Sotheby’s Sale Draws Cohen as Wynn Buys $28 Million ‘Popeye’

May 15, 2014 1:43 am ET

May 15 (Bloomberg) -- Sotheby’s had a hard act to follow.

On May 13, Christie’s sold a record $745 million worth of postwar and contemporary art in three hours in New York. The next evening, Sotheby’s tallied $364.4 million. Although it was Sotheby’s third-highest postwar-art sale in a decade, the result was half its rival’s haul.

“It was day and night,” New York art dealer David Benrimon said about the two auctions. “You cannot compare the material yesterday and today.”

Watching the sale were hedge-fund manager Steven A. Cohen; Mary-Kate Olsen, wearing oversized sunglasses, and her fiance Olivier Sarkozy, the half brother of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy; fashion designer Marc Jacobs and gallery owner Larry Gagosian. Activist hedge-fund manager Daniel Loeb, Sotheby’s new board member, yawned as bidding for a Matthew Barney work was underway.

“I am here just to watch,” Cohen said as he stood outside Sotheby’s Upper East Side headquarters. He said he wasn’t a seller but declined to comment on whether he had bought anything.

The 79-lot sale had 39 guaranteed lots, compared with nine a year ago. The results fell within Sotheby’s target range of $336.6 million to $474 million. Twelve artworks failed to find buyers. Eight auction records were established, including for Keith Haring and Rosemarie Trockel.

Muscle Man

One of the top lots was Jeff Koons’s stainless steel sculpture “Popeye,” that sold for $28.2 million against the estimate of about $25 million. Created from 2009 to 2011, the 6.5-foot-tall muscle man holds an open can of spinach.

Casino magnate Steve Wynn bought the work and will display it in front of his Las Vegas hotel, Sotheby’s said.

Hedge-fund manager David Ganek was the consignor of neon- colored “Big Electric Chair” (1967-68) by Andy Warhol, dealers said. The work was sold to Alberto Mugrabi, whose family owns one of the largest private Warhol collections in the world. The $20.5 million price was within the estimated range. All prices include buyer’s commission; the estimates don’t.

The top lot was Warhol’s “Six Self-Portraits,” a group of the artist’s six small self-portraits wearing his signature spiky fright wig against a black background. The work sold for $30.1 million, within the estimated range.

The sale began with 19 works from former hedge-fund manager Adam Sender’s collection, all of which sold including those by Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. Estimated at $21.1 million to $29.9 million, the group tallied $44.6 million.

Two Men

The top lot in Sender’s group was Martin Kippenberger’s painting of two men walking arm-in-arm down a street. The work fetched $5.5 million against a high estimate of $4 million. Jeffrey Deitch, a dealer and former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, was the buyer.

Sender, 45, shuttered his Exis Capital Management Inc. earlier this year. He worked for Cohen before starting Exis in 1998 and was one of the first among the new generation of hedge- fund managers to start collecting contemporary art. The group also included Cohen and Loeb.

Sherman’s “Untitled #93,” estimated at $2 million to $3 million, sold for $3.9 million. The color photograph from her series known as “Centerfolds” fetched $96,000 when Sender bought it at Christie’s in New York in 1998.

“It was a great sale,” Sender said in an e-mail after the auction. “The money will be used to fund a family office for investing purposes.”

Sales Season

Prices for top-tier postwar and contemporary artworks are on the rise as collectors view them as investments and status symbols. Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips this week are holding sales, which are part of the semi-annual auctions in New York, considered important barometers of the art market’s health.

Some dealers said the quality of work for sale was superior at Christie’s. At Christie’s, a 1960 Joan Mitchell painting, estimated at $6 million to $9 million, reached $11.9 million, a record for Mitchell and for any female artist at auction. Yesterday at Sotheby’s, a 1958 abstract canvas by Mitchell, “Cherchez l’aiguille,” estimated at $6 million to $8 million, failed to attract a single bid.

At a post-sale press conference, Alex Rotter, co-head of contemporary art worldwide at Sotheby’s, said the auction house was “focused on getting results” for its clients.

“I wasn’t at the sale last night,” he said about Christie’s. “We are here. We are looking at our consignors. We do the best for our consignors and buyers. We sell carefully but also aggressively.”