Record-Breaking Ed Ruscha Brings in $52.4 Million at Christie’s

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Courtesy of Christie’s.
Courtesy of Christie’s.

A record-smashing Ed Ruscha painting gave a major boost to Christie’s evening sale of post-war and contemporary art in New York on Wednesday. The evening’s star lot, Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964), did not disappoint, providing a $52.4-million jolt to a sale that brought in a total of $325.2 million. That result fell short of the equivalent auction last fall, when David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972) briefly made him the world’s most expensive living artist, selling for $90.3 million on the way to a $357.6 million total.

David Hockney, Sur la Terrasse, 1971. Courtesy of Christie’s.
David Hockney, Sur la Terrasse, 1971. Courtesy of Christie’s.
Ed Ruscha, Hurting the Word Radio #2, 1964. Courtesy of Christie’s.
Ed Ruscha, Hurting the Word Radio #2, 1964. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Ed Ruscha’s Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964) sparked a bidding war that quickly pushed it past its low estimate of $30 million—and Ruscha’s previous auction record of $30.4 million, set by Smash (1963) at a Christie’s sale in 2014. With bidders on the phones and one in the room rapidly trading bids, auctioneer and Christie's global president Jussi Pylkkänen at one point exclaimed: “Who needs an auctioneer?” He ultimately brought his gavel down after the winning bid of $46 million, which came out to $52.4 million with fees.

David Hockney’s Sur la Terrasse (1971), an enormous and dazzling painting of the artist’s former lover Peter Schlesinger staring out over a verdant landscape, couldn’t quite conjure the same magic Christie’s had marshalled last year with the record-breaking Portrait of an Artist. Still, the lot crept past its low estimate to hammer down at $25.7 million, or $29.5 million with fees, good for the second biggest result of the night.

Gerhard Richter's Vogelfluglinie (1967), an imposing gray painting featuring a blurred image of a docking ferry, was not exactly buoyant. It sold just short of its $18-million low estimate for a hammer price of $17.8 million, or $20.4 million with fees.

Charles White, Banner for Willie J, 1976. Courtesy of Christie’s.
Charles White, Banner for Willie J, 1976. Courtesy of Christie’s.
Alma Thomas, A Fantastic Sunset, 1970. Courtesy of Christie’s.
Alma Thomas, A Fantastic Sunset, 1970. Courtesy of Christie’s.

The Ruscha record notwithstanding, Wednesday’s sale was short on surprises—the night’s six biggest lots were the six that had the highest pre-sale estimates. However, there were surprises at lower price points. Three other artists’ records were reset over the course of the sale, including the late great hard-edge painter Ellsworth Kelly. His dramatic composition Red Curve VII (1982) surpassed its high estimate of $7 million to sell for a hammer price of $8.4 million, or $9.8 million with fees, nearly doubling the artist’s previous record of $5.2 million set way back in 2007 at Sotheby’s.

Alma Thomas’s glowing canvas A Fantastic Sunset (1970) had been guaranteed to set a new auction record for the Washington Color School painter. It hammered down at its low estimate of $2.2 million, which came to $2.6 million with fees, well ahead of her previous record of $740,000 set at Sotheby’s this past May. Charles White’s Banner for Willie J (1976), one of the standout works from the artist’s recent traveling retrospective, likewise sold for a hammer price equal to its low estimate, or $1 million. With fees that price came to $1.2 million, more than double the previous auction record for White’s work.

The night’s most aggressive bidding was for Andy Warhol’s 1977 portrait of boxing legend Muhammad Ali. A bidder in the salesroom and another on the phone slugged it out, pushing the lot well past its high estimate of $6 million. The bidder in the room won out in the end, landing the winning blow with a bid of $8.6 million, which came to just over $10 million with fees. After the hammer came down, a man in the salesroom was overheard chanting: “Go Ali!”

Takeaway

Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, 1977. Courtesy of Christie’s.
Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, 1977. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Wednesday’s sale was a more sober affair than Christie’s sales in May and last November, reflecting a generally more cautious mood in the art market. And while three works managed to crack the $20-million mark, 23 of the sale’s 55 lots sold for hammer prices below their low estimates. With six failing to sell and another withdrawn, the auction’s sell-through rate was 89 percent by lot. After the sale, Christie’s staff were bullish on the night’s results.

“I wanted to prove that we could sell a painting for over $50 million this season,” said chairman of post-war and contemporary art Alexander Rotter at a post-sale press conference, “because there was a lot of talk about whether or not that was possible.” Many have noted a lack of masterpiece lots this auction season compared to last fall or this spring—one painting over $50 million, sure, but nothing nearing $100 million.

The fall auctions in New York continue on Thursday with day sales of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s followed by Phillips’s evening sale of 20th-century and contemporary art and Sotheby’s contemporary art evening auction.

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