Christie’s Postwar and Contemporary Sale Gets a Heat Check But Still Rakes in $448 Million

A robust sale, but not a frothy one.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (1963). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2017.

At its sale of postwar and contemporary art at Rockefeller Center on Wednesday evening, Christie’s took in a total of $448 million, landing within revised expectations of $339–462 million. The lower revision was the result of the withdrawal of a major lot—Willem de Kooning’s Untitled II, which had a hefty estimate of $25 million to $35 million. Still, the total exceeded the sale’s original, higher estimate “in excess of $370 million.”

Timid consignment is something of a trend this week: the cover lot from Tuesday’s Impressionist and Modern sale at Sotheby’s, an Egon Schiele, had also been withdrawn at the last minute.

Given that the Christie’s sale was jam-packed with roughly 70 lots, it was mercifully short at just under two hours, with auctioneer and Christie’s global president Jussi Pylkkänen keeping the proceedings moving at a rapid and efficient clip. The overall sale could best be described as robust but not frothy. However, the evening definitely lacked the kind of intense competition or bidding wars that Christie’s had been anticipating to push certain artworks into what can only be seen in hindsight as extremely bullish territory. Jitters on Wall Street, where stocks had dipped in response to the chaos coming out of Washington, DC, may have had something to do with the subdued mood.

Despite improving on last May’s comparable total of $318.8 million, the market is still well off the heated levels it was hitting a few years ago. Consider that in May 2015 the evening sale totaled $658.5 million and in May 2014 it was even higher at $744.9 million.

Of 71 lots on offer, 68—or 96 percent—were sold.

“Judging by sell-through rates, this was a significantly better performance then the impressionist sales,” longtime Sotheby’s Impressionist art head-turned-private dealer David Norman told artnet News. Summing up the mood in the room, he added, “The sale total was also tremendous, but still the room felt very subdued.”

One of the priciest lots and an expected star of the evening was Francis Bacon‘s Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (1963). It was expected to sell in the region of $50–70 million, according to Christie’s unpublished estimate. Bidding opened at $41 million but stalled around $45 million, with Pylkkänen trying to coax bids from three Christie’s specialists on the phone with clients. It was hammered down at $46 million, for a premium-inclusive price of $51.8 million. (Final sales prices reported by the auction house include the house’s premium; presale estimates do not.)

Buyers were clearly resistant to the lofty estimate, but with the hammer failing to meet the low estimate, it appears the lower price was still okay with the consignor and met the auction house reserve, the undisclosed minimum price at which a work can sell.

The painting is the first portrait Bacon ever made of Dyer, a petty thief from London’s East End who became his lover and muse. The picture was formerly in the collection of Bacon’s close friend, author Roald Dahl. The current consignor was reportedly French collector Pierre Lambrail.

Andy Warhol, Big Campbell's Soup Can with Can Opener (Vegetable) (1962). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Andy Warhol, Big Campbell’s Soup Can With Can Opener (Vegetable) (1962). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

The action was similar for Andy Warhol’s Big Campbell’s Soup Can With Can Opener (Vegetable) (1962). It was estimated “in excess of $25 million.” Bidding opened at $21 million and got no higher than $25 million, when it was hammered down to Alex Rotter, a longtime Sotheby’s executive who is now Christie’s chairman of postwar and contemporary art for the Americas. Rotter was bidding for a client on the phone and was active throughout the evening. With premium, the final price was $27.5 million.

Last offered for sale at Christie’s New York in November 2010, it carried a lofty estimate of $30–50 million but fell short of that, making $23.8 million.

In a similar vein, Sigmar Polke’s Frau mit Butterbrot (1964), carried an estimate beyond $15 million. Bidding opened at $12 million but quickly stalled, prompting Pylkkänen to joke, “good rhythm… I thought we were just going to carry on.” But the bidding didn’t. It was hammered down for $15 million. Including premium, the final price was $17 million. The current auction record for Polke of $27 million, was set in May 2015 at Sotheby’s for Dschungel (jungle) (1967).

Cy Twombly, Leda and the Swan (1962). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2017.

Cy Twombly, Leda and the Swan (1962). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2017.

The competition was notably more robust for Cy Twombly’s Leda and the Swan (1962) which was estimated at $35–55 million. Pylkkänen opened bidding at $30 million and after competition from at least three bidders—two on the phone with Christie’s specialists—it was bought by power dealer Larry Gagosian, who was seated in the room and secured it with a hammer bid of $47 million. The final price was $52.9 million including premium. The current record for Twombly at auction is $70.5 million for a chalkboard painting, sold at Sotheby’s in November 2015.

Gagosian was an active bidder throughout the evening, securing at least two other major works in Wednesday’s sale. These included Urs Fischer’s mixed medium Sodium (2015) for $787,500 with premium, and Roy Lichtenstein’s sculpture, Expressionist Head (1980), for $3.1 million on an estimate of $2.5—3.5 million.

Willem de Kooning, Untitled II (1977). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Willem de Kooning, Untitled II (1977). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Prior to the sale it was announced that Willem de Kooning Untitled II (1977), which had an estimate of $25–35 million had been withdrawn. The work was last seen at auction at Sotheby’s New York in November 1989 where it sold for $1.98 million.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, La Hara (1981). Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, La Hara (1981). Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.


Top collector Steve Cohen was reportedly the consignor of Jean-Michel Basquiat‘s La Hara (1981), which had an estimate of $22 million to $28 million. Having opened bidding at $18 million, it was the subject of a two-way bidding war before it was hammered down to a woman bidding in the salesroom, for $31 million. The final price with premium was just under $35 million ($34,967,500).

In a sign of how far the market for Basquiat has come, the painting, which has only appeared at auction once before, sold nearly three decades ago at Sotheby’s New York for $341,000 in 1989, clearing the high end of the $250,000 to $300,000 estimate, according to the artnet Price database. The painting had changed hands several times since then, a source told artnet News, and Cohen is said to have acquired it in a private sale.

Christopher Wool, Untitled (1988). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd 2017.

Christopher Wool, Untitled (1988). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd 2017.

One of the more humorous moments of the night occurred during the bidding for an untitled Christopher Wool word painting from 1988, that repeats the word PLEASE half a dozen times. The work was part of the offering of “Visionaries: Works From the Emily and Jerry Spiegel Collection,” the largest collection of the week on the postwar side for Christie’s. This particular work was one of two examples from Wool exhibited at the 1989 Whitney Biennial. The Spiegels bought it the year it was completed, 1988, and lent it to the exhibition.

As bidding appeared to halt at $15 million and the room fell silent, a Christie’s specialist surprised the room when she jumped in at the last possible moment with a bid from her phone client of $15.1 million, a $100,000 increment. This prompted Loic Gouzer, Christie’s chairman of postwar and contemporary, to quip: “Say ‘Please’!” The room erupted in laughter.

The Wool sold to the specialist’s last-minute contender for $17 million. No thank you required.

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