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Saturday Feature
A record-setting night
Carl Berwick

          In the first 10 minutes of Christie's auction of postwar and contemporary art Tuesday night, eager bidders paid record amounts for works by each of five contemporary artists. That was just the start of what is best characterised as a very, very big sale. The house took in a staggering $157.4 million, a record for any auction of contemporary art and $23.7 million more than Christie's record sale in the category last May.
Mark Rothko's "Homage to Matisse" sold for $22.4 million to a telephone bidder, exceeding a pre-sale high estimate of $20 million, which was considered ambitious to start with. The painting established a new record at auction for any postwar or contemporary work and matched the price of the highest-selling picture at last week's Impressionist and Modern auctions, Toulouse-Lautrec's "La blanchisseuse," also at Christie's. The warm egg-yolk orange and deep blues are a testament to Rothko's respect for Matisse and a record of an exceptional moment of satisfaction in the painter's life; he even chose to be married in front of it.
The first four lots of the night sold at prices that set auction records for artists who are still alive: Bill Viola, Kiki Smith, Christopher Wool, and Gilbert and George. Then Richard Prince's photograph of a photograph, "Untitled (Cowboy)" (1989), sold for $1.25 million, which was not only a record for any work by Mr. Prince but for any photograph at auction.
There was little that buyers in the packed salesroom would not spring for, from such postwar stalwarts as Rothko and Willem de Kooning to Pop masters Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol to 1980s ironist Jeff Koons. Just four lots of 70 faltered.
"It was phenomenal," Lawrence Luhring, of Luhring Augustine Gallery, said. "Very contemporary things did very well." On behalf of clients, Mr. Luhring bought Warhol's "Self-Portrait" (1986), for $3.3 million and Mr. Koons's "Blow Job-Ice" (1991), the very mention of which brought titters from the salesroom, for $408,000.
Dealer Robert Mnuchin, of L&M Arts, was also extremely active and by the middle of the sale took to simply shouting out his bids. He bought Roy Lichtenstein's "In the Car" for $16.3 million, a new record at auction for the artist; de Kooning's "Untitled" (1977), the prime lot from the Lee V. Eastman collection, for $10.7 million; Philip Guston's "The Mirror" (1957) for $3.2 million; and David Smith's sculpture "Jurassic Bird" (1945), for $4.9 million, which set yet another record.
Last night's heated bidding bodes well for tonight's sale at Sotheby's, which is anchored by a massive Smith sculpture, "Cubi XXVIII" (1965). "They're lucky that they are coming second," Andrew Fabricant, of Richard Gray Gallery, said. "This was completely exuberant, I've never seen anything like it."
Mr. Fabricant did not go home empty-handed, either. He purchased several key postwar works for clients: Guston's "Zone" (1953-54) for $5.5 million, Mr. Koons's "Self-Portrait" for $3.9 million, and Warhol's "One Dollar Bill" (1962) for $1.2 million.
Two private collections being sold accounted for half of the revenues last night. Seventeen works from the collection of Lee Eastman brought $31.5 million. Eight works being sold by collector Edward Broida, including "Homage to Matisse," took in a total of $45 million. Americans purchased 82% of the works sold last night; at Christie's Impressionist and Modern sale last week, only 38% of buyers were American.
To put the $157.4 million in perspective, Christie's sold $160 million of Impressionist and Modern Art last week. The contemporary market has more momentum and more new buyers than the Impressionist and Modern market, but only within the past year has it begun to fetch amounts resembling those lavished on Picasso and Monet. The first $100 million sale of contemporary art was at Christie's in May 2004, a barrier the Impressionist and Modern sales had crossed often and earlier. In the past five years, Sotheby's biggest sale of contemporary art was $93 million, last November. Tonight it expects to bring in $79 million to $108 million.
Still, even inflamed buyers can sense a weak picture. De Kooning's oil-on-paper "Untitled" (1969-72) squeaked by at $744,000 and Franz Kline's routine black and white "Untitled" (1960) sold for just $1.8 million, well below its presale estimate of $2.5 million. "There were a few things that didn't perform that well," said art adviser Kim Heirston. "But people go nuts for things that are extraordinary." — The Sun


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