At Christie’s New York Monday night, a painting by Picasso became the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction when it was picked up for $179.4 million; a Giacometti, purchased for $141.7 million, became the priciest sculpture bought at auction. In a mere 90 minutes, Christie’s sale of Impressionist to contemporary art, “Looking Forward to the Past,” tallied $705.9 million, well above a pre-sale estimate of $500 million. Every work but one found a buyer. The new owners are unknown, mostly winning their prizes anonymously via phone.
It was the third-highest total on any sale in the house’s history, especially striking since there were just 35 items on offer, far fewer than in its previous record-breaking sales.
“Recognizable assets are very much in demand,” New York dealer Daniella Luxembourg told artnet News on her way out of the sale room.
“An amazing success, amazing,” said New York dealer Christophe van de Weghe.
The new highs were partly due to new collectors entering the art market.
“Every one of the works in the top 10 tonight was bid on by very new clients,” auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen said at a post-sale press conference. “Competing at the highest level were people who have been in the market only five or six years.” Bidders hailed from 35 countries.
Showing partly nude women in a harem, Picasso’s Les Femme d’Algers (Version “O”), 1955, inspired an 11-minute bidding war, mostly between Christie’s postwar and contemporary art specialist Loic Gouzer, who spearheaded the sale, and Brett Gorvy, head of postwar and contemporary art, who were the sole bidders beyond $150 million. Each was accepting bids via phone from unknown bidders. When the hammer came down, applause broke out, and New York dealer Tony Shafrazi (who once vandalized Picasso’s Guernica, ironically) shouted out congratulations to the two of them from the sales floor.
“They worked hard for a Monday night,” Shafrazi told artnet News after the sale.
The Picasso was based on Eugene Delacroix’s canvas of the same name and is the last of 15 of the series. Delacroix’s painting, which hangs in the Louvre, was based on a visit to a harem in Algiers, then newly a French colony. Christie’s had a direct financial interest in the painting, which was the subject of an 85-page catalogue the house published to promote it. The painting, just under five feet wide, brought $31.9 million at Christie’s in 1997 on an estimate of $10—12 million.
Coming in at second for the night and setting a new record for the priciest sculpture at auction, at $141.7 million, was Alberto Giacometti‘sPointing Man (1947), which surpassed the previous high for a sculpture, $104 million, achieved at Sotheby’s London in 2010 with a work by the same artist. His Chariot went for just over $100 million at Sotheby’s New York in November 2014 (see $101 Million Giacometti Leads Sotheby’s $422 Million Imp Mod Evening Sale). The only one of six versions hand-painted by the artist and one of two not in museums, the nearly-six-foot-tall work had remained in private hands since 1970.
The Giacometti was one of the only top lots in the sale that was not guaranteed to sell ahead of time.
“They were flying without a net on that one,” New York dealer Larry Gagosian told artnet News.
“We offered the seller a guarantee,” Gorvy told artnet News, “but he said ‘No, if it doesn’t sell, I take the work back.’ He might be a little upset that he actually sold it.”
The hyperactive sale marked the start of an uncommonly busy week of auctions, with major sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips to follow later this week (see Will Twombly, Freud, and Rothko Lead Christie’s to A Billion-Dollar Night?, See Highlights of Sotheby’s and Phillips Spring Contemporary Sales, and Is Christie’s Abandoning the Impressionism and Modern Art Market?). It followed Sotheby’s lively Impressionist and modern art sale last week, the house’s second-highest in any category (see Mysterious Asian Buyer Causes Sensation at Sotheby’s $368 Million Impressionist Sale).
Mixing historical and contemporary works “from Monet to Kippenberger,” the auction was masterminded by Gouzer, who also oversaw the headline-grabbing May 2014 contemporary art auction “If I Live I’ll See You Tuesday,” which exceeded its high estimate and set auction records for a dozen artists, from Joe Bradley to R.H. Quaytman (see Christie’s New Contemporary Sale a $135 Million Thumping Success). In 2013, he organized a record-breaking charity auction with Leonardo DiCaprio. “Looking Forward” was named for artists’ tendency to look to art history, as well as the house’s hope to sell historical work to collectors who have focused on contemporary art.
The sale was heavily guaranteed, with the house, or a third party, agreeing before the sale to pay a certain (undisclosed) price for more than half the lots on offer. First pioneered at Sotheby’s in order to coax reluctant sellers, these guarantees have become a way to insure record prices.
The third-highest sale of the night was Picasso’s Buste de femme (Femme à la résille) (1938), which brought $67.4 million, well above its $55-million estimate. It was also guaranteed to sell by the house and shows a bust of the artist Dora Maar against a bright red background.
Estimated at $30–50 million, Mark Rothko’s No. 36 (Black Stripe) (1958), fetched $40.5 million to come in fourth. It had been off the market since 1984, when the seller bought it from Zurich dealer Thomas Ammann. The painting shows three of Rothko’s trademark floating rectangles, black, red, and orange, floating before a pale red ground.
The only Impressionist among the top 10 was Claude Monet‘s Le Parlement, soleil couchant (The Houses of Parliament, at Sunset) (1900–1901), which sold for $40.5 million, within its estimate of $35-45 million, to rank number five. It sold for just $14.6 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2001, after which it was on loan to London’s National Gallery for seven years. The London Telegraph has reported that sources say the seller is British clothing retail magnate Philip Green. It shows the government buildings in a lush palette of pinks and blues. It was also guaranteed to sell.
Fetching $28.2 million was Andy Warhol‘s Silver Liz (diptych), 1963–65, coming in within its $25-35 million estimate. At nearly seven feet wide, it shows Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor against a silver background. Out of public view since a show in Bonn, Germany in 1976, the painting shows the movie star at 31, when she was about to divorce her fourth husband.
Rounding out the top 10 were Chaim Soutine ($28.2 million, an auction record for the artist), Peter Doig ($25.9 million, a record for Doig), Jean Dubuffet ($24.8 million, a new high for Dubuffet), and Lucio Fontana($16.4 million). Bloomberg reported that the seller of the Dubuffet was billionaire money manager Steven A. Cohen. The new price smashed the artist’s previous auction high of $7.4 million, set at Sotheby’s New York in November 2014.
Asked what he made of tonight’s sale, Christopher D’Amelio, director at New York’s David Zwirner Gallery, deadpanned, “We’ve barely gotten started on the beginning of a very long week.”