Anchored by Blue-Chip Mainstays, Christie’s Contemporary Sale Delivers a Whopping $397 Million—But Falls Short of Last Year

Francis Bacon led the pack with his portrait of former lover George Dyer, which sold for $44 million.

Jeff Koons, Play-Doh (1994—2012). Courtesy of Christie's.

Christie’s held a solid, if not spectacular, evening sale of postwar and contemporary art this evening, capping off a marathon two weeks of auctions in New York.

The sale realized a total of $397 million, easily exceeding the estimate of around $320 million but falling short of last spring’s evening contemporary sale of $448 million. It also set auction records for a number of artists, including David Wojnarowicz, Joan Mitchell, Robert Gober, Morris Louis, George Condo, Richard Diebenkorn, and Nicolas de Staël.

Of the 64 lots on offer (after a large Philip Guston painting was withdrawn) 58 of them, or 91 percent, found buyers. The highest lot of the night came early in the sale with Francis Bacon’s Study for Portrait (1977), a signature torqued figured of the artist’s former lover George Dyer. The painting was bought the same year it was painted, by Bacon’s friend Magnus Konow, and had remained in his collection since.

The fresh-to-market painting was estimated in the region of $30 million, and auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen, who is also Christie’s global president, opened the bidding at $27 million. It drew offers from at least four of Christie’s specialists, bidding for competing clients, until it quickly came down to an intense two-way war between Ana Maria Celis, a postwar and contemporary specialist from New York, and Renato Pennisi, who is based in Rome. Bidding rose in increments of $1 million until the price reached $40 million and the two competitors dropped to $500,000 bids.

“Anyone else who would like to come in? Now’s your chance,” Pylkkänen said at the $42 million mark. At the last minute, Pennisi’s buyer raised the price $2 million higher and ultimately bought the work for $44 million ($49.8 million with premium).

Francis Bacon’s Study for Portrait (1977). Courtesy of Christie’s.

The second-highest lot of the night was Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis (1963), which was estimated in the region of $30 million. The painting was consigned by casino mogul Steven Wynn who recently sold his stake in his company, Wynn Resorts, after allegations of sexual harassment. He had consigned several works to Christie’s, two of which—both Picassos—were withdrawn earlier this week after reports of damage. Wynn’s attorneys criticized Christie’s, according to Bloomberg and the New York Post, but the Warhol sale moved ahead all the same.

Wynn, who paid $37 million for the painting in 2012, didn’t manage to break even. The estimate of “in the region of $30 million” was noticeably lower than Wynn’s original purchase price and bidding started at $30 million. Ex-Christie’s contemporary head Brett Gorvy of Lévy Gorvy Gallery ultimately bought the work for $33.5 million ($37 million with premium).

Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis [Ferus Type] (1963). Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images.

Several lots later came Jeff Koons’s monumental sculpture Play-Doh (1994—2012), a work which took some two decades to produce. The estimate was about $20 million, which was exactly as high as anyone was willing to go. After opening at $17 million it received a bid or two from Christie’s specialists, but then was quickly hammered down to Koons’s dealer Larry Gagosian, who was seated on the aisle. With premium, the final price was $22.8 million.

Richard Diebenkorn, <i>Ocean Park #126</i> (1984). Courtesy Christie’s.

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #126 (1984). Courtesy of Christie’s.

Another highlight of the night was property from the Donald and Barbara Zucker Collection, sales of which benefited their eponymous foundation. In all the property so far has realized $43 million against overall expectations of $29.6 million to $39.7million

The top lot of the group was one of 22 works by Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #126 (1984) (est. $16-$20 million).

The work was poised to easily break the artist’s auction record of $13.5 million when bidding set off at $14 million. Curiously, gallery partners Brett Gorvy and Dominique Levy, seated next to one another in the room and both on cell phones, were bidding against one another for the work. In the end, Gorvy’s client won it for $20 million ($23.9 million with premium).

Andy Warhol’s Most Wanted Men No. 11, John Joseph H., Jr. (1964). Image courtesy of Christie’s.

Another top lot was Warhol’s Most Wanted Men No. 11, John Joseph H., Jr. (1964), estimated in the region of $30 million. The work was last sold at Sotheby’s New York in 1992 for $577,500. Now bidding opened at $21 million and went as high as $25 million for Christie’s co-chairman Alex Rotter. As Pylkkanen made sure there were no more bids forthcoming, he turned back to Rotter and said, “You can have it.” Presumably since it was still $5 million below the low-estimate asking price, Rotter replied: “I’m happy.”

Mark Rothko’s No. 7 (Dark Over Light) (1954), also estimated in the region of $30 million, received rather subdued bidding. It was last sold at Christie’s New York in 2007 when it made $21 million on a $20-30 million estimate, and previously came to auction in 1985, 1992, and 1998.

In the end, the bidding for the work went no higher than $27 million, from Rotter on behalf of a client. With premium, the final price was $30.7 million.

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