Back to the Tried and True Blue (Chip) at Christie’s

Posted May 17, 2018 11:40 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Following the excitement of $21.1 million paid for a painting by the African-American artist Kerry James Marshall at Sotheby’s Wednesday night, the top end of the art market returned to more tried and tested brands at Christie’s and Phillips evening contemporary auctions that concluded New York’s spring season of marquee sales.

Buyers were looking for works fresh to the market from long-term collections, rather than resales.

Christie’s included an impressive gold-framed 1977 “Study for Portrait” by Francis Bacon fresh from the Monaco-based collection of Magnus Konow, a friend of the artist, who acquired the work soon after it was painted. It was estimated to sell for at least $30 million and — pushed by four telephone bidders — it reached $49.8 million with fees, the top contemporary price of the week.

The 78-inch-high canvas featured a partially clothed male figure — and bloody shadow — inspired by Bacon’s lover, George Dyer, who killed himself in 1971, just before the opening of the artist’s first retrospective in Paris. Paintings from this period that evoke Bacon’s grief for Dyer are among the British artist’s most admired works, and this was a work that had never been offered at auction before.

“It was a good picture and a good price,” said Ivor Braka, a London dealer who specializes in Bacon.

Market freshness was also on tap with “Blueberry,” a sumptuous 1969 painting by the French-based abstract expressionist painter Joan Mitchell offered by the Hillman Family Foundation. It had been bought by the distinguished American collectors Rita and Alex Hillman back in 1970.

Three telephone bidders and one in the room fought for “Blueberry.” Measuring 79 inches high and thickly worked in yellow, white and blue, the painting climbed to a winning telephone bid of $16.6 million with fees, beating the previous auction high of $11.9 million for the artist.

On the other hand there were fewer takers for salesroom “retreads.” Estimated by Christie’s at $30 million each, Andy Warhol’s 1963 black and white silk-screen painting, “Double Elvis (Ferus Type)” and Mark Rothko’s monumental 1954 abstract, “No. 7 (Dark Over Light),” were both reappearing at auction.

The Warhol was offered by beleaguered casino magnate Steve Wynn, whose accidentally damaged $70 million Picasso was withdrawn from Christie’s Tuesday evening sale of impressionist and modern art. Wynn had bought the “Double Elvis” in 2012 for $37 million. This time round, despite a major Warhol retrospective in the offing at the Whitney Museum of American Art, it sold for $37 million with fees to the New York dealer Brett Gorvy.

The 90 inch high Rothko had at one time been owned by former Yahoo chief executive and Warner Bros. chairman Terry Semel. Its latest, unidentified owner had paid $21 million for it at auction in 2007. Last night, just over a decade later, it sold to one bid from its guarantor for $31.1 million.

For many, the lots to watch in Christie’s auction were a group of 12 paintings by Richard Diebenkorn, an artist traditionally regarded by the market as “second tier,” but whose association with the Bay Area Figurative Movement of the 1950s and 1960s could prompt reassessment in today’s internet economy. Eleven of these had been collected by New York real estate developer Donald Zucker and his wife, Barbara, including the large-scale 1984 canvas “Ocean Park #126,” from the artist’s admired series of abstract paintings.

Estimated at $16 million to $20 million, that one work sold for $23.9 million, setting a new auction high for the artist.

“We’re always looking to canonize new heroes and take them to a new level,” said Braka, the London dealer.

Christie’s auction raised $397.2 million from 64 lots, down from the $448.1 million from its contemporary sale of 71 lots last year.

Earlier in the evening Phillips auction house had offered 35 works in its latest sale of 20th century and contemporary art. The obvious standout here was the 1984 Jean-Michel Basquiat acrylic and oilstick on wood painting, “Flexible,” entered from the artist’s estate and estimated at $20 million.

Unlike Basquiat’s much larger, but writing-dominated “Flesh and Spirit” that sold for $30.7 million the previous evening at Sotheby’s, the Phillips painting featured a powerful half-length figure with one of the artist’s trademark masklike faces. However, it was painted on wooden planks, rather than more orthodox canvas, a form of support that has put off buyers.

Nonetheless, it was bid up to a final price of $45.3 million.

“Collectors are beginning to pay greater attention to Jean-Michel’s ‘wood slat’ pictures,” said Scott Nussbaum, head of the 20th century and contemporary art department at Phillips, who added that the previous high for a Basquiat on a similar support was $17 million.

Phillips’s sale raised a total of $131.6 million, slightly higher than the $110.3 million the company’s equivalent auction achieved from 37 works last year.