DAVID COHEN, Editor           
       January 2006  


THE RISE CONTINUES: The Fall 2005 Contemporary Art Sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury & Company


clockwise: Paul McCarthy Santa Long Neck 2004, painted bronze, ed. 3, 106-1/4 x 44-7/8 x 38 inches; Damien Hirst Love Lost 1999, aquatic tank, large river fish, filtration unit, couch, table, gynecological stool, surgical instruments, computer, jewelery, cup, 107-7/8 x 84 x 84 inches; both Courtesy Phillips de Pury & Company. Jeff Koons Self-Portrait 1991, white marble in two parts, ed.3; 37-1/2 x 20-1/2 x 14-1/2 inches, Courtesy Christies; David Smith Cubi XXVIII 1965 stainless steel, 108 x 110 x 45 inches, Courtesy Sotheby's.

Simon de Pury, dubbed (by “New York” magazine) the “rock star” chief auctioneer and chairman of Phillips de Pury & Company, inaugurated the Fall's week-long contemporary art auction extravaganza on November 7, 2005 with a sale of edgy works from the collection of Princess Gloria Von Thurn und Taxis.  Phillips de Pury & Company, the “Red Bull” of auction houses (Christie’s and Sotheby’s being the “Coke” and “Pepsi”) hammered down a 50 lot, 100% sold, ‘white glove’ sale in the opening evening session, smashing eight artist records in the process, including Paul McCarthy’s nine-foot-tall painted bronze “Santa Long Neck”, (2004) with a butt-plug for a neck, fetching $856,000, well over its already optimistic-seeming $700,000 upper estimate. The next day, eleven more records were broken.  Among the works at Phillips was Damien Hirst’s “Love Lost,” (1999) a 20,000 pound gynecologist’s office submerged in a tank swarming with rainbow-colored koi fish, consigned by Charles Saatchi.

But the evening of the 8th was the mother lode:  Christie’s had it all.  Buzz had been building for weeks surrounding classic post-war New York School Abstract Expressionist paintings by de Kooning, Rothko and Guston; important Pop works by Lichtenstein, Warhol and Koons; and ‘iconic’ works—if that doesn’t sound absurd for prematurely blue-chip contemporaries—by Richard Prince, Tom Friedman, Elizabeth Peyton and Christopher Wool.

Of the 70 works offered, only four failed to sell, bringing in $157.4 million, topping the pre-auction estimated highs by over $10 million.  Bill Viola’s “Witness,” a four year old color video triptych on three LCD panels showing three women locked in a gaze with the camera as they undergo a succession of intense emotional states, quickly reached double its estimate, and became the first of 18 artist world records for the night.  Christopher Wool’s aggressive word piece, his alkyd and enamel on aluminum “Untitled (RUNDOGRUNDOGRUN)” brought in $400,000 over its high estimate, setting a record high for the artist at just under $1.25 million. 

The sale of Prince’s “re-photograph” of the Marlboro Man ad, “Untitled (Cowboy),” (1989) purchased by the Chelsea dealer Stellan Holm, set the world record for the medium of photography at auction [see Brian Appel’s December auction report: “The $1,248,000 Cowboy: 18 Experts on Richard Prince and the New World Auction Record for Photography].  And Jeff Koons’s white marble self-apotheosizing “Self-Portrait” (1991) brought in almost $500,000 over its high estimate landing in at $3.94 million.  A world auction record was also realized for Mark Rothko with the painting he was reportedly married in front of, “Homage to Matisse” (1954) at $22.4 million.  Shop-aholic Robert Mnuchin of L&M Arts picked up Roy Lichtenstein’s “In The Car,” (1963) for $16.2 million, De Kooning’s “Untitled” (1977) a sublime marine blue, green and pink interpretation of the sea for $10.6 million, and David Smith’s “Jurassic Bird” for $4,944.000, almost $2 million over estimate.  Francis Bacon’s “Study for A Pope 1” (1961) went to German industrialist Gunther Sachs.  71% of the evening’s sales exceeded their high estimates, including works by Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Ed Ruscha, Robert Smithson, Hans Hoffman, Joan Mitchell, Joseph Albers, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline and Joseph Cornell.

Larry Gagosian, who was showing Cy Twombly at the time of the Sotheby’s auction on the 9th in his uptown Madison Avenue gallery bought both Twombly offerings on the block including the matte grey oil and crayon “Untitled (New York City)” (1968) on the catalogue cover of that evening’s sale, for a combined total of $16.5 million, establishing a new world auction record for the artist.  Gagosian was also the point man for Los Angeles collector Eli Broad’s purchase of David Smith’s “Cubi XXV111” (1965) a 108 inch high stainless steel sculpture previously owned by Texas oil baron Sid Bass.  The $23,816,000 purchase represented not only the season’s number one trophy (edging out Rothko’s “Homage to Matisse” at Christie’s from the evening before), but arguably symbolized the beginning of a new era of single collector acquisition, which can compete with the world’s headiest museum institutions.  Broad, a billionaire financier with his own art foundation, sparked a new level of interest in contemporary American art back in the early 1980s when he sold a Van Gogh in order to buy a 1954 abstract painting by Robert Rauschenberg at auction.  That piece, “Untitled (Red Painting)” helped galvanize buyers to acquire contemporary works with the expectation that prices would continue to rise, at a rate that would eclipse the accrued value of Impressionist Art. 

Sotheby’s second top lot of the evening was Warhol’s “Jackie Frieze”, selling for $9,200,000, in the middle of its range of its estimate.  The mesmerizing acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas 13 panel painting of Jackie Kennedy’s mourning veiled visage, captured Warhol’s twin fascination with the glamour of celebrity and the horror of tragedy.

Phillips’ sale of Contemporary Art, Part 1, on the final evening on the week’s five-day auction frenzy provided a heady mix of Pop Art’s major figures and ‘ultra-contemporary’ works from collections in the Eli Broad mould.  Of the 75 lots offered, 13 were from the last five years, 29 more from the 1990s.  Wool, Prince, Albert Oehlen, Tom Friedman, Hirst, Neo Rauch, Glenn Brown, Mike Kelley and Paul Pfeiffer supplied the heat along with the cool glamour of Warhols, Lichtensteins and Ed Ruschas in a $22.88 million payday, comfortably placed within the house’s high/low estimates.  

The extraordinary rise in contemporary art prices is now recognized as a solid trend rather than an aberration or blip in the curve.  It remains to be seen if and when this upward swing will reach its apex.  Nevertheless, it seems to me that the phenomenal rise of the contemporary market is likely to remain pervasive and will continue to outpace other areas of the fine art market for some years to come.  If the auctions are a barometer of the art market, an increasing ardor for edgy, contemporary work already outstrips availability. It used to be that time was a key factor in the legitimization of artworks but now it appears that the onus of historic validating is shifting from tardy museums to restive collectors and dealers no longer willing to wait in the scramble for trophies.  


Click Here for the vital statistics: AUCTION HOUSE BREAKDOWNS and the Top 25 Sales














































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