Warhol’s Riot to Calder’s Fish Fuel $500 Million Auction

Apr 23, 2014 10:20 am ET

(Updates with price range for Rothko in fifth paragraph.)

April 23 (Bloomberg) -- Major works by Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko are set to fuel Christie’s auction of postwar and contemporary art in New York next month with a target of $500 million.

The 72-lot evening sale on May 13 has at least 10 works estimated at $20 million or more, according to the privately held auction house. It will also feature 14 pieces from the estate of major Chicago art collectors. Christie’s sale last May tallied a then-record $495 million.

The sale is part of the semi-annual auctions in New York, considered important barometers of the art market’s health. Global annual sales of postwar and contemporary art increased by 11 percent in 2013, with a highest-ever auction tally of 4.9 billion euros ($6.8 billion), according to a report published last month by the European Fine Art Foundation. New York confirmed its position as the center for the biggest auction and gallery transactions, according to Clare McAndrew, a cultural economist who compiled the report.

Following Christie’s sale of Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” for a record $142.4 million in November, the auction house procured another triptych. The 1984 depiction of the artist’s confidant, “Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards,” is expected to sell for about $80 million, the highest estimate of the sale.

Rothko’s Canvas

The second-priciest work is Rothko’s 8 1/2-foot-tall 1952 canvas layered with purple and orange hues. The work is expected to bring $40 million to $60 million.

“It’s one of the few canvases of this kind still in private hands that is coming to auction for the first time,” David Anfam, the author of “Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas, Catalogue Raisonne,” said in an e-mail. “It’s a classic year for Rothko and the work is indelibly vivid, muscular yet refined.”

Warhol’s silkscreen painting depicting the 1963 race riot in Birmingham, Alabama, could sell for about $50 million. The almost square canvas, showing the same image four times (on white, blue and red backgrounds), had once belonged to artist Robert Mapplethorpe. It last appeared at auction in 1992, selling for $627,000.

The Warhol painting is among 34 guaranteed lots in the sale, which means the sellers receive an undisclosed guaranteed minimum price regardless of whether the work sells or not. Christie’s is financing the guarantees for 27 of these lots and outsourcing the risk to third parties for seven lots, the auction house said.

Bergman Collection

The evening auction will begin with 14 lots from the estate of Edwin and Lindy Bergman, Chicago-based collectors and art patrons known for their holdings of Surrealist art and Joseph Cornell. The group, including seven Cornell works, Alexander Calder’s 1957 mobile and Pablo Picasso’s portrait of his lover Dora Maar, is expected to bring as much as $40 million.

Other pieces from the Bergman estate will be sold in future auctions, Christie’s said.

“They began collecting in the mid-1950s with German Expressionism,” Laura Paulson, Christie’s chairman and international director of postwar and contemporary art, said in an interview. “Once they started, they never stopped. They had relationships with artists and they were incredibly generous.”

Wire Whiskers

Calder’s 7 1/2-foot-long mobile “Poisson volant (Flying Fish)” is estimated at $9 million to $12 million, Christie’s said. The Bergmans bought the mobile, which depicts the silhouette of a fish with wire whiskers, in 1965. While they were its sole owners for almost 50 years, the work has been in at least a dozen museum shows, including those in Switzerland, Finland, Holland and France. Christie’s put the mobile on display in Hong Kong, hoping it would appeal to Chinese collectors.

“We’ve had strong Asian interest in Calder’s works,” Paulson said. “Fish is a symbol of good health and good fortune, of prosperity in China.”

The couple had donated dozens of Cornell works to the Art Institute of Chicago, which named a gallery after them.

Cornell assembling found objects and images from art history and popular culture into surprising compositions in small, hand-made boxes.

The Bergmans’ personal relationship with Cornell, whom they met in 1959, resulted in the acquisition of some of the artist’s most iconic pieces.

Bogart, Bacall

Cornell’s “Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall),” estimated at $4 million to $6 million, could set a new auction record for the self-taught American artist. The current record of $4.8 million was set at Christie’s last May.

The 1946 jewel-like box, with images of Bacall on blue background, was inspired by “To Have and Have Not,” a film starring Bacall and Humphrey Bogart.

Cornell’s collector base is diverse, attracting those interested in Old Masters, 20th century art and American art, Paulson said.

Christie’s auction and the exhibition, “Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust,” opening at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2015, may help boost the artist’s prices.

“Cornell’s work is very much undervalued because it is yet to be fully understood,” Paulson said. “I think we are going to see the market change.”