Last night’s sale of Contemporary art at Phillips de Pury & Co. capped off a raucous week of art auctions. On Tuesday, Sotheby’s put the first big numbers on the board with spectacular sales for two mid-century masters, Mark Rothko and Francis Bacon. On Wednesday night, Christie’s brought Andy Warhol, the former enfant terrible of the art world, to a new stratosphere of status and price level. And Phillips closed out the week with strong showings for emerging artists of the first rank.
Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary blowout auction will surely go down as an epic event for its energy, depth, excitement and record prices. The sale saw 26 new records — including the highest total of any Post-War and Contemporary sale: $384.65 million. That figure is the second highest total in the company’s history for any category.
It was also a halcyon moment for collectors and dealers. At Christie’s, there were moments of frantic bidding, with telephone bidders battling against the dealers, collectors, and art advisers in the room. “Wait, wait, wait!” Christie’s Auctioneer Christopher Burge said from the podium during a flurry of particularly heavy bidding.
The most dramatic moment came late in the bidding for Warhol’s “Green Car Crash.” Just as an extended dogfight between two telephone bidders subsided, dealer Larry Gagosian boldly entered the bidding at $64 million trying to steal the prize. “Talk about leaving it late!” Mr. Burge said. The late gambit was topped, however, by one of the telephone bidders. The final price for the Warhol, including the buyer’s premium, was $71.7 million.
The tense atmosphere started to affect the auctioneer in the end. During one lot, Mr. Burge lost his train of thought. “Where am I?” he asked. “4.4 million?” The shocked crowd quickly corrected him. “Five!” several people shouted in unison.
Deep into the evening, as the bidding dragged on and on, Mr. Burge began to prod the telephone bidders with calls to “Speed it up!” But impatience eventually gave way to giddiness as Mr. Burge began to tease. During one final round, he leaned out over the podium with a leering smile and said to a bidder, “Give me five million — just for fun!”
At Phillips de Pury & Co.’s sale of contemporary art, Warhol again was the top lot — “Colored Campbell’s soup can” (1965) sold for $3.4 million. But the fun was in works by artists with reputations on the move: Mike Kelley, Cecily Brown, John Baldessari, and Anselm Reyle. The crowd of young collectors was bidding with so much abandon that the auctioneer had to shout to be heard. The night was more lighthearted than the previous two evenings sales: Simone de Pury started by auctioning off a suite of room at the Hotel Cipriani in Venice — during the Venice Biennale — for $45,000.
Tonight showed that every level of the market, there are bidders. Veteran collectors — ever mindful of the dog days of the early 1990s when the first art boom collapsed — have been cautioning that the art market cannot sustain this level of growth. But so far, the growth shows no sign of slowing down.