Warhols Send Sotheby’s Soaring

By Judd Tully

Published: November 11, 2009
NEW YORK—Andy Warhol’s 200 One Dollar Bills (1962), a rare, prime piece that last sold at auction 23 years ago (for a then-record $385,000) made a whopping $43,762,500 at Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale, a gonzo price that helped push the house’s total tally to $134,438,000 for the 52 lots that sold, soaring above the $67.9–97.7 million pre-sale estimate.

Only two of the 54 lots offered failed to sell, for a svelte four percent buy-in rate by lot and two percent buy-in rate by value, stunningly positive statistics in today’s uncertain market that suggest a breathtakingly rapid recovery from the carnage witnessed here last November, when 32 percent of the lots failed to sell.

Tonight, 27 lots made more than a million dollars, and of those, seven made more than five million dollars. Along the way, bidders set records for four artists, including Alice Neel, whose funky though masterful, double-portrait of Jackie Curtis and Rita Red from 1970 (est. $400–500,000) attracted a half-dozen bidders and made $1,650,500. New York dealer David Zwirner, who represents her estates, was the underbidder.

The Neel was one of 20 lots from the single-owner trove of the late St. Louis collectors Mary Schiller Myers and Louis Myers, which made $24,491,500 against a pre-sale estimate of $17–24 million. Those works sold under a global reserve, meaning that high-performing lots (like the Neel) allowed others to sneak in at low prices, such as the evening’s greatest bargain, Alexander Calder’s Extreme Cantilever, an early standing mobile (dated 1940 and estimated at $1–1.5 million), which went to New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch for $842,500.

Sculpture played a strong supporting role in the sale, with an expressionist bronze, Large Torso (1974), by Willem de Kooning (who briefly dabbled in the medium), selling to Houston dealer Robert Maclean for $6,130,500 (est. $4–6 million). Numbered six of an edition of seven, it was another highlight of the Myers’ collection, and had been acquired by the couple in 1980 from Xavier Fourcade, the last dealer to work with de Kooning during his lifetime.

Two other works shared the exact price of the de Kooning sculpture, including Warhol’s 20-inch-square Self-Portrait from 1965, which had been consigned by Cathy Naso, a one-time teenage receptionist for Warhol’s famed Factory. The artist had given it to her as a token of appreciation for her brief service. Estimated at $1-1.5 million, it sold to London jewelry magnate Laurence Graff for a hefty $6,130,500.

You could say — to put it mildly — that Warhol ruled the evening, as a stunning work on paper, Untitled (Roll of Dollar Bills) from 1962 (est. $2.5–3.5 million), sold to international dealer Larry Gagosian for $4,226,500, underbid by New York trader Alberto Mugrabi.

Even Warhol’s difficult-to-look-at painting Tuna Fish Disaster found a buyer, selling to the Mugrabis for $1,202,500 (below an estimate of $1.5–2 million). It was a change in fortune for the series: a much larger, two-panel Tuna Fish Disaster, which had been tagged with an ambitious $6–8 million pre-sale estimate by Christie's, had failed to sell on Tuesday evening.

But the main attraction of the evening — and yes, the entire season — was Warhol’s early silkscreen, portraying his favorite commodity, the almighty dollar.

You can’t say the dollar is weak against any currency given its super-charged performance here, with the opening bid for 200 One Dollar Bills coming in at $6 million. Instantly, Sotheby’s specialist Alex Rotter shouted “$12 million” from his telephone bidder and a rapid ascent began, climbing at million-dollar increments to $38 million, at which point Jose Mugrabi, on a cell phone with a Sotheby’s specialist, cut the bid to $38.5 million, though he wouldn’t go beyond the winning hammer price of $39 million.

Along the way to that lofty figure, New York dealer Philippe Segalot, one of a handful of deep-pocketed bidders who fought for the work, made a try but dropped out.

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