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Contemporary Art Sale Nets $78.6 Million

May 03, 1989|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

NEW YORK — Jackson Pollock's classic drip paintings and Francis Bacon's expressionistic interpretations of agonized humanity shared the spotlight Tuesday night at a star-studded sale of contemporary art that set records for 27 artists, including David Hockney and Richard Diebenkorn.

The stunningly successful event at Sotheby's auction house totaled $78.6 million in sales, well above the top estimate of $62 million for the evening sale and a record for a contemporary art auction.

Pollock's "Number 8, 1950," a prime example of his best known poured or drip style, brought $11.55 million from Jeffrey Deitch, a New York consultant to private collectors who bought the Pollock for an anonymous client. The sale of the 56-inch-by-39-inch canvas exceeded the estimated price of $8 million to $10 million and more than doubled the Abstract Expressionist's record of $4.8 million set a year ago for another drip painting, called "Search."

Rare Paintings

"People don't realize how rare these paintings are. This is certainly the best of its kind to come to auction in the last five or six years," the ebullient Deitch said.

Hockney's "A Grand Procession of Dignitaries Painted in the Semi-Egyptian Style," a seminal early work painted in 1961 while the artist was a student at the Royal College of Art in London, brought $2.2 million from a private American collector bidding by telephone. The pre-sale estimate for the painting was $750,000 to $1 million.

"A Grand Procession," which portrays three fanciful personages in a stage-like setting, is considered an important early Hockney because it epitomizes his penchant for blending the whimsical with the mythic and foreshadows his later work in the theater. The 12-foot-wide canvas was among works in Hockney's recent retrospective exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Tate Gallery in London.

Before the auction, Pollock's "Number 8, 1950," had been rumored to sell for as high as $20 million--a price that would have outstripped Jasper Johns' record of $17 million, still the highest auction price for a contemporary work of art. "I heard that talk, so I was delighted to get it at such an advantageous price," Deitch said, noting that he was prepared to bid up to $15 million.

A smaller, similarly styled Pollock canvas, "Number 19, 1949," from the estate of Israel Rosen, brought $3.96 million from an unidentified dealer.

Tuesday was also a very good night for British artist Francis Bacon's market. "Triptych," a beautifully painted but wrenching depiction of the artist's deceased friend, George Dyer, fetched $6.27 million from an anonymous bidder. The sale of the troubling 1973 canvas, which treats death as a process of isolated agony, surpassed the painting's pre-sale estimate of $3 million to $4 million and sailed past the British artist's record of $5.83 million, set only a few minutes earlier for Bacon's "Study for Portrait of Van Gogh II" in the collection of the late Edwin Janss Jr., a Los Angeles real estate developer.

Other Records

Two other works in a group of 22 works from the Janss collection set records for artists, including Hockney's "A Grand Procession." Janss, who was known as an eccentric, intuitive collector, plucked the Hockney painting from the sky in 1974, when he saw it dangling from a crane as it was being loaded into a window of a London gallery.

"Coffee," a 1959 figurative painting by Diebenkorn, edged the highly revered California artist's record up to $1.4 million. Another early Diebenkorn set a record of $1.2 million for the artist just a year ago.

Among other works in the Janss sale that commanded prices over $1 million was "Diehard," a 12-foot-wide silk-screened canvas by Robert Rauschenberg. The splashy 1963 work fetched $1.76 million, just below its estimate of $1.8 million to $2.5 million.

The 2 1/2-hour auction attracted a fashionable crowd, admitted by ticket, to Sotheby's sales room on the Upper East Side. As prices rose, so did the temperature in the crowded auditorium where members of the audience fanned themselves, jostled for position and craned their necks to try to see who was participating in the spirited bidding. After the sale, most successful bidders were identified only as dealers or private collectors.

Series of Sales

The Tuesday night affair kicked off a series of contemporary art sales that focuses attention on one of the fastest-rising areas of the art market.

Sotheby's three-part sale on Tuesday included 19 Pop art works from the collection of the late German industrialist Karl Stroher and 69 pieces consigned by various owners along with the 22 pieces in the Janss collection.

The Stroher collection totaled $6.3 million in sales, well above its estimate of $2.9 million to $3.8 million. The Janss works, which were expected to total between $8.9 million and $11.5 million, brought $16 million. The group sale totaled an additional $56.3 million; it had been valued between $36.2 million and $47.1 million. Only seven of the 110 items offered went unsold.

Contemporary art auctions will continue this afternoon at Sotheby's with a sale of 358 paintings and sculptures valued at $11.2 million to $14.5 million. Christie's will host its big-ticket contemporary auction tonight featuring 64 pieces expected to fetch between $20.6 million and $28.8 million. An additional 350 artworks, valued at $6 million to $8.3 million, will go under the gavel on Thursday at Christie's.

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