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Christie’s Trounces Sotheby’s; Mao Bests Marilyn

In a victory so decisive that it could affect not only current profits but also future consignments, Christie’s has won the latest evening-sale heavyweight championships in a knockout: With an auction total (with buyer’s premium) for tonight’s sale of postwar and contemporary art of $239.7 million, compared with Sotheby’s total of $125.1 million the night before, and with totals for last week’s evening Impressionist/modern sales of $491.47 and $238.67 million, respectively, Christie’s has doubled its rival’s purse. What’s more, tonight’s sale was a record for postwar and contemporary art. A painting by Willem de Kooning (see below) set a new auction record for any postwar work.
Artists from Sam Francis to Robert Rauschenberg to John Baldessari trounced their presale estimates. Previous auction records fell for them and 15 other artists.
The big records were for de Kooning ($27.12 million for “Untitled XXV,” the new record-setter for all postwar art), Clyfford Still ($21.30 million for “1947-R-No. 1,” compared to his previous auction record of only $3.15 million) and the show’s star performer, Andy Warhol, whose “Mao” fetched $17.38 million from Joseph Lau, a private collector from Hong Kong who, uncharacteristically for big-money buyers, allowed the auction house to name him.
Estimated to bring more than “Mao,” but fetching somewhat less, was Warhol’s “Orange Marilyn” at $16.26 million. (It had brought only $3.75 million at auction in May 2001.) His “Sixteen Jackies” was not far behind at $15.7 million. Any fears of a Warhol glut were dispelled when all eight of his works found buyers, for a total of $59.71 million.
Other strong prices for de Kooning included $9.65 million for his “Woman (Seated Woman I),” an auction record for a work on paper by the artist. However, one drawing by the Abstract Expressionist failed to sell.
The biggest failure of the night was Jackson Pollock‘s “Number 21,” unsold against an estimate of $7-9 million. Even in this, Christie’s was relatively fortunate: The drip painting on masonite was not one of the lots in the sale for which Christie’s had promised a guaranteed amount to the seller.
In all, 92% of the lots were sold; nine unsold works accounted for 11% of the total amount bid.
“These sales have confirmed Christie’s as the undisputed leader at the uppermost echelons of the market,” gloated Edward Dolman, Christie’s CEO, after the animated bidders had handed in their paddles.
Who could argue? And how will the battered rival strive to become a contender?

an ArtsJournal blog