Sale Mark Set for Work of Living Artist

Times Art Writer

In an art market of highly publicized sales and spiraling prices, records are made to be broken. Jackson Pollock almost lost his to Jasper Johns in 24 hours.

“Diver,” a seminal painting by Johns, sold for $4.2 million to an anonymous buyer Tuesday night at Christie’s. The previous night at Sotheby’s, Japanese dealer Kazuo Fujii paid $4.8 million for “Search,” a 1955 “drip” painting by Pollock.

Johns failed to displace Pollock as creator of the most expensive contemporary work of art ever sold at auction, but “Diver” established a new high for a living artist. Until this week, Johns held both records with the $3.6-million sale of a painting called “Out the Window.”


$3.5 Million Predicted

Christie’s had advertised “Diver” as “the most important painting by a living artist ever to be auctioned” and predicted that it would bring between $3.5 million and $4.5 million.

The sale attracted the attention of art professionals because Johns’ 14-foot-wide, five-panel painting is a sort of encyclopedia of the artist’s trademark themes.

A wood “device” used to paint concentric rings of color, a value scale, real cutlery and hardware, and stenciled names of primary hues are incorporated in the splashy abstraction. The 1962 painting gets its name from two pairs of outstretched arms that bisect the canvas.

Christie’s has only identified the former owner of “Diver” as “a Connecticut collector,” but the catalogue for Johns’ 1977-78 retrospective lists the painting as property of the Albert A. List family.

Christie’s grossed $19.5 million in the Tuesday night sale of 64 lots of contemporary art and set records for 14 artists. Only four lots offered failed to sell. The Park Avenue auction house echoed the success of its competitor, Sotheby’s, which rang up $27.9 million for 89 lots of contemporary art on Monday.

Renewed Confidence

The two days’ sales indicate renewed confidence in the contemporary art market, according to Martha Baer of Christie’s. Prices had faltered after the stock market crash last October, but the rebound is “incredible,” Baer said.

Well-established figures commanded the highest prices, however, while an international array of dealers dominated the fast-paced auction.

Fujii