Jeff Koons’s Bunny Sets a New Record for a Living Artist in Christie’s Half-Billion-Dollar Postwar and Contemporary Art Sale
Koons's 'Rabbit' was part of a blue-chip collection of work belonging to the late publishing magnate S.I. Newhouse.
by, Eileen Kinsella, May 15, 2019
It was a stellar evening for Christie’s tonight as fevered bidding propelled the performance of rare blue-chip works from prestigious private collections—including a battle that set a new auction record for Jeff Koons.
The sale realized a total of $538.9 million, squarely in the middle of the revised presale expectations of $422 million to $605 million after two lots were withdrawn, according to an announcement at the start of the sale.
Of the 56 total lots offered, 51 of them, or 91 percent, sold. The private collection of Robert and Beatrice Mayer pulled in $157 million tonight, while works belonging to the late publishing magnate S.I. Newhouse accounted for $115 million of the sale total.
The auction kicked off with 11 lots from the Mayer collection. Early on a bidding war broke out for Robert Rauschenberg‘s seminal silkscreen painting Buffalo II (1964). It was expected to shatter the artist’s previous auction record of $18 million with an estimate of about $50 million, but as a half-dozen bidders chased the price up through the $40-, $50-, and then $60-million price range, Christie’s international director of post-war and contemporary art, Sara Friedlander, went head to head with another Christie’s specialist until she finally won the work for a phone client. With premium, the final price was $88.5 million.
Since most of Rauschenberg’s prized early works are already housed in museums or private collections, opportunities like this one were rare, and collectors knew it. The Mayers acquired the painting soon after it was created, directly from Leo Castelli. Rauschenberg won the International Award in painting at the Venice Biennale that year, prompting the artist to tell his assistant to destroy the silkscreens because his work was done and it was time to tackle something new. (Apparently the assistant defied orders for this work.)
The next trophy to hit the block was Jeff Koons’s shiny stainless steel Rabbit (1986), estimated at $50 million to $70 million. The work is considered the holy grail of Koons works among certain collecting circles, and the bunny’s allure was burnished by the fact that Newhouse was its longtime owner. It also received an extraordinary pre-sale display at Christie’s with a custom-built room that perched the rabbit on a pedestal surrounded by lighting mimicking a James Turrell installation.
Bidding opened at $40 million and demand ascended in pace with the Rauschenberg at first. About a half-dozen Christie’s specialists chased the bunny on behalf of their clients. In the end, the bidder on the phone with Xin Li, Christie’s deputy chairman of Asia Pacific, bowed out at the $80 million mark and the work sold to veteran dealer Robert Mnuchin, the father of US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, who was on the phone with a client at the front of the room.
The final price with premium was $91 million, far surpassing the previous Koons record of $58.4 million and putting the artist back on top as the most expensive living artist, a title he briefly lost to David Hockney.
But in a sign of greater market unpredictability, particularly for supposedly prized works, Andy Warhol, Double Elvis [Ferus Type] (1963), which also had a presale estimate of $50 million to $70 million, met with scant bidding. After auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen started off at $38 million, the work was hammered down to Alex Rotter, Christie’s co-chairman of post-war and contemporary art, with a premium-inclusive final price of $53 million. But despite the subdued action, it still ranked as the third-highest-priced work of the sale.[Louise Bourgeois, Spider (conceived in 1996, cast in 1997). Image courtesy Christie's]
Meanwhile, Louise Bourgeois‘s Spider (conceived in 1996, cast in 1997), estimated at $25 million to $35 million, sold to Xin Li for a hammer price of $28 million, or $32 million with premium, also a new record for the artist at auction.
Alexander Calder‘s hanging mobile with colored glass, Fish (circa 1952), was estimated at $12.5 million to $16.5 million. Bidding opened at $10 million and came down to a back-and-forth contest between Pace Gallery president and CEO Marc Glimcher and art dealer Helly Nahmad, who were seated just a few rows apart in the room.
“Who needs an auctioneer?” Pylkkänen joked as the battle went on.
Nahmad made several efforts to outbid his opponent, but Glimcher finally won the work with a final hammer bid of $14.7 million, or $17.5 million with premium. In a sign of just how far the Calder market has come, the piece last appeared at auction back in 1987 at Sotheby’s New York, where it sold for just $198,000 against an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000, according to the artnet Price Database.
Art dealer Larry Gagosian was also active in the bidding fray throughout the evening. Among the works he won was an early Andy Warhol portrait of Elizabeth Taylor from the Mayer collection. It was estimated at $20 million to $30 million, but Gagosian scored it with a final bid of just $16.8 million, fending off competition from Rotter’s phone client. The final price with premium was $19.3 million.
Gagosian was seated next to one of his latest hires, former Richard Gray Gallery director Andrew Fabricant, and they used the same paddle number to acquire a former Newhouse-owned work, Richard Prince‘s Untitled (The Velvets) (2007), a diptych collage, for $900,000 (or $1.1 million with premium).
Jose Mugrabi was also in the room, bidding on Warhol’s Little Electric Chair(1964-65) from the Newhouse collection, which he won for a final hammer bid of $7 million, against a presale estimate of $6 million to $8 million (or $8.2 million with premium). Earlier in the sale, Mugrabi also went for one of the Mayer collection offerings, Tom Wesselmann‘s Great American Nude #26 (1962), which he secured with a winning bid of $2 million, the high end of the estimate. Including premium, the final price was $2.4 million.
Another bidding war with considerable activity from Christie’s specialists in Asia broke out for KAWS‘s 2009 “Smurf” painting, Kurfs (Tangle), which soared past its estimate of $600,000 to $800,000, to sell for $2.6 million.
Along with Koons and Rauschenberg, new records were set tonight for artist Larry Rivers ($1.2 million), Frank Stella ($28 million), Daniel Buren ($2.1 million), and Jonas Wood ($4.9 million),