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Contemporary Art auction report: Warhol’s dollar bills attract big bucks in New York sales

The market has recalibrated, but major pieces spark highly charged bidding wars

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The bellwether autumn sales of contemporary art held at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury in New York, 11-13 November, demonstrated a gear change. While estimates have been drastically slashed and volumes have shrivelled, collectors were still active in this newly recalibrated market and the most desirable works can still make good prices.

Christie’s

Christie’s opened the bidding on 10 November with a 46-lot sale expected to make $61.5m-$88m and which came in at $74.2m with 85% sold by lot (presale estimates don’t include premium—results do). It opened with a bang with six, classic, abstract-expressionist works from the collection of John Cage and Merce Cunningham which made $7.1m, well in advance of the admittedly modest high estimate of $4m. If the real fireworks were reserved for the cover lot, Peter Doig (see right), the sale saw two damp squibs: Warhol’s Tunafish Disaster, 1963 (est $6m-$8m, bought in at $4.7m), and Basquiat’s six-panel Brother Sausage, 1983 (est $9m-$12m, bought in at $7.5m, see right).

Sotheby’s

The following night, Sotheby’s stronger sale, with 54 lots estimated at $68m-$97.8m, rocketed to $134.4m, thanks to Warhol’s 200 One Dollar Bills, 1962 (see above right), including an auction record for Jean Dubuffet’s Trinité-Champs-Elysées, 1961, at $6.1m (est $4m-$6m). “We were positively surprised by the success of the sales,” said Marc Payot of Hauser & Wirth. Commenting on the sales, Michael Findlay of Acquavella in New York said: “These estimates were cautious. For the next year or two, we will probably see fairly erratic relationships between price and estimates,” as the markets for certain artists are tested. One artist whose prices are being reassessed is Richard Prince, whose Doctor’s Nurse, 2002, made $1.7m over an estimate of $1m-$1.5m. Two years ago, works from this series were routinely selling for $4m-$6m, such as Millionaire Nurse, 2002, which sold at Sotheby’s New York for $4.7m in May 2008.

Phillips de Pury

Closing the week, Phillips de Pury, despite a lacklustre catalogue, raised $7m, within its $5.8m-$8.3m target and with a respectable 78% sold by lot.

Andy Warhol, 200 One Dollar Bills, 1962, est $8m-$12m, sold for $43.7m at Sotheby’s

In the run-up to the auction, all the talk was about Warhol’s crisp silkscreen print. The predictions were that the work would soar above the conservative estimate thanks to an excellent provenance, coming from the renowned collection of Robert and Ethel Scull, and because it was one of the first of Warhol’s trademark series paintings. Even so, there were gasps as the first bidder, Sotheby’s Alex Rotter on the phone, doubled the opening bid to $12m. At least four bidders wanted the work, including dealer/trader Alberto Mugrabi and Paris adviser Philippe Ségalot, bidding in the room. At $36m a new phone bidder came in, but finally, it was Bruno Vinciguerra, Sotheby’s chief operating officer, who won the work for an anonymous client. Speaking after the sale, Mugrabi said: “The sale was incredible. When you bring great quality you get great prices.” Mugrabi, whose family own several hundred Warhols, revealed that Sotheby’s specialist Loic Gouzer was also bidding on his behalf. Trade sources hesitated between two possible buyers for the work—the Greek collector Philippe Niarchos, or the Qatari royal family, which has recently been a powerful buyer at auction. Mugrabi did acquire a single-panel version of Tunafish Disaster, which made $1.2m, under the estimated $1.5m-$2m. “These are tough pictures,” said Mugrabi. Christie’s had failed to sell its double-panelled Tunafish… the previous night, which international co-head Brett Gorvy explained by saying that “intellectual paintings had poor bidding”, rather than blaming the $6m-$8m estimate.

Andy Warhol, Self-portrait, 1965, est $1m-$1.5m, made $6.1m at Sotheby’s

This work had been given by Warhol to Cathy Naso when, as a 17-year-old student, she was working part-time at the Factory. She put it in a cupboard and only decided to sell this year. As a result, the work was “fresh as the day it was made”, in the words of auctioneer Tobias Meyer as he encouraged four bidders, led by London dealer Laurence Graff, seated in the front row next to dealer Tony Shafrazi. Graff bagged the prize against Mugrabi and Jeffrey Deitch. After the sale, Naso said: “Andy Warhol made me famous for 15 minutes.” Dealer Adam Sheffer of Cheim & Read said: “You can’t put a price on virginity. Connoisseurship, sentimentality and a wonderful story were combined in this work.”

Peter Doig, Reflection (What Does Your Soul Look Like), 1996, est $4m-$6m, sold for $10.2m at Christie’s

The artist was present as this appealing, three-metre-tall portrait of the artist’s brother’s body reflected in a rusty red pond sparked a fierce bidding battle. Whereas high prices are generally the result of two buyers slugging it out, this tussle saw four bidders still in the fray at $9m. In the room, London dealer Jay Jopling, mobile phone clamped to his ear, missed out by seconds from securing the work as Christie’s urbane auctioneer Christopher Burge hammered it down to an unidentified phone bidder. After the sale, a number of dealers indicated that Jopling was bidding on behalf of the Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Brother Sausage, 1983 (detail above), est $9m-$12m, bought in at $7.5m at Christie’s

No hands were raised for this six-panel painting, which was expected to be the top lot. The consignor was publishing magnate Peter Brant, who is embroiled in an ill-tempered divorce battle with his wife, ex-Victoria’s Secret model Stephanie Seymour. This is a good example of the recalibration of the market. “The market is bifurcating into a ‘masterpiece or not’ market. If it is a masterpiece, there will always be excess demand compared with supply,” said Todd Levin, director of Levin Art Group, who thought that the work was too large for most buyers and priced too aggressively. “At $9m-$12m there was no way it was going to sell.” In the same sale, Basquiat’s 1982 Untitled work on paper fetched $3,106,500 (est $1.8m-$2.8m). The oil stick and masking tape piece—“a true A+ work of art,” according to Levin—set a record for a Basquiat work on paper.

Jeff Koons, Large Vase of Flowers, 1991, est $4m-$6m, no 1 of edition of 3, sold for $5.7m at Christie’s

The sale included three works by former auction house favourite Jeff Koons, consigned by art publisher Benedikt Taschen. Another edition of this wooden sculpture of bright blooms had been exhibited in Versailles last year, and this work was bought by Dominique Lévy of L&M Arts, underbid by Koons’s ­dealer Larry Gagosian. Taschen had bought the piece at Christie’s in London in 2000 for £663,750 (just under $1m). The other Koons on offer included vacuum cleaner sculpture New Shelton Wet/Dry5-Gallon…,1981-87, which went to Philippe Ségalot for $3.1m (est $2m-$3m). As the saleroom emptied towards the end of the session, the final Koons, Wishing Well, 1988, made $1.1m, going to Gagosian. While an artist’s proof of the gilt mirror sold last year for $2.2m, another work from this edition made just over $1m in 2005, indicating where the artist’s prices now are.