(JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
It ranks third to two higher Christie’s New York Post-War/Contemporary sales, trailing the May 2014 auction that made $744.9 million and the November 2014 that realized $852.8 million. Nine of the lots sold for over $20 million and of those, 29 broke the million dollar mark.
Seven artist records were set, including the coveted cover lot Pablo Picasso, “Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’)” from 1955, that fetched $179,365,000 (estimate in the region of $140 million), the highest price for any art work ever sold at auction. Since this is a one-off, so-called “curated” sale, there is no comparable auction to gauge from.
Given the huge numbers on some of the lots and financial risks involved, 18 of the 35 lots offered carried guarantees, including five house guarantees fully backed by Christie’s and 13 third party guarantees, assuring success no matter how they fared in the sales room. The group carried an overall low estimate of $389.5 million.
Prices quoted include the hammer price plus the buyer premium add on for each lot sold, calculated at 25 percent up to and including $100,000, 20 percent on that part of the hammer price over $100,000 and up to $2 million and 12 percent for anything above that. Pre-sale estimates do not include the premium.
The hybrid sale of Modern and Contemporary works got off to a crackling though modest start with (lot 1) Marcel Duchamp’s erotic anatomy lesson, “Feuille de vigne femelle (Female Fig Leaf),” a painted plaster cast from an edition of 10 from 1950 and hand-painted by the artist the following year. It sold to Los Angeles collector Bill Bell for $785,000 (est. $350-450,000).
Egon Schiele’s (lot 2A) beautiful and widely exhibited figure study, “Weiblicher Torso in Unterwasche und schwarzen Strumpfen” in gouache, watercolor, and black Conte crayon paper from 1917 brought $1,025,000 (est. ($1-1.5 million). It last sold at Christie’s New York in May 2009 for $602,500.
Moving forward for a moment to the late 20th century, Elizabeth Peyton’s (lot 4A) piercing, page-sized portrait, “Gavin on the Phone” from 1998, capturing her then dealer Gavin Brown, brought $725,000 (est. $300-500,000).
The numbers quickly jumped to eight figure digits with (lot 5A) Peter Doig’s pulsating and color charged “Swamped,” featuring a white canoe and its mirror-like reflection on a moonlit lagoon from 1990 that sold to a telephone bidder for a record $25,925,000 (est. on request in the region of $20 million). Dealer Larry Gagosian was the underbidder. Included in Doig’s critically acclaimed survey show at the Tate Modern and other venues in 2008-09, the painting last sold at auction at Sotheby’s London in February 2002 for £322.500/$455,444. It crumpled the record set by “Pine House (Rooms for Rent)” from 1994, which sold at Christie’s New York last November for $18,085,000, and is the eighth Doig to sell at auction for over $10 million.
Another major 1990s work, Sigmar Polke’s (lot 6A) raster-dotted take on a classical still life composition on printed fabric, “Ohne Titel” from 1993, made a downright modest $2,853,000 (est. $2-3 million). It exhibited early this year at New York’s Nahmad Contemporary in “Threads of Metamorphosis: Fabric Pictures by Sigmar Polke.”
The see-saw, back and forth offerings of the Modern and Contemporary eras continued with a wonderfully strange and entwined figure composition by (lot 7A) Max Ernst, “Le Couple (L’accolade)” from 1924, painted at the burgeoning of the Surrealist movement, which sold in the salesroom to dealer David Zwirner for $9,125,000 (est. $6-8 million). With star-studded provenance, including previous owners Paul Eluard and Roland Penrose, it easily mashed the mark it set at Sotheby’s London in December 1997, when it sold for £694,500/$866,078. This time around, the painting was backed by a third party guarantee.
The bidding action, however, fired its main booster with (lot 8) Pablo Picasso’s homage to Eugene Delacroix and his 1834 masterpiece at the Louvre, “Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’)” from 1955, which sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for an astonishing and record-setting $179,365,000 (unpublished estimate in the region of $140 million). Bidding opened at $100 million, quickly accelerated at $5 million increments and then tamped down to one million dollar bid increments that took more than 10 minutes. There were five telephone bidders chasing the prize, ultimately won at the hammer price of $161 million to the phone handled by Brett Gorvy, Christie’s chairman and international head of Post-war and Contemporary art.
The work is part of a celebrated series involving 15 paintings on the exotic, Orientalist theme that obsessed Picasso, as well as embedded personal references to his rival and friend Henri Matisse and Picasso’s second wife, Jacqueline Roque. The storied New York collector couple Victor and Sally Ganz acquired the entire group in 1956 for approximately $212,000 from Picasso’s Paris dealer Daniel Kahnweiler, according to an account written by Picasso biographer John Richardson. They held on to five of the works, including this “Version ‘O’” of the multi-figured and mirrored harem scene until it sold in the Ganz’s own record-breaking, $206.5 million single owner sale in November 1997 — it made $31,902,500 against a $10-12 million estimate.
Three other versions from that 1955 series, “Version ‘M,’” “Version ‘K,’” and “Version ‘H,’” sold that same evening for $11 million, $7.2 million, and $7.15 million respectively. Christie’s had feverishly pitched the “Version ‘O’” painting as the most important Picasso left in private hands, apparently exceeding “The Dream” from 1932 in importance, a picture that also sold from Ganz in the 1997 single owner evening for a then record $48,402,500.
