Art Basel and the London summer auctions are behind us, and the auction market continues to hit unprecedented peaks. But today’s records and art stars came straight out of yesterday’s headline-grabbing auctions. With that in mind, we take a look back at some major milestones of the last few decades—from the 1973 sale that arguably lit the fuse on the current contemporary market to the recent three-quarters-of-a-billion dollar total of a single evening—to see how these 10 auctions changed the game and perhaps what might happen next.
1. The Scull Sale, Sotheby’s New York, October 18, 1973
During the 1950s and ’60s New York collectors Robert and Ethel Scull steered the profits from their sizable Manhattan taxi fleet towards acquiring one of the most extraordinary collections of Abstract Expressionist and Pop art ever assembled. It focused heavily on works by Jasper Johns as well as Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Tom Wesselmann. The couple were close friends with, and sometimes financial backers of, the many artists whose works they collected. When a show of Johns’s work at Leo Castelli Gallery failed to draw buyers, Robert Scull snapped up the whole thing. On the evening of October 18, 1973, there was considerable buzz around a sale of 50 of their works at (then Sotheby’s Parke Bernet) which was expected to take in a then-whopping $2 million. Not only was it the first single-owner sale to feature contemporary American art, it was held when “conventional and cultural wisdom at the time was that these movements [Abstract Expressionism and Pop] would never be be taken seriously,” according to Judith Goldman, who penned the catalogue essay for a 2010 show of the partly reassembled Scull collection at Acquavella Galleries. A group outside Sotheby’s protested the fact that only one woman—Lee Bontecou—was included in the sale. Meanwhile, inside the packed salesroom, prices for the works soared far above what the Sculls had paid for them. Johns’s Double White Map, bought for $10,000, fetched $240,000. Rauschenberg’s Thaw, a combine painting bought for $900, sold for $85,000. After the auction, an outraged Rauschenberg, who later admitted that he had been drinking, shoved Mr. Scull in the chest, and angrily told him: “I’ve been working my ass off for you to make that profit.” Johns however, saw cause for celebration; he and his crew took a break from making lithographs to uncork some champagne, according to a New York Times report. And Lichtenstein said of Rauschenberg’s reaction: “What did he want, the work to decrease in value?” Art historian Irving Sandler said of the 1973 sale, that, more than any other single event, it “kicked off the market that we know today.”
2. Vincent Van Gogh‘s Irises (1899), Sotheby’s New York, November 1987
When Australian financier Alan Bond shelled out $53.9 million for Vincent Van Gogh‘s Irises, less than one month after the massive stock market crash on October 19th it set the record for the world’s most expensive painting. It also created an inflated level of confidence about the ability of the art market—or at least masterpieces of this caliber—to withstand a brutal economic downturn. But nearly two years later, it was revealed that Sotheby’s had lent Bond roughly $27 million, or more than half, of the purchase price and that he wasn’t yet paid up. The house also admitted it was still in control of Irises and was storing it at an undisclosed location. Observers called it a “manipulated sale,” compared it to buying on margin, said it was not a “real” price, and lamented the fact that it had become such a significant benchmark in the marketplace. Three years later, the Los Angeles—based J. Paul Getty Museum bought Irises from Bond in a deal brokered by Sotheby’s. The price has never been disclosed and it still hangs in the Getty today. Sotheby’s Financial Services tightened its loan policies considerably as a result of the Bond debacle.
3. Leonardo da Vinci Codex Hammer, Christie’s New York, November 11, 1994
At this single-lot auction almost exactly two decades ago, Microsoft founder Bill Gates engaged in a fierce bidding war against an Italian bank believed to be buying on behalf of the Italian government. But Gates won Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex. The price of $30.8 million set a record for any non-art item at auction—and Gates presaged the digital boom by making the text and drawings of da Vinci’s notebook available online for free. Christie’s had been attempting to get Gates to the auction block as a major player for years, hoping the purchase would open the door to a generation of Silicon Valley billionaires buying at auction. By and large, it did.
4. The Estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Sotheby’s New York, April 23–26, 1996
There have been many notable and packed celebrity estate sales, but for sheer before-and-after impact, nothing beats the April 1996 sale of the Jacqueline Kennedy estate. It raised $34.5 million, compared with a high estimate of $4.6 million for the former First Lady’s books, tape measure, saddle, and other prosaic items. The auction was front-page news in mainstream publications that had never paid attention to auctions before, and it was packed with celebrity bidders. Amid the craziness, a mahogany footstool once used by Caroline Kennedy as a child sold for $33,350 on an estimate of $100 to $150. Even the catalogue set records; Sotheby’s had more than 100,000 copies printed, surpassing the 40,000 it had printed for the Andy Warhol memorabilia sale in 1987. The sale’s real success, however, was behind-the-scenes. Sotheby’s employed sophisticated tax strategies and an escalation clause so that the more money it raised, the higher percentage the auction house made. In other words, the hype paid off.
