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Christie’s Proves There’s Still Fight in the Old Bull Market

Andy Warhol, “Muhammad Ali,” 1978
It wasn’t at the stratospheric levels of the $70 million-plus top lots at Christie’s and Sotheby’s last spring, but Christie’s contemporary sale tonight did fine, with only five of the 67 lots unsold—none of them the big-money offerings. The sound of firm applause could be heard throughout the land (if, like me, you were watching the proceedings online).
The sale totaled $325 million with buyer’s premium; the $287.93 million hammer total was within the presale estimate range of $271.25 million to $373.35 million. The auction was 93% sold by lot; 94% sold by dollar amount. Buyers were 51% American, 26% European, 7% Asian, 16% other. Solid all around.
The surprise was that Jeff Koons‘ overblown “Diamond (Blue)” did sell, given that bids only reached $10.5 million against the unpublished $20 million estimate. It seemed clear from the get-go that auctioneeer Christopher Burge wasn’t expecting to get that high: He generally starts the bidding at about 50-60% of the low estimates, and he started the Koons at a mere $6.5 million. Nevertheless, the $11.8 million price (including buyer’s premium) trounced the previous auction record for the artist. The record rates an asterisk, though, since it was paid by Koons’ own dealer Larry Gagosian (who, according to the catalogue, had sold the big bauble to the consignor). At least we can now get that clunky chunk of ungainly glitz off the sidewalk in front of Christie’s.
In all, 16 auction records were broken, the big one being Lucian Freud, despite the fact that the $17.25 million hammer price for his “Ib and Her Husband” fell short of the unpublished $20 million estimate. Similarly, the $10 million hammer for Richter‘s “Jet Fighter,” consigned by well known Chicago collectors Susan and Lewis Manilow, broke the auction-record barrier but only equaled its low estimate.
The most spirited bidding battle was, appropriately, over a boxing picture—Warhol‘s “Muhammad Ali” (above), who fought his way to a $8.2 million hammer price, over an estimate of only $2 million to $3 million. The highest-priced of the five Warhols in the sale, “Liz,” fell below her $25 million to $35 million estimate: Her hammer price was a “mere” $21 million, but that was good enough for the consignor, actor Hugh Grant, who had paid only $3.58 million six years ago.
Top price in the sale was $34.2 million (including buyer’s premium) for a 1955 Rothko, greeted with applause at the fall of the hammer. The auction prices (with premium) are posted here. The lots are identified (with images) here.
Whatever happens tomorrow at Sotheby’s, the market watchers can stop biting their nails. But Sotheby’s, for its own sake, needs a good showing on this one.
Could it be that Christie’s was enjoying the ripple effect of a good day on Wall Street? The Dow was up today 319.54, compared to its big plunge the day of Sotheby’s lackluster Impressionist/modern sale. At a time when so many of the big art buyers are in the financial industry, does stock market psychology affect art market psychology?

an ArtsJournal blog