This makes for the third Picasso painting to sell for over $100 million at auction. “Version O” instantly became the most expensive work to sell at auction, trumping Francis Bacon’s triptych, ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” which sold to Elaine Wynn for $142.4 million at Christie’s New York in November 2013. The painting also obliterated the previous mark set by “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” from 1932, which sold at Christie’s New York in May 2010 for $106,482,496.
“It was expected to make a new record price,” said private dealer and former auction house executive Simon de Pury as he exited the salesroom, “and it made it. It’s a fabulous piece and the mix of the sale was very exciting and it paid off big time.”
It certainly proved to be a big night for Picasso as another painting, (lot 15A) the petite yet jaunty composition of the artist’s devoted mistress and muse Dora Maar, “Buste de femme (Femme a la resille)” from 1938 (unpublished estimate in the region of $55 million), sold to another anonymous telephone for $67,365,000. It carried a third party guarantee and it’s understood that the consignor was casino mogul and uber collector Steve Wynn.
But Picasso had to partially share the limelight with (lot 29A) Alberto Giacometti and that artist’s stunning and rare painted bronze life-size sculpture “L’homme au doigt (Pointing Man)” from 1947, which sold for a record $141,285,000 (unpublished estimate in the region of $130 million). It appeared to attract a single winning telephone bid of $126 million, entered moments after another anonymous telephone bidder ponied up to and then retracted that winning number. Even so, it easily erased the mark made by “ L’homme qui marche I (Walking Man I)” from 1961, which sold for £65/$103.9 million at Sotheby’s London in February 2010. It is also the third Giacometti sculpture to sell for over $100 million at auction and now takes over as the most expensive sculpture ever to sell at auction.
The 1947 Giacometti is the only painted version from the edition of six bronzes still in private hands. The Museum of Modern Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Tate Modern own other casts from the edition. It was acquired by tonight’s seller, real estate mogul Sheldon Solow, 45 years ago in May 1970 from the Sidney Janis Gallery for a price in the low six figures, and Solow has owned and lived with it since then. It probably set an unofficial record for a capital gain in a single art transaction.
What is striking in part about the magnificent sculpture is that the face just pre-dates Giacometti’s mature style, so it is a more fleshed out visage of a modern man looking towards an unknown future, his right arm extended in a striking gesture. Still wraith-like, the nude male figure seems set to survive what the future will bring. Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie’s global president, joked after the sale that the Giacometti looked “a little bit” like an auctioneer in action.
This is the first time at auction two works have sold in excess of $100 million in a single evening and the boisterous roster of less expensive works begin to look like relative bargains, at least from a billionaire’s perspective.
Other big-ticket items included (lot 13A) Mark Rothko’s magisterial and richly hued Ab-Ex composition “No. 36 (Black Stripe)” from 1958, and acquired by the prominent seller Frieder Burda back in 1984 from the late and great Swiss dealer Thomas Ammann. It also carries an earlier provenance from the Sidney Janis Gallery, another marker of what was a major Post-war art dealership. The Rothko sold to a telephone bidder for $40,485,000 (est. $30-50 million) and the proceeds, after Christie’s cut, will benefit the Baden-Baden based Museum Frieder Burda. New York art advisor Michael Altman was the underbidder. “I was a little weak,” said Altman as he exited the salesroom, in describing his bid for a private American client. The Rothko was one of eight works financially guaranteed by Christie’s.
The 20th-century breadth of the sale was evidenced in part by Claude Monet’s (lot 24A) ravishing London view, “Le Parlement, soleil courchant (The Houses of Parliament, at Sunset)” from 1900-01, which sold to yet another telephone bidder for $40,485,000 (est. $35-45 million). It last sold at Sotheby’s New York Impressionist & Modern evening sale in May 2001 for $14,580,750.
In seeming helter-skelter fashion, though brilliantly conceived and choreographed by Loic Gouzer, Christie’s Post-war specialist, the bespoke sale also included Andy Warhol’s 40 by 80 inch spray enamel and silkscreen diptych, “Silver Liz (diptych)” from 1963-65, which made $28,165,000 (est. $25-35 million). The Warhol last sold for $18,338,500 at Christie’s New York in May 2010.
There were plenty of other jarring notes in the cross-epoch artist roster, from the unusually large (74 ¾ by 86 ½ inch) Jean Dubuffet, “Paris Polka” from 1961, belonging to Steve Cohen, which sold for a record $24,805,000 (unpublished estimate in the region of $25 million) to the life-size Urs Fischer (14A) embodiment of painter Rudolf Stingel, “Untitled” from 2011 and cast in paraffin wax mixture, pigment, steel, wicks, and lead weights that went to another telephone manned by Christie’s glamorous international director Xin Li for $2,405,000 (est. $1.2-1.8 million). The new buyer can literally light the candle infused sculpture of the seated Stingel and melt it down for fun since a certificate that goes with the piece allows for a reproduction.
Returning to record setting lots, Cady Noland’s (lot 21A) tough aluminum sculptural depiction of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, “Bluewald” from 1989, featuring the assumed killer with an American flag stuffed in his mouth, sold for $9,797,000 (est. $6-8 million). In that same record vein, Chaim Soutine’s small-scaled and bloody “Le Boeuf” from circa 1923 sold for a head-turning $28,165,000 (est. $20-30 million).
“The market is stronger than ever,” said private dealer Philippe Segalot, who bought On Kawara’s (lot 12A) conceptual painting, “Sept. 13, 2001” for $1,205,000, “and this sale speaks for itself.”
The evening action resumes Tuesday at Sotheby’s Contemporary sale.