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Pulling A Chrome Rabbit Out Of A Hat – Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening

May 22, 2019

The feature event of an already glitzy week in the art world was Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Evening sale, with an expected $413-605M up for grabs! The 58-lot selection was littered with major works from today’s hottest artists… Warhol, Koons, Calder, Rothko, de Kooning, Basquiat, and so on… though noticeably void of any works by Post-War darling Francis Bacon (two relatively major works at Sotheby’s the following evening). That said, the results were quite impressive so let’s get into the numbers…

Jeff Koons

Heading in, the highest estimate was $50-70M… there were three lots that brandished that estimate, so it was anyone’s guess which would be top lot in the end… two of the three actually topped that lofty estimate, while the third (surprisingly) fell a bit short of the estimate.

The winner, by a narrow margin, was Jeff Koons’ Rabbit… I almost feel a little bit nauseous writing this… Christie’s (and Jeff Koons’ website) sickeningly list the work standing at 41 inches tall but that includes the damn pedestal the sculpture sits on! The sculpture itself can’t be more than 20-24 inches (though I cannot find an actual measurement anywhere). The artwork (and I use that term loosely), set a new world auction record for a living artist…  Really?! (as my mom would say) … it hammered at $80M, which works out to just over $91M with the buyer’s premium (w/p). The winning bid, placed in the room, was by New York art dealer Robert Mnuchin – father of our lovely treasury secretary. It has been reported that he was bidding on behalf of Steve Cohen. Did you know that Robert Mnuchin was a Clinton donor in the 2016 election cycle – can you say awkward Thanksgiving dinner?

Robert Rauschenberg

Taking second just behind the Koons was Buffalo II by Rauschenberg, hammering at $78M, which works out to $88.8M with the buyer’s premium. This lot happened to appear relatively early on in the sale and the bidding was quite slow… they opened the lot at just $38M and the interested parties sluggishly battled for more than 12 minutes – honestly, I could have taken a nap between bids and not missed a thing. Regardless of pace, the figure achieved was still good for a new artist record at auction… in fact, this and the Koons were just two of seven works that set new artist records at auction over the course of the sale.

Andy Warhol

Rounding out the top three was a large work by Warhol… his Double Elvis (Ferus Type). Measuring nearly seven feet tall, the towering silkscreen on canvas depicting the King of Rock and Roll saw bidding top out at just $48M ($53M w/p). This work was one of twenty-two “Ferus Type” works, which were created for a show at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles… interestingly, Warhol sent a single enormous roll of canvas (with the 22 works already printed) to the gallery and instructed then director, Irving Blum, to cut the canvas into individual works and stretch them himself – that’s a lot of work! This Double Elvis is from the same series as his work, Eight Elvises, which sold privately in 2008 for more than $100M!

Louise Bourgeois

A number of other notable lots made an appearance… Louise Bourgeois’ Spider, which was something out of a horror movie, found a buyer at $32M (est. $30-50M) – an auction record for the artist… this enormous sculpture stood more than 12 feet tall with its legs sprawled nearly 25 feet… the thing took up an entire room at Christies! Lichtenstein’s Kiss III brought $31.1M; a large Frank Stella found a buyer at $28M, while setting an auction record; and works by Calder, de Kooning and Joan Mitchell filled in the remaining top 10.

As always, there were a few failures (and as always, Christie’s annoyingly pulled them off their website to provide as little transparency as possible – gotta love the opacity of the auction world) … Left unsold were works by Diebenkorn (est. $12-18M); Stella ($5.5-7.5M); Haring ($3.5-5.5M); Basquiat ($6-8M); and Agnes Martin ($4-6M).

Jonas Wood

All said, there was one moment that was truly special… the last lot of the evening was donated by artist Jonas Wood, who is currently seeing a meteoric rise in the art world, in large thanks to Gagosian who is propping up the market like it’s their job… well, it is their job but you know what I mean. This work, Japanese Garden 3, was estimated at just $500-700K, but more importantly was being sold to create and fund a future National Park… as part of the sale, Global Wildlife Conservation and Rainforest Trust was matching 400% of the hammer price… things got crazy really quick… paddles started flying up all over the room… additionally, there were 16 phone bidders interested in the lot! It was the most lively action of the evening and bidding exploded to $4.1M! Considering all of the proceeds from the sale of this work will be donated, along with the 400% match, this lot raised more than $20 million for wildlife conservation efforts.

At the end of the evening, just 5 lots failed, yielding a 91% sell-through rate… the sale totaled $538.9M – just about in the middle of their expected $413-605M presale estimate… that also works out to an average of more than $10.5M per sold lot! Check back tomorrow and see how rival Sotheby’s performed in the Post-War and Contemporary market!