Christie’s Makes History With $853 Million Sale of Contemporary Art

Contemporary art collectors can be summed up in a word right now: Insatiable. Christie’s International in New York made auction history Wednesday when it sold $853 million of contemporary art in about the same time it takes to watch a movie.

The auction house’s total exceeded its $745 million sale in May and reset records for Ed Ruscha, Peter Doig, Georg Baselitz, Cindy Sherman and Cy Twombly, whose untitled, lasso-like scribbles atop a blackboard-gray canvas sold for $70 million.

Christie’s total easily surpassed its own roughly $600 million expectations, as American hedge-fund managers and Asian entrepreneurs in black silk-lapel suits raised their paddles for nearly everything on offer—and attendees let out gasps on occasion as prices soared.

Japanese polka-dot painter Yayoi Kusama became the most expensive living female artist at auction when “White No. 28,” a milky white, 1960 example from her signature “Infinity Nets” series sold to a telephone bidder for $7.1 million. The work bested the previous titleholder, Cady Noland, whose “Oozewald” from 1989 sold for $6.6 million three years ago.

But the sale’s biggest pop belonged to—Andy Warhol, the market mainstay whose 1963 silk-screen of a trio of overlapping, gun-toting images of Elvis Presley, “Triple Elvis [Ferus Type],” sold to an anonymous European telephone bidder for $82 million. Warhol famously appropriated the image of the singer and actor from a 1963 postcard for one of Mr. Presley’s westerns, “Flaming Star.” Warhol then silk-screened the image three times on a nearly 7-foot-tall canvas painted in shimmering silver, resulting in an artwork that echoes the shaky look of a paused snippet of film.

Seconds after selling “Elvis,” Christie’s sold Warhol’s 1966 gridlike portrait of actor Marlon Brando, “Four Marlons,” for $70 million. This time around, the artist printed a quartet of portraits showing the actor leaning against a motorcycle and dressed as the devil-may-care biker in the 1953 film “The Wild One.” Christie’s sold both Warhols for $152 million, more than their combined $130 million estimates.

Sellers were feeling confident heading into Wednesday’s sale. Twenty works alone carried $10 million-plus asking prices, —and 37 works carried risk-obliterating guarantees staked by house money or outside investors that assured the pieces would sell. The move paid off: The top 10 priciest works in the sale sold for more than $22 million apiece.

Mainland Chinese collectors won a $17.5 million by Willem de Kooning and a $17 million Gerhard Richter, both abstract paintings featuring lush colors. A Lucian Freud portrait, “Julie and Martin,” sold to a young Asian man for $17 million

But Americans held their own, taking home examples by Sherman, Franz Kline, Robert Ryman and Martin Kippenberger. And there were a few boom-era signs of shopping sprees: The European phone bidder who won the $70 million Twombly also took home a $16 million Roy Lichtenstein, “Sunrise.”

Of the sale’s 80 works, only five failed to sell—at a rarefied sell-through rate, —but one casualty hit hard: No one wanted Lichtenstein’s “Keds,” which stalled at $19 million and went unsold. Still, 94% of the sale’s offerings found buyers, helping Christie’s achieve 97% of the sale’s total potential value.

Whether Wednesday’s sale represents a cresting moment for the art market—or simply the next wave in a developing cycle—remains to be seen. Several pieces sold to collectors who only had to place a single bid apiece to win their works, a potentially worrying sign for a market that depends on multiple bidders to compete. These one-bid winners included a $45 million Francis Bacon, “Seated Figure.” It had been estimated to sell for at least $40 million.

Solid hits in the sale included Ruscha’s “Smash,” a 1963 navy-and-gold depiction of the work’s title that sold for $30 million, over its $20 million estimate. (Estimates, unlike final sale prices, don’t include Christie’s commission.) De Kooning’s bronze figure of a man “Clamdigger” sold for $29 million.

Jeff Koons’s shiny sculpture “Balloon Monkey (Orange),” sold for $26 million.

Christie’s Chief Executive Steven Murphy said the sale “proves that enjoying works of art has become a universal pursuit in our time.”


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