Art: The Last Unburst Bubble

Christie’s sale on Tuesday night was a stunning success, ratifying the ridiculous levels to which contemporary art has soared in recent years. The Sotheby’s sale on Wednesday night, by contrast, took the market to a whole new level. Not only isn’t this market crashing, it looks very much as though the bubble is still inflating.

The big news of the evening was the $86.3 million fetched by Francis Bacon’s Triptych, 1976 – a sum which alone accounted for 24% of the $362 million total from 73 successfully-sold lots. (Or, to put it another way, if it weren’t for that one Bacon, Sotheby’s would have once again fallen behind Christie’s in value of art sold at the flagship contemporary sale.) Bacon seems to be moving well into the A-list, alongside the likes of Picasso, Matissse, Pollock, and Johns. And in the wake of the sale of a Lucian Freud painting for $33.6 million on Tuesday, one could almost spot an Old British Artists trend going on. I wonder if a major Hockney might come up for auction soon.

The most astonishing datapoint, however, was not the Bacon, but rather the $15.2 million paid for Takashi Murakami’s My Lonesome Cowboy – a kitschily unforgettable piece which I doubt the NYT would ever illustrate. Kelly Crow reports that Murakami, watching from a skybox, hollered “Banzai!” when the sculpture was sold: good for him, there’s no reason to pretend to be blasé about such a spectacular price. (The estimate was just $3m-$4m.) It’s worth bearing in mind that there are five of these sculptures in existence (one’s at the Brooklyn Museum right now) and that really each one is only half of a pair. If a genuine Murakami masterpiece came up for auction, it would probably fetch substantially more, but I don’t think Stevie Cohen is selling.

Besides Bacon and Murakami, sixteen – count ’em – other artists set new auction records, many with works which were far from their best. Robert Smithson’s Alogon #3 obliterated its $1m-$2m estimate, selling for $4.3 million. And a fair-to-middling Brice Marden, Glyphs, sold for $4.3 million, probably one of the works that collector Adam Lindemann was talking about when he said that “not all the works were the best”. The sum might be an auction record, but I’m quite sure Mardens have privately changed hands for more.

The part of the auction I’m happiest about is the eight-figure sums being fetched by European minimalists finally getting their due. A Piero Manzoni white monochrome sold for $10.1 million, while an Yves Klein gold monochrome was bid up to an astonishing $23.6 million. That’s pure art-historical importance right there: anybody can cover a canvas in gold leaf.

So far, I haven’t seen much speculation as to who bought the Bacon, but it’s bound to emerge sooner rather than later. The buyer helped make a little bit of history last night; I hope he’s not regretting it this morning.

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