Christie’s art sale brings in record $745 million

The contemporary art market is on fire. Christie’s in New York made auction history Tuesday by selling $745 million worth of contemporary art in less time than it takes to watch a basketball game.

The auction house’s total topped its historic sale of $691.6 million last November and broke records for artists like Alexander Calder and Barnett Newman, whose black-and-fire abstract, “Black Fire I”, sold for $84.2 million.

Christie’s total easily exceeded his own expectations of $500 million, with collectors, fashion designers and chunky eyewear dealers chasing almost everything on offer – and whistling and shaking their heads in amazement at the opportunity.

Joan Mitchell broke the record for most expensive female artist at auction on Tuesday when Christie’s sold her untitled abstract for $11.9 million.


In a surprise twist, abstract painter Joan Mitchell also became the most expensive female artist at auction when her colorful, untitled 1960 bouquet sold for $11.9 million.

The work edged out previous titleholder Berthe Morisot, whose 1881 portrait, “After Lunch,” sold for $10.9 million last year.

But the biggest hit of the sale was Newman’s Summary, a 1961 example of the artist’s “Zip” series in which the artist painted a strip, like a zipper, so that it seems to slice through fields of saturated color. The New York artist gained a reputation for these “Zips” in the late 1940s, but this black version is significant because he painted it as he mourned the loss of his younger brother, George.

Only three “Zip” works created between 1958 and 1966 remain in private hands, and this example spent years on loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the auction house said. Sotheby’s sold an earlier “Zip” for $43.8 million last May.

Xan Serafin, a New York-based Christie specialist who generally represents American collectors, initiated the winning anonymous telephone auction for Christie’s $84.2 million Newman.

Sellers were feeling confident heading into Tuesday’s sale – nine works alone carried estimates of over $20 million – and their timing paid off: at least four of the works sold for more than $20 million. $50 million and 12 passed the $20 million mark.

Among the usual list of international collectors, mainland Chinese collectors bidding over the phone stood out, taking home a gallery’s worth of works. Their winnings included an $80.8 million triptych by Francis Bacon, “Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards” from 1984 which was being sold by Taiwanese computer chip maker Pierre Chen. Additionally, Lot 8 must have seemed like a lucky number for another Asian collector who paid Christie’s $25.9 million for Alexander Calder’s black mobile of a wavy-tailed “Flying Fish”. The 1957 sculpture was only expected to sell for up to $12 million.

Christie’s has sold Barnett Newman’s “Black Fire I” for $84.2 million in New York, a new record price for the artist.


Throughout the night, auction regulars like New York dealers Larry Gagosian and Dominique Levy found themselves competing with Asian telephone bidders for the art trophies at the sale, each taking their turn taking the spoils. An Asian buyer outplayed several dealers in the crowded auction room to win an untitled $66.2 million orange and purple Mark Rothko. But Mr Gagosian beat three rivals to win Andy Warhol’s red-white-blue ‘Race Riot’ worth $62.9 million. The Warhol was sold through the family trust of fellow dealer Bill Acquavella. Mr Gagosian also won a $23.7 million Christopher Wool ‘If You’.

Elsewhere in the sale, Christie’s sold another Warhol portrait of Hollywood starlet Marilyn Monroe to an American collector for $41 million. The 1962 “White Marilyn” serigraph, which was only expected to sell for up to $18 million, was being sold by Barbara Lee, the Boston collector and former wife of Lee Equity Partners chairman Thomas H. Lee.

Other major sellers include Chicago collector Stefan Edlis, who sat in the auction room with a cap and gazed intently at his Jeff Koons sculpture of a bourbon-filled train, “Jim Bean—JB Turner Train,” which sold to a Chinese phone bidder for $33.7 million. A different version of this 9-foot-long stainless steel train sold ten years ago for $5.4 million at Christie’s.

“I’m so happy with my award,” Edlis said afterwards. “The art market is hot in all areas – Pop sells, Ab-Ex sells, New Wave sells, everything sells.”

Of the 72 works in the sale, only four remained unsold – a rarefied result for a segment of the art market that can turn speculative when collectors and investors bet on rising values art.

Christie’s also ensured that the sale was a success, in a way. About 39 of his bids came with a guarantee, which means the auction house – or a group of outside investors – had already made arrangements to buy these works if other bidders did not argue during of the sale itself. Christie’s guaranteed works were worth at least $287.73 million combined and made up about 38.6% of his total.

Whether Tuesday’s sale represents a new high point for the art market or the next step in a development cycle remains to be seen.

Other sales successes include Jean-Michel Basquiat’s $34.8 million self-portrait as a warrior king standing against a sunset-colored sky. The artist was 21 when he created the untitled work, and it was purchased in late 1981 by Maryland collector Anita Reiner, whose estate sold it to an anonymous telephone bidder on Tuesday.

Records have also been reset for artists such as Joseph Cornell, Robert Gober, Frank Stella, Robert Mangold, Lucas Samaras and Martin Puryear.

Bargains proved scarce, but film producer Stavros Merjos surged when bidding went on Jackson Pollock’s ‘Number 5, 1951 (Elegant Lady)’, a dripping summary he swapped for the car in which he crashed and died two years later. The painting was expected to sell for at least $12 million, but Mr. Merjos won it for $11.3 million.

Miami-based collector Paul Cejas has won a $6.9 million Robert Ryman, “Mission.” The title of the work is apt as the collector said he came to the sale determined to win the minimalist 1980 work. “You have to be disciplined and not reckless in this market,” Mr Cejas added, “but if you love something, you stretch for it. And that’s the one I wanted.”

Comptoirs Rival Sotheby’s with its own sale of contemporary art on Wednesday.

Write to Kelly Crow at [email protected]

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Laura J. Boyer