Auction Thriller


Christie’s did it again last night, this time as the famed Michael Crichton collection spearheaded its evening sale of Post war and contemporary art. The quintessential American sale was exciting, with brisk bidding both in the room and on the phone.

The night’s main attraction was the sale of Jasper Johns iconic Flag; executed with encaustic and newspaper, the work has a textured three-dimensional appearance. Artist and writer were good friends, and Johns asked Crichton to write for the 1976 catalogue for his retrospective at the Whitney. Expectations for the work “had to be managed,” said Brett Gorvy, Deputy Chairman of Christie’s Contemporary department at a press conference after the sale, referring to the media hype and anticipation from collectors. But the bids came fast and furious as collectors fought for the seminal work. The bidding started at $7 million with five bidders vying for the work. Bids climbed to the teens, slowed, and tightened to two phone bidders and the American paintings dealer Michael Altman, who ultimately got the lot for $25.5 million.

Crichton’s collection featured works by other American icons, among them Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenberg, Andy Warhol, Mark Tansey, Ed Ruscha, and Roy Lichtenstein.

The mobbed viewings gave way to a jam-packed sales room full of collectors, dealers and the odd celebrity. Christopher Burge was at the rostrum and in full command of the mammoth 79-lot sale. Only four lots failed to sell. Five artist’s price records were set last night. Besides the Johns’, Mark Tansey set a record for Push Pull (pictured above), an oil-on-canvas painting that sold for $3,218,500, against an estimate of $800,000–1,200,000. The Sam Francis, Middle Blue, a 1957 canvas sold for $6,354,500 against an estimate of $3–5 million. A work by the rarely-seen-at-auction Lee Bontecou, a steel and wood construction from 1962 realized $1,874,5000 against a $1.5–2 million estimate. Christopher Wool’s enamel and aluminum work Blue Fool (1990) realized $5,010,5000 against a pre-sale estimate of $1.5–2 million.

51 works sold for over $1 million; 72% of purchasers were American; 21% European, and 7% “other,” which is an auction house period detail of terminology. The $231.9 million sale was one of the biggest the Contemporary department has seen in recent seasons, and exceeded its high low estimate of $142,940,000-$207.4 million, as the Crichton sale alone earned $93.3 million. 

Works by Robert Rauschenberg and Yves Klein had great evenings. Rauschenberg’s Studio Painting (1960–61), one of the best examples of the artist’s late Combines sold after an active flurry of bids for $9.8 million hammer against a pre sale estimate of $6–9 million. The beautiful Yves Klein painting, Anthropometrie Le Buffle, realized $11 million against an $8-12 million estimate.

Warhol had a fair night, as six Warhols of various mediums were offered. The coveted Silver Liz (1963), which carried a presale estimate of $10-15 million, was a hit. A standing couple and Dominique Levy of L&M arts battled it out in a back and forth bidding war until the work was hammered down to Levy for $16.3. A Warhol double self-portrait from 1964 sold at the low end of the $5–7 million estimate and the serial portrait of the art dealer Holly Solomon, consisting of nine panels sold to the under-bidder of Silver Liz for $4.8 million against a slightly over-cooked estimate of $7–12 million. The happy bidders saved a few million.   

I caught up with New York dealer Chris Eykyn, who claimed that, “Overall, this week and last we see lots of money needing a home,”  referring to need for collectors to park money in paintings during a unpredictable financial time. “The Crichton sale set a nice tone,” he summed.