Rothko Reels In $45 Million at Sotheby’s $343.6 Million Contemporary Evening Sale

And new records set for Jasper Johns, Glenn Ligon, and Jean Dubuffet,

Jasper Johns, Flag (1983). Courtesy of Sotheby's New York.
Jasper Johns, Flag (1983). Courtesy of Sotheby's New York.
Andy Warhol's Liz #3 (Early Colored Liz), (1963), a silkscreen ink and acrylic on canvas, is estimated to bring in approximately $30 million. Photo: Courtesy Sotheby's.

Andy Warhol’s Liz #3 (Early Colored Liz) (1963) sold for $31.5 million as compared with an estimate of around $30 million.
Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s sale of contemporary art tonight took in a total of $343.6 million, comfortably meeting expectations of $323.6–419.4 million. Of 78 lots on offer—one was withdrawn—67 lots, or 86 percent of them, found buyers. By value, the sale realized 89 percent. Bidding, while robust and energetic throughout the evening, yet felt thoughtful and measured. A frenzied evening this was not.

New records were set for Jasper Johns, Glenn Ligon, Robert Ryman, Jean Dubuffet, and for an Alexander Calder painting.

Auctioneer Oliver Barker kept the sale moving at a rapid clip despite such a large number of lots on offer, moving swiftly along when interest from the packed salesroom and phone banks was not immediately apparent.

It seemed Sotheby’s knew exactly where demand stood for most lots. Many that drew hammer bids under or near the low estimate sold anyhow, suggesting that the auctioneer had worked with consigners in the days leading up to the sale to manage expectations.

Jasper Johns’s pristine Flag (1983), which had remained in the same collection from the time it had been acquired directly from the artist in 1983, sold for $36 million with premium on an estimate of $15–20 million. It was bought by Sotheby’s specialist Scott Nussbaum for his client on a hammer bid of $32 million after a bidding war with another buyer.

Whoever Nussbaum’s client was, he or she was an extremely active bidder throughout the evening. 

Among other purchases made by the same paddle number via Nussbaum: Mark Rothko‘s No. 21 (Red, Brown, Black and Orange), an early 1951 painting (and slightly less typical Rothko) with an unpublished estimate north of about $50 million that sold for just under $45 million with premium; a Joseph Cornell box construction, Untitled (Palais de Cristal) (ca. 1953), which sold for $665,000, short of its $800,000 low estimate; Mark Tansey‘s painting Landscape (1994), which sold for $3.7 million on an estimate of $3–4 million; and Louise Bourgeois‘s marble and stainless steel sculpture Distant Figures (1971), which sold for $1.8 million on an estimate of $1.5–2 million.

Andy Warhol‘s Liz #3 (Early Colored Liz) (1963) was one of many Warhol beauties on offer this season (see: “A Constellation of Warhol Starlets at Fall Auctions“). It sold for $31.5 million on an estimate of about $30 million. The other Warhol starlets on offer had an uneven night. While Brigitte Bardot (1974) from the Gunter Sachs collection sold for $11.6 million, handily within its estimate of $10–15 million, a four-part portrait of São Schlumberger from the storied private collection failed to find a buyer on a far lower estimate of $2–3 million. Warhol’s Judy Garland (Multicolor) (1978), offered from the collection of Liza Minnelli, sold for $1.2 million on an estimate of $1–1.5 million; and a silkscreen Jackie (1964) sold for $1.7 million on an estimate of $1.5–2 million).

Mark Rothko's No. 21 (Red, Brown, Black and Orange)  (1953), an oil on canvas from the Schlumberger Collection, is offered with estimate "on request," but experts say it could fetch upwards of $50 million. Photo: Courtesy of Sotheby's.

, Mark Rothko’s No. 21 (Red, Brown, Black and Orange) (1953) from the Schlumberger Collection, sold for $45 million as compared with an estimate upwards of $50 million.  Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Though most of the lots on offer this season had not been seen on the auction block for years, if ever, there were some exceptions that were very recent returns. These included a Warhol Self-Portrait (Fright Wig) (1986) that came to the block with a hefty $12–18 million estimate and sold for $11.4 million with premium. According to the Sotheby’s catalogue, the work was offered at Sotheby’s London just over two years ago as part of the Gunter Sachs Collection sale in May 2012, when it sold for $8.5 million (£5.4 million) on an estimate of $3.4–4.7 million.

An even shorter resale offer was Christopher Wool‘s Untitled, an abstract enamel on aluminum from 1996 that sold at Sotheby’s New York in March 2013 for $3.7 million on an estimate of $1.2–1.8 million. This time it was estimated at $3.75–4.5 million and sold for $4.1 million ($3.5 hammer).

Two paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat in the sale also had auction track records to provide some context for pricing. His Untitled (1983) sold for $3.9 million on an estimate of $3–4 million. It was last sold at auction at Sotheby’s New York in May 1997 when it fetched $79,500 on an estimate of $40,000–50,000. Another Untitled painting, from 1987, depicting a fire engine–red car on a dark black background, sold for $5.8 million on an estimate of $6–8 million. Last offered for sale at Sotheby’s London in June 2007, it sold back then for $1.3 million (£2.5 million) on an estimate of $1.8–2.4 million.

One high-profile disappointment (without an auction track record) was a Jeff Koons mirror-polished stainless steel Moon (Yellow) (1995–2000) consigned by artist Damien Hirst, who acquired it from Gagosian Gallery in 2006. It was clear tonight that collectors had shrugged off the Koons-mania that has swept the art world for the past several months. The work, estimated at a lofty $12–18 million, did not elicit a single bid and was passed over or unsold.


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