Courtesy Christie's.

Mark Rothko's Untitled (1952) was also a top seller, realizing $66.2 million on an estimate of $40–60 million. Once again, Xin Li, won the work for a client who was presumably an Asian collector.

Mark Rothko Untitled (1952) oil on canvas . Estimate: $40-60 million. Photo: Courtesy Christie's

Mark Rothko, Untitled (1952) sold for $66.2 million. Estimate: $40–60 million. Photo: Courtesy Christie's.