Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Sale: Warhol, Richter, Basquiat

Mark Rothko, No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue), 1954


As much as $290 million worth of contemporary art will be on offer at Sotheby’s New York the evening of Nov. 13. The 450-page preview catalogue weighs in at nearly six pounds–it’s the size of the proverbial Manhattan phone book–and is supplemented with three brochures devoted to Rothko, Bacon and Pollock. The evening’s take is projected to top the May contemporary art evening sale (where Lichtenstein and Twombly set records), which brought $266.6 million.

While the Sotheby’s sale is impressive, it’s likely to be overshadowed the following night, when Christie’s New York stages its sale of contemporary art, projected to bring as much as $441 million.

Sotheby’s sale will include no fewer than nine Warhols, and one work by Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who is represented with three works of his own. Also plentiful are works by Alexander Calder, Franz Kline and Gerhard Richter (each with four examples), and Cy Twombly (with three). Filling out the sale are an array of art stars, from Glenn Brown and Andreas Gursky to Takashi Murakami and Clyfford Still.

“There is a real variety of top material on offer,” says New York dealer Joan Washburn. “You just don’t get this every day.”

Mark Rothko’s No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue), a 1954 abstraction (estimate $30-50 million) in which a red square hovers above purplish and blue rectangles, is poised to smash a record. In May of this year, Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow (1961) sold for $86.8 million, a record for a work of postwar contemporary art.

Sotheby’s is banking on Jackson Pollock’s oil, enamel and aluminum on canvas drip painting Number 4, 1951 to set a record. It is estimated to sell for $25-35 million, while the artist’s current auction high stands at $23 million, brought at Christie’s New York in May.

The seller is Palm Beach, Fla., real estate businessman Sidney Kohl, who has held on to the painting since acquiring it from New York’s Robert Elkon Gallery in 1974. It was once owned by the artist’s psychiatrist, Ruth Fox, according to Sotheby’s. Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell and Clyfford Still are also represented in a group of eight Abstract-Expressionist works on offer from the Kohl collection.

“Even the back of the Pollock painting is prominently represented in the catalogue,” Washburn told A.i.A. (Washburn Gallery represents the work of Jackson Pollock for the Pollock-Krasner Foundation.) The painting’s frame sports various stickers including from Leo Castelli Gallery and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and a good deal of paint has soaked through to create an accidental abstraction. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a verso given such importance. It brings to mind James Brooks or Helen Frankenthaler.”

Two Warhol works, coming to market during his exhibition “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, are expected to command hefty sums. Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice), a 1963 acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas showing a body in a wrecked car after an accident, is estimated at $12 million.

Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice) is part of the same series as the work that set Warhol’s current auction record–Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I), 1963, which Christie’s sold for $71.7 million in 2007–but it is smaller, standing only 4 feet high.

Troy (1962), meanwhile, an acrylic, ink and pencil on canvas depicting a grid of images of midcentury heartthrob Troy Donahue, stands nearly 7 feet tall and is expected to bring $15-20 million. This sale comes the day after the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts begins to sell its holdings by the artist via Christie’s.

Four canvases are on offer by Gerhard Richter, whose Abstraktes Bild (809-4), 1994, sold by Eric Clapton, became the most expensive painting sold at auction by a living artist when it brought $34.2 million at Sotheby’s London this month. A 1990 squeegee painting, Abstraktes Bild, is estimated at $16 million. The unnamed seller has had the painting, which stands over 9 feet tall, since 1991.

Also on offer will be one of Francis Bacon’s iconic Pope paintings. Untitled (Pope), from circa 1954, is part of the artist’s series of screaming Popes painted in the wake of World War II, referencing Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X (1649). The painting has been in a private collection since a 1975 auction at Sotheby’s. Earlier this year, Bacon’s Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror (1977) sold for $44.9 million, just above its estimate. Untitled (Pope) is expected to go for $18-25 million.

What can explain the superheated market? New York dealer Christophe van de Weghe pointed out that amid financial turmoil, art still looks like a great investment. “Keeping money in the bank is a nightmare, and investing in the stock market today is very risky. Investing in something you can see on your wall every day? What a pleasure. And maybe it makes you money in the long run.”

Watch this space tomorrow for a preview of the Christie’s sale.