5. The Victor and Sally Ganz Collection, Christie’s New York, November 10, 1997
The art collection of the low-profile Manhattan couple, who assembled it over five decades for about $2 million, raked in a stunning $206.5 million total in late 1997, far surpassing expectations of $125 million. As many observers noted, the resounding success was the result of a combination of blue chip masterpieces and savvy, elaborate marketing: A $100 book devoted to the collection sold out, and Christie’s transformed its galleries into a mini-museum of sorts for the open-to-the public auction preview. In the weeks before the sale, more than 25,000 visitors viewed the collection. The auction drew normally low-profile names to the salesroom: including cosmetic magnate Leonard Lauder, publisher Mortimer Zuckerman, and William H. Gates, father of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The first painting Victor Ganz ever purchased for the collection, Picasso‘s Le Reve (1932), a portrait of his mistress Marie-Therese Walter, for $7,000 in 1941, soared to $48.4 million at the 1997 auction. (In what was perhaps a troubling echo of the 1987 Bond Irises sale, Wolfgang Flöttl, the Austrian financier who purchased it at Christie’s resold it to Steve Wynn in 2001 when he encountered financial difficulties.) Other highlights of the sale included Picasso’s Woman Seated in an Armchair (Eva), a 1913 portrait that sold for $24.7 million, clearing the high $20 million estimate. The Ganzes had acquired the painting in 1967 from a Swiss collector via dealer Heinz Berggruen, for $200,000. Giddy Christie’s employees, in the moments following the sale opened champagne and toasted: “To the profit-sharing!”
6. Picasso Boy with a Pipe breaks the $100 million mark at auction, Sotheby’s New York, May 5, 2004
Though the $100 million auction price barrier has been breached several times since—by Edvard Munch, Francis Bacon, and Andy Warhol—Picasso, not surprisingly, got there first, when his painting Garçon à la Pipe, or Boy with a Pipe (1905), sold for $104 million at Sotheby’s New York in May 2004. The painting had everything going for it: it was a rare, Rose-period work, and a masterpiece at that. It was offered for sale from the collection of John Hay and Betsy Cushing Whitney, who had acquired it in 1950 for $30,000. Prior to the sale, the most expensive work sold at auction was van Gogh’s 1890 Portrait of Doctor Gachet, which was sold to a Japanese billionaire for $82.5 million in 1990 at Christie’s. Though there has been much speculation about the identity of the buyer, including rumors that it was acquired by pasta billionaire Guido Barilla, Henry Kravis or Lily Safra, the painting has not been seen in public in the decade since it was sold and no one has ever come forward as buyer.
7. Damien Hirst‘s “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,” Sotheby’s London, September 15–16, 2008
As the contemporary art market roared ahead throughout the mid-2000’s, auction sales volume, eventually started to eclipse the millions raised by sales of Impressionist and modern art. The shift indicated not only the shrinking supply of blue-chip Monets and Picassos, but also the buying power and more contemporary taste of the growing ranks of new, younger super-rich collectors around the world. Season after season seemed to be marked by head-scratching at the astounding prices for artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, with observers asking: “How much higher can it go?” Audiences had their answer in September of 2008, when Sotheby’s London organized “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,” an auction of more than 200 works by Hirst that defied market conventions in more ways than one. The auction was a complete end-run around powerhouse Hirst dealers like Larry Gagosian in that it brought so many works straight to the auction block. It also appeared to defy reality, coming as it did on the same day that Lehman Brothers officially collapsed and amid mounting panic over the mortgage crisis. Seemingly shrugging off any suggestion of fear, Sotheby’s evening sale of 56 Hirst works netted $127 million (£70.5 million), clearing the high $112 million (£62.3 million) estimate. Only two works were unsold. The top lot was The Golden Calf, made of 18-carat gold, glass, gold-plated steel and formaldehyde solution with a Carrara marble plinth. It sold for a whopping $18.6 million (£10.3 million), followed by The Kingdom, which consisted of a tiger shark, glass, steel, silicone, and formaldehyde solution, that swam to $17 million (£9.6 million). The Hirst sale was a gravity-defying success, but just a month or two later, not even the soaring art market could shake off the effects of the economic crisis.
8. The Collection of Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Bergé, Christie’s Paris, February 23–25, 2009
There had been fashion legend auctions before, and multi-day auctions before, and auctions of great art before. But the three-day-long Yves St Laurent sale at Christie’s Paris in February 2009 ticked all those boxes and more. The massive hoard of art and antiques that St. Laurent shared with partner Pierre Bergé brought in $443.1 million, with records set for Mondrian, Matisse and Brancusi and lines for the viewing literally around the block. Among the most astonishing prices was the $28 million (€21 million) paid for Irish designer Eileen Gray’s chair Fauteuil aux Dragons (c.1917–19) against an estimate of just $2.6–3.8 million. But perhaps the most notable aspect of the sale was that it took place when the world was knee-deep in a global recession. It sent the message that the art market lives in a reality all its own.
9. The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor, Christie’s New York, December 3–17, 2011
The December 2011 sale of the jewels, art and fashion of Elizabeth Taylor is notable for many “firsts” and records. It featured the first online-only auction Christie’s ever held; it has gone on to hold them on an almost daily basis. Every single item was sold, including 26 lots for over $1 million each. In all, the house took in $156.8 million. It was the most money—$5.5 million—ever raised for a clothing and fashion collection (outpacing the jumpsuits of Elvis Presley and the gowns of Lady Diana Spencer). The evening jewels sale achieved $115.9 million, the most valuable jewelry auction in history and seven new world auction records were established: price per carat for a colorless diamond and for a ruby; a pair of natural pearl ear pendants; a pearl jewel at $11.8 million; an Indian jewel at $8.8 million and an emerald jewel at $6.6 million.
10. $745 Million Evening Sale of postwar and contemporary art, Christie’s New York, May 12, 2014
Christie’s made history this past May with a $745 million sale, the third time it set a record for the largest single auction total ever. It 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. But if prices were staggering, so was the material on offer. 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. The sale also embarrassed and put pressure on rival Sotheby’s, at a time it was in a proxy bidding war with hedge funder Dan Loeb, who ended up winning his desired slate of three seats on Sotheby’s board.
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