Newman, Richter and Klein Make Records at Sotheby’s

Barnett Newman, Onement VI, 1953, oil on canvas, 102 by 120 inches.


Works by Barnett Newman, Gerhard Richter and Yves Klein led a $294-million contemporary art sale at Sotheby’s New York last night, each setting an auction record. At $37.1 million, the Richter set an auction record for any living artist. After fevered bidding on some early lots, including works by Cy Twombly, John Currin and George Condo that benefited the Whitney Museum, however, the room cooled off.

“It wasn’t explosive,” Todd Levin, director of New York’s Levin Art Group, told A.i.A. by phone after the sale. “Based on the stunning results of last night’s benefit sale at Christie’s and the relative strength of theImpressionist and modern sales last week, I was expecting a potentially gangbuster sale,” he said. 

Including auction house fees, the sale came in slightly over its high estimate of $280 million. Of the 64 works on offer, 53 found buyers, for an 83 percent sell-through rate. Last May’s sale achieved $266.6 million.

At $43.8 million, Newman’s Onement VI (1953) was the night’s top sale, just above its high estimate of $40 million. The artist’s previous record of $22.4 million was achieved by Onement V (1952) at Christie’s New York in 2012. Measuring 8½ by 10 feet, the canvas is a field of deep blue with a trademark “zip,” a vertical stripe in a lighter, greenish-blue. It reportedly comes from the collection of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The unidentified buyer was bidding by phone.

Donald Bryant, a MoMA trustee, bagged Richter’s Domplatz, Mailand (1968) for $37.1 million, within its $30-40 million estimate. (The previous record for a living artist at auction, $34.2 million, was set by none other than Richter, at Sotheby’s London in October 2012.) The 9-by-9½-foot canvas, which hung on the wall just in front of Bryant’s front-row seat, shows the plaza outside Milan’s Gothic cathedral in the artist’s photo-based, blurred style.

“It’s just one of the best things I’ve ever had,” an ecstatic Bryant told A.i.A. after the sale, gazing up at the painting. “I’ve been back several times a day, just looking at it.” Referring to active bidding for the work by Chicago dealer Paul Gray, also on the sales floor, and several phone bidders, Bryant told A.i.A., “I kept saying to myself, ‘Goddammit, would you shut up over there?!'”

An Yves Klein sculpture, Sculpture éponge bleue sans titre, SE 168 (1959), fetched $22 million, a new record for a Klein sculpture at auction.

There were notable failures, including a Francis Bacon canvas, Study for Portrait of P.L. (1962), estimated to sell for $30-40 million, that found no bidders.

Jeff Koons had a mixed evening. Two impressive Koons works, a vacuum cleaner sculpture expected to bring $10-15 million and a large wall wood sculpture of flowers for $6-8 million, generated no interest. Neither Larry Gagosian nor David Zwirner, both on the sales floor, was seen to bid on the works, though the artist currently has shows at both their galleries.

Zwirner did bid on, and bought, Jackson Pollock’s drip painting The Blue Unconscious (1946) for $20.9 million, at the low end of its estimated range of $20-30 million.

“There was nothing wrong with the Koons works,” Citi Art Advisory’s Jonathan Binstock told A.i.A. at the auction house, and suggested that over-inflated estimates were to blame. “Expectations have been shifting upward as the market develops greater depth and breadth.”

One Koons work sold quite well. The New Jeff Koons (1980), a unique work based on a kindergarten portrait of Koons posing as an artist with crayons, brought $9.4 million from dealer Philippe Segalot, blasting its high estimate of $3.5 million.