"Bursts," "zips," "fragments," and "mobiles" drove Sotheby's safe and solid contemporary art sale last night, led by the usual kings of these Abstract Expressionist forms. Barnett Newman, whose vivid blue canvas Onement VI (1953)—striped down the center with one of his signature vertical "zip"s—led the pack at $43.8 million. Overleaping the high estimate, that sum nearly doubled the artist’s $22.4 million auction record. (Rumor has it an Italian buyer phoned in the winning bid on behalf of Miuccia Prada.)
It was a good start to the spring’s major contemporary art sales at New York’s three auction houses. Sotheby's ultimately achieved a total of $293.6 million (including buyer's premium), on the lower end of its presale estimate, with 53 of the 64 lots finding buyers for an 82.8 percent sell-through rate.
For $37.1 million, estate planner Donald L. Bryant, Jr. purchased the second-highest-priced lot of the night, a blurry photorealistic painting of a Milanese piazza by Gerhard Richter, which the collector plans to hang in his Napa Valley home. The early Richter work toppled the arist's record set in London last year for one of his abstract canvases, which have been his most popular at auction lately, and it set a new record for any living artist at auction. The sale was an example of a recent trend among buyers to pay top dollar for major early works by living masters, which some believe may still be undervalued by the market.
Other top sellers included an Yves Klein sponge sculpture that went to Calder Foundation president Sandy Rower for $22 million. A phone bidder, meanwhile, paid $20.9 million for a jagged painting by the late reclusive artist Clyfford Still— whose prices have been on the climb in recent years since the 2011 opening of the Denver museum devoted to his work—and dealer David Zwirner bought a 1946 Jackson Pollock painting (from before his "Jack the Dripper" period) for $20.9 million.
Big-name collectors were out in force. Greenwich newsprint tycoon Peter Brant bought a Glenn Ligon text painting for $1.3 million and also auctioned off an unusual Jeff Koons lightbox containing a picture of the artist as a boy, which Philippe Segalot snapped up for $9.4 million, nearly triple its high presale estimate. (Somewhat surprisingly, one of Koons' better-known Hoover vacuum sculptures, also for sale from Brant, failed to find a single bidder at its $10 million-$15 million estimate.)
The fashionable crowd also partook in the sale, with designer Valentino Garavani snagging a pink burst of a painting by Adolph Gottleib for $3.3 million and a loud George Condo abstraction for $1.1 million.
Next up, Christie's holds its modern and contemporary art sale tonight, followed by Phillips on Thursday.
Read the week's other auction stories: