Beneath Christie’s Dominant Sale, a Battle Brews in the Market

To rewrite Tolstoy: Happy auctions are all alike; every unhappy lot is unhappy in its own way. Last night at Christie’s, there were precious few unhappy lots. Though there seemed to be many who were unhappy with the idea of Contemporary art prices continuing to soar.

Either channeling his clients’ frustration or worrying that he might not be able to buy stock, Andrew Fabricant had a panicky moment with Judd Tully:

Caught on the stairway leading down to Christie’s exit, Fabricant let loose his take on the sale. “This is nuts,” said the seasoned dealer. “It’s some kind of weird anomaly to what’s happening in the world and I find it sickeningly disturbing. These prices set the bar higher and higher for everyone and it completely confounds the whole model.”

That was from one of the night’s winners. But those who didn’t play—and many prospective buyers sat in the audience with paddles at the ready but finding no point of entry into the frenzied bidding—like art critic Blake Gopnik, were filled with consternation. The critic resorted to high dudgeon on twitter: “As dozens of people spend millions on art at Christies, all I can think of is the Rockaways. Makes me see red … October.”

Gopnik continued to confuse the art market with art history by trying to argue with the prices: “Koons Tulips at 30M sets his record. Fancy garden ornament. His floating basketballs matter more.”

Kelly Crow spoke to others who had less complicated views:

After the sale, Warhol dealer Jose Mugrabi shook his head in awe and said, “This market is fantastic right now—if I’ve seen a sale do better than this, I can’t remember it.”

It seemed as if the the Contemporary art market at Christie’s is somehow different from the art market around it where sellers have too high expectations and buyers are mingy and guarded, unwilling to spend a penny more than necessary. At Christie’s, the bidders roared—quite literally a few times—jostled and pleaded to get in. More than once, Jussi Pylkannen ignored a colleague frantically calling out a bid with a dry, “I’ll get to you,” his eyes locked on bidders in the room.

More often than not, those bidders in the room were central figures—like Mugrabi—in the smooth functioning of the art market who were clearly being given preference. The art market is manipulated but, in its defense, the manipulation takes place out in the open as many of the deep pockets flashed their money on artists like Calder, Kline, Basquiat, Rothko, Keifer and, especially, Warhol.

In perhaps the most unexpected and significant turn of the evening, Donald Bryant’s Warhol portrait of Marlon Brando was bought by the Nahmad family. After the sale, several members of the family talked up the purchase raising the question of whether they too are now active in the Warhol market.

Here’s what Katya Kazakina got:

“I was prepared to go to $40 million,” said art dealer David Nahmad, the patriarch of the family, who won the bidding. “For me, it was the best buy of the sale.”

This quote is significant because the work was on offer at ArtBasel for $45m. Nahmad clearly saw it then and didn’t buy it. Does he think he’ll be able to get that price in a few years time effectively doubling his money? How many other Warhols will the family bid on or buy to get it there?

Clearly the art buying and selling community is taking sides. Here’s Carol Vogel’s contribution to the panorama:

Robert McClain, an art adviser, when asked what he thought of the big numbers paid for the evening’s Pop Art, replied, “Never overestimate people’s willingness to pay a premium for the obvious.”

And the answer to the question may simply be that the art market continues to expand with new buyers from around the world coming in to drive demand. This could easily be what Nahmad sees in Warhol. Vogel added this observation too:

“There’s a lot of foreign money coming in,” said Joanne Heyler, a director and chief curator of the Broad Foundation in Los Angeles. “More than ever before.”

“This Is Nuts”: Christie’s $412-Million Postwar and Contemporary Auction Stuns (Artinfo.com)
Relentless Bidding and Record Prices for Contemporary Art at Christie’s (NYTimes)
Warhol, Koons Defy Fiscal Cliff at Christie’s Record Sale  (Bloomberg)
Art Prices Balloon at Christie’s $412m Sale (Wall Street Journal)