A Record-Breaking Ed Ruscha of a Word Being Tortured Injects Life Into Christie’s Otherwise Sober $325 Million Contemporary Sale
Other star lots failed to surpass expectations.
Christie’s put the full force of its marketing department behind a coveted Ed Ruscha word painting this fall, and the effort paid off handsomely. Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964) soared to an above-estimate $52.5 million, which Christie’s chairman of postwar and contemporary art Alex Rotter framed as a rejoinder to art-market pessimists. “We wanted to prove we could sell a painting over $50 million this season,” he said.
But uneven performance from a few other expected top lots kept the overall total from launching beyond expectations. The cumulative hammer price of $279.9 million climbed to $325.3 million after fees. Both amounts cruised squarely inside the house’s original presale estimate of $270.3 million to $397.8 million—a range that technically dropped to $267.8 million to $394.3 million after the late-breaking withdrawal of a Lucio Fontana slashed canvas. (Sales results include the buyer’s premium, unless otherwise noted; presale estimates do not.)
Christie’s 89 percent sell-through rate proved strong, especially in a buying environment that, Rotter’s comment aside, remains cautious. Case in point: 23 sold lots saw the hammer fall at a price beneath their low estimate—roughly 43 percent of the works offered tonight.
In short, Christie’s deserves credit for closing so many sales, but on a work-by-work basis, the results reinforce that the market remains discerning.
Compared to the $357.6 million in sales that Christie’s realized at last November’s edition, tonight’s postwar and contemporary auction was only down about nine percent. The 2018 sale also had higher expectations overall; the low and high ends of its revised presale estimate were both at least $24.5 million higher than their equivalents this year.
Buoying that earlier auction was David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures) (1972), whose $90.3 million result made Hockney the most expensive living artist at auction for all of six months. (Jeff Koons hopped over him again at Christie’s the following May, when his metallic Rabbit (1986) sold for a whisker above $91 million.)
Yet tonight’s sale boasted more trophy works than any other of the 2019 fall season. Christie’s catalog included four lots estimated over $20 million. But only two hammered above that threshold: the Ruscha, and, fittingly, Hockney’s Sur la terrasse (1971).
The latter work depicts the artist’s then-lover Peter Schlesinger—the same pink-clad subject pictured in last November’s record-demolishing double portrait—on a hotel balcony during a vacation taken to try to save the deteriorating relationship. Estimated at $25 million to $45 million, the work endured an extended session of $250,000 bid increments before the hammer came down at $25.75 million to a phone commanded by Alex Rotter. Fees boosted the final price to $29.5 million.
The other two would-be trophy lots stayed close to the $20 million barrier even after the inclusion of the buyer’s premium. Gerhard Richter’s 1967 canvas Vogelfluglinie, among the last of his signature blurred “photo-paintings” produced in the 1960s, made $20.5 million. Andy Warhol’s Big Electric Chair made only $19 million, and saw Larry Gagosian exit the sale immediately afterward. Both works were backed by third-party guarantees.
In fact, the slate was rich in pre-arranged financing. Of the 54 lots to reach the block in tonight’s auction, 24 were secured by a third-party financial guarantee. (Christie’s made no in-house guarantees in the sale.) Assuming said guarantees matched the respective low estimate, as is often customary, together they would have totaled $149.2 million, over half the sale’s total hammer price.
Fresh Finishes and Familiar Faces
Christie’s leaned into the notion of “fresh to market” works this season. According to Ana Maria Celis, senior vice president of postwar and contemporary art, only three of the 54 lots offered tonight had been sold in the preceding 10 years. The house also fought to turn up this fall’s low-flame mood by consigning an array of works by artists—many artists of color—who had never before appeared in an evening sale.
Among these works was Alma Thomas’s Fantastic Sunset (1970). It entered the proceedings backed by a third-party guarantee and estimated to sell for between $2.2 million and $2.8 million—a range that already eclipsed the artist’s previous auction record of $740,000, set at Sotheby’s last May. The piece hammered at its low estimate and reached just under $2.7 million with fees, making good on the promise of a new high for the artist.
Charles White’s Banner for Willie J (1976) saw similar success. Included in the critically lauded retrospective that began its travels at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2018, the painting commemorates the artist’s cousin, an innocent bystander slain by thieves during the holdup of a bar. The painting hammered at its low estimate of $1 million and rose above $1.2 million with premium—a world record for White.
However, a classic Kara Walker cut-paper piece that preceded White met a less appealing fate. The work passed at $380,000—just $20,000 beneath its low estimate.
Very much not passing on bids were a slew of familiar auction-room faces, though some were playing relatively new roles. Lévy Gorvy topped the underbidding Mugrabis to take home Warhol’s portrait of Muhammad Ali for an above-estimate $10 million. Former Christie’s dealmaker Francis Outred was the underbidder for a small landscape by Richter, which went to Margot Rosenberg of Christie’s on the phone for just shy of $4.7 million—a total near the top end of the estimate range.
Luxembourg and Dayan snagged Joan Mitchell’s Plowed Field for a within-estimate $13.3 million, after which David Zwirner, now representing the artist’s estate, exited the proceedings. The Beaumont Nathan team bested the competition for an untitled Franz Kline canvas by paying a within-estimate $3.4 million. And Former Christie’s rainmaker and now Hauser and Wirth director Koji Inoue was spotted interacting with the paddle-bearer who won Dana Schutz’s painting Shooting in the Air for just under $1.1 million.
No doubt some of the same characters will be in attendance at Sotheby’s and Phillips tomorrow night for the last of this week’s evening sales. How much more cash they and other bidders will supply for the works on offer remains an open question. Regardless, Christie’s team can sleep soundly knowing that they managed to prod a hesitant market into delivering respectable, if not ebullient, results.
With additional reporting by Nate Freeman.
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