Christie’s Evening sale came in like a lamb as the art world braced for another defensive sale. But the vibrant pre-sale crowd in the cramped Christie’s saleroom suggested what was to come. Grounded in the estate of Betty Freeman, which contained many pieces bought directly from the original dealers at prices that give testimony to four decades of economic growth and inflation, the sale was able to establish a number of record prices. Here’s Judd Tully on one of them:
For the most part, whatever was fresh to the market, classic, and conservative sold like home safes, including Richard Diebenkorn’s emblematic and shimmering Ocean Park No. 117 from 1979, which sold to another anonymous telephone bidder for $6,578,500 (est. $4–6 million).
Tully goes on to point out that the conservative works left the door ajar for buyers willing to pursue some of the boom’s most untried stars.
Elevating the sale another few notches were glimmers of action beyond the tried and true blue chippers, as the heavily invested-in and speculated-upon artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Peter Doig hit home runs. “It’s the signature Doig,” said Gelfand, moments after the sale, “and my client ended up getting it for a decent price.”
Because Russian bidders played an important role in making Doig an art star, and Gelfland speaks Russian, Kelly Crow wonders if the Russians have not returned to the market:
The Russians may still be playing patron saints to Canadian painter Peter Doig. His haunting view of fishermen in a canoe at dusk, “Night Fishing,” sold to a Russian-speaking specialist from Gagosian Gallery for $4.6 million, over its $4 million high estimate. (Doig became a poster boy for the art boom, which peaked in 2007 when Sotheby’s sold his “White Canoe” for $11.2 million, five times its estimate.)
Doig’s success may say more about his lasting appeal to collectors than the return of the Oligarchs. Christie’s strength was in its ability to find works that could score impressive gains. Tully gives some reference points on new records:
Even the sometimes disparaged expressionist painters of the 1980s made waves, as Eric Fischl’s Dog Days (1983), an audaciously sex-themed and outsized diptych scaled at 84 by 168 inches, sold to the telephone for $1,874,500 (est. $800,000–$1.2 milion). The seller acquired it from the Mary Boone Gallery in November 1983 for $20,000, according to the gallery.
Tully also reports that the $6 million Lichtenstein Lawrence Gagosian bought was originally sold from the James Goodman gallery in 1981 for $125,000. That was part of the appeal of the Freeman collection, the solid returns of a collector with a determined eye. Freeman liked Lichtenstein–though hers were somewhat idiosyncratic–but she also had a yen for the painter Sam Francis. He gave her Grey as a gift. In return, her heirs got $3.6 million. Here’s Carol Vogel:
“Grey” one of Ms. Freeman’s abstract canvases by Sam Francis, from 1954, also topped its estimate. Joanne Heyler, director of the Broad Art Foundation in Los Angeles, bought it for $3.6 million, above its high $3 million estimate. Ms. Heyler said she was bidding on behalf of Eli Broad, the financier, who acquired it for his personal collection.
Despite all of these successes, there remained an edge to the evening, an undercurrent of testiness and unease that reminded many an economic recovery still had not taken place. Tully captured it here:
Part of the evening’s rousing success can be credited to auctioneer Christopher Burge, who navigated the sale like a seasoned skipper, injecting humor when due. At one point during heated bidding for Piero Manzoni’s kaolin-on-canvas Achrome from 1958–59, a bidder tried to split the next bid to $50,000, instead of the appropriate $100,000. “In these tough times, I’ll take it,” quipped the auctioneer.
Burge got tough with powerhouse Larry Gagosian, though, who brazenly taunted him during the bidding on Richard Prince’s raggedy-looking 2007 bronze sculpture of a picnic table and basketball hoop, Untitled (Upstate). “Are you going to sell it?” challenged Gagosian, as if Burge were taking imaginary bids off the chandelier, to which Burge shot back, “If you bid, you’ll find out.” Gagosian complied, taking it for $1,082,500 (est. $1–1.5 million).
By the end of the sale, the mood was one of near euphoria as dealers, art advisers and collectors all left whistling a happy tune. Lindsay Pollock and Philip Boroff of Bloomberg captured that:
“There was a buyer for nearly everything,” New York art adviser Mary Hoeveler [ . . . ] “It was really good,” said Michael Ovitz, a collector and former chairman of Creative Artists Agency Inc., a talent management company. “When material sells within the estimate, or above it, it gives confidence.”
Christie’s Contemporary “Gets It Right” (ArtInfo.com)
At Upbeat Christie’s Auction, Some Record Prices (New York Times)
Christie’s Auction Re-Kindles Art Optimism (Wall Street Journal)
Christie’s NY Art Auction Beats Estimate, Renews Confidence (Bloomberg)