How much is a half-billion dollars? It’s the amount the U.S. government has budgeted to combat climate change in 2013. It’s about how much Romney For America raised last year. It’s also how much money was spent on art in a single night during Christie’s postwar and contemporary sale yesterday—the biggest art auction in history, totaling $495 million.
A silvery, densely layered Jackson Pollock drip painting, No. 19, 1948, stole the show when the four battling phone bidders finally dwindled to one, who ultimately ponied up $58.4 million, twice the work's high estimate. That's likely a plum return for seller Mitchell Rales, a Washington, D.C., industrialist who purchased the work privately from François Pinaultsometime after the Christie's owner bought it at auction in 1993, for $2.4 million.
As mind-boggling as that pricetag may seem, it’s not a record for Pollock, and it’s far from the $140 million that his work has occasionally been known to fetch on the primary market. Elsewhere in the sale, however, plenty of new milestones were set. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ghostly double-portrait Dustheads, estimated at $25 million-$35 million, was almost certain to break the artist’s record, set in November at $26 million, but few expected the $48.8 million result that crushed it.
Roy Lichtenstein’s Woman With Flowered Hat became one of the most expensive pieces of appropriation art sold at auction when it sold last night to jeweler Laurence Graff for $56.1 million. The work is one of four remakes Lichtenstein did of Picasso's portraits of women, this one a riff on a 1939-40 painting of Dora Maar—and, further lodging itself in the annals of appropriation art, was itself riffed on by the artist Richard Pettibone in his 1970 piece Roy Lichtenstein, 'Woman With Flowered Hat,' 1963 (an edition of which went unsold at Sotheby's in 2008 with a high estimate of $18,000).
The young Ethiopian-born artist Julie Mehretu, who just broke her auction record last month at Sotheby’s Doha sale, trounced that figure once again with last night's sale of a $4.6 million delicately drawn matrix of lines and geometric forms layered atop airport blueprints.
Contemporary pop icon Ed Ruscha set his second-highest auction price last night with a $4.8 million painting of the word "Mint" written in what looks like red nail polish, dripping atop a seering yellow background. That sale trails only behind one of Ruscha's iconic gas-station canvases, sold for $7 million during the 2007 art-market boom.
And conceptualist star Bruce Nauman had an untrumpeted success with the $1.4 million sale of his painterly drawing of a nude figure marching, which nearly tripled his presale estimate. That, coupled with the $2.3 million sale of his first wax-head sculpture, Andrew Head/Andrew Head, Stacked (1990), complete with a cast of the artist's own tongue, might signal the beginning of a change in Nauman's somewhat undervalued market. (His auction record has remained untouched for more than a decade).
Expect to see even more milestones from artists on the rise at tonight's contemporary-art sale at Phillips.
Read the week's other auction stories: