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Record $691.58-Million Contemporary Art Auction: How Did Christie’s Do It?

Christie's auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen at tonight's Contemporary sale Screenshot from webcast

Christie’s auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen at tonight’s Contemporary sale
Screenshot from the webcast

“Tonight promises to be a very exciting evening indeed,” predicted Christie’s auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen at the start of tonight’s big contemporary auction.

He wasn’t kidding.

The sale achieved the unheard-of total (with buyers premium) of $691.58 million—a world record for any art auction. The sale was 91% sold by lot, and a stunning 98% sold by value. (For the complete price list, go here.)

The big news of the evening, which you’ve already heard if you’ve been following online reports, was the new heavyweight champion of the artworld—Francis Bacon‘s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” 1969. It made a mockery of its “in excess of $85 million” estimate, soaring to a hammer price of $127 million ($142.4 million with buyers premium), leaving in the dust the previous record holder for highest price at auction—Munch‘s more iconic (but much smaller) $119.9-million “The Scream”. (Christie’s later reported that the Bacon’s buyer was dealer Acquavella.)

This was the first time I’ve ever seen an auctioneer applaud the audience (who, of course, likewise applauded, in appreciation of the Bacon’s bravura performance).

In setting a new auction record for a living artist, the battle over the Jeff Koons‘ “Balloon Dog (Orange)” 1994-2000, consigned by Greenwich, CT, collector Peter Brant, lived up to its presale billing as a “landmark occasion for the art market,” even though it’s $52-million hammer price didn’t surpass its $35-55 million presale estimate. (The sculpture’s final price, including buyers premium, was $58.4 million.)

It was made clear at the beginning of the evening that this was a meticulously pre-engineered sale. Here’s what Pylkkänen told the attendees (as well as those of us who watched by webcast), before bidding commenced on the first lot—a record-breaking, $2.4-million (with buyers premium) Wade Guyton:

Christie’s owns in whole or in part lot number 17 and Christie’s guarantee of lots 6, 12, 15, 25, 33, 34, 36, and 54 have been financed in full or in part by third parties who are bidding on these lots. The third parties, who may or may not have knowledge of the reserves [the otherwise undisclosed price below which a work cannot sell], may receive a financing fee from Christie’s, whether they are or are not successful bidders. Please also note that Christie’s has guaranteed lot 25. Christie’s has a financial interest in lots 47 and 59. And lastly, Christie’s has financial interests in lots 8, 8A [the Bacon triptych], 20, 28, 39, 40 to 44, 58 and 73″…

…whereupon the audience broke into prolonged murmuring and laughter, having never before heard such a long laundry list of caveats at a public event that, once upon a time, was designed to be a simple, level playing field where a willing buyer and willing seller could openly arrive at a price upon which both could agree.

But wait! There’s more!

Christie’s guarantees of such lots have been financed in whole or in part by third parties who may be bidding on these lots. The third parties, who may or may not have knowledge of the reserves, may receive a financing fee from Christie’s, whether or not they are the successful bidder.

In tonight’s sale at Christie’s, some 24 of the 69 lots involved interested parties other than sellers and plain-vanilla bidders. I’ve previously discussed, here and here, why I believe some of these mysterious, convoluted pre-arrangements can be problematic.

Now, let the grousing begin about how out-of-whack art prices have become.

an ArtsJournal blog