On Monday night, May 9th, Christie’s New York saleroom in Rockefeller Center hosted the auction of one of the world’s premier twentieth-century art collections, belonging to Thomas and Doris Ammann. Thomas Ammann was a Swiss art dealer who operated Thomas Ammann Fine Art in Zürich. From the 1970s until he died in 1993, Ammann became known as one of the top dealers in twentieth-century art, with works by Picasso, Matisse, Bacon, Calder, and Kandinsky frequently decorating the walls of his gallery. Ammann also greatly supported the top contemporary artists, curating a personal collection filled with works by Cy Twombly, Alberto Giacometti, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. But of all the artists he worked with, he was closest to the pop art icon Andy Warhol. Warhol permitted Ammann to compile his official catalogue raisonné, the first volume of which wasn’t released until 2002, after both Warhol and Ammann had died. Doris Ammann was Thomas’s sister and business partner who passed away last year.
Minimalist works may have gotten more attention than expected when one looks at the top lots. Untitled works by Cy Twombly and Robert Ryman took second and third place at the sale, selling for $18M ($21M w/p) and $17.25M ($20.1M w/p), respectively. The Ryman work may be a little underwhelming through a computer screen, but it’s certainly more impressive up close. The linen support is nearly a perfect square, five feet by five feet. Though most of the work is painted completely white, one square section dominating the upper right-hand corner has such thick impasto that it almost seems like paint peeling away and revealing traces of a more colorful work beneath it. While the Twombly and the Ryman were certainly on the specialists’ radar, there was no doubt what the auction’s top lot would be. Andy Warhol’s 40×40-inch portrait Shot Sage Blue Marilyn was featured in the arts sections of most American news sites within an hour of the hammer coming down at $170M (or $195.04M w/p). While it was less than the $200M that experts predicted, the hammer price is nothing to complain about.
The auction was a good opportunity to highlight the modern masterworks Ammann had collected during his life. But it seems buyers were just as interested in the contemporary artists included in the collection. Mike Bidlo’s Masterpieces Series is the American artist’s attempt to immerse himself in the work and creative processes of modern masters by recreating or reinventing famous masterworks. He started this project in 1982 by recreating the works of Jackson Pollock. By 1987, he presented Not Picasso (Bather with Beachball, 1932), which was estimated to sell for $60K to $80K by Christie’s experts. It was the first lot up for sale, so everyone was probably taken aback when this contemporary work, a recreation of another work, sold for $1M (or $1.26M w/p), twelve-and-a-half times what it was expected to sell for. Moments later, Francesco Clemente’s Fourteen Stations, No. XI sold as well. The title implies that the subject is the eleventh of the Fourteen Stations of the Cross, showing the death of Christ. But while the eleventh station is Christ nailed to the cross, some viewers may not recognize Clemente’s abstract work as such at first glance. Like the Bidlo work, the Clemente was estimated to sell for anywhere between $80K and $120K, shocking everyone with a hammer price of $1.5M (or $1.86M w/p). But the biggest surprise of the evening came towards the end when Ann Craven’s I Wasn’t Sorry, 2003 came across the block. Though created less than 20 years ago, the four-foot by five-foot oil-on-canvas reached a stunning eighteen times its $30K high estimate at $540K (or $680.4K w/p).
Overall, it was an incredible night for Christie’s. Nineteen of the thirty-six available lots (53%) sold over their estimates, with thirteen selling for more than double their high estimates. Only four lots sold below estimate, and two went unsold. Despite the Marilyn portrait falling short, the sale still brought in a total of $273M, a substantial amount going to fund Ammann’s charitable foundation dedicated to aiding underprivileged children.