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Ames collection helps Sotheby’s bring strong result in contemporary art auction

Young star Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s work fetches more than $1m, ten times previous record

Sotheby's concluded the New York autumn auction season with a strong contemporary art sale that saw successes for stalwarts and newcomers alike. Six works by Gerhard Richter from the Steven and Ann Ames collection—which represented the first 25 lots, all of them guaranteed—brought in a total of $63.3m at hammer, led by the perfectly composed A.B., Still (1986), which hammered for its high estimate of $30m after a protracted battle by three phone bidders.

The first lot after the Ames collection was an intimate scene by the hot young superstar Njideka Akunyili Crosby that soared past its high estimate, driven by at least six bidders, and sold for $900,000 hammer price, or $1.1m with fees.

This is over ten times her previous auction record of $93,750, which was achieved in September and already impressive for a 32-year-old artist. “She's a wonderful artist,” says the collector Mera Rubell, who showed her at the family's collection in Miami last year. “I'm happy for her. It's always nice when the artist has recognition beyond museums.” Her husband, Don Rubell, adds that the artist just had a “sensational” show at London’s Victoria Miro gallery, “the best body of work she's ever done”.

The auction took in a total of $237.4m (before fees) in a sale that was estimated to bring in $208.5m-$302m in hammer totals. This is impressive for a house that has ceded much contemporary ground to Christie's in recent years. Bidding in the room and on the phones was enthusiastic, even up until the end, as a trippy canvas by Frank Stella from 1974, Pratfall, sold for $7.7m hammer over a high estimate of $4.5m. Only four works failed to find buyers.

“The energy in the room was extraordinary,” the auctioneer Oliver Barker said at the press conference after the sale. “We've clearly dismissed any rumours that there were any problems in the market this year, lack of supply, anything along those lines. I think tonight was a kind of unbridled success and another great shot in the arm for confidence in the marketplace.”

The Ames collection was responsible for $122.7m of the evening’s total of $276.7m with premium, and a clear coup for the house.

“When they signed that collection in the summer it was very hard for the auction houses to get material,” the dealer David Nisinson said after the sale. “People were nervous and sellers didn't know how the autumn was going to be, they didn't want to take on the uncertainties: Brexit, the election, etcetera. They probably did a good deal and it guaranteed them a season because they could build around it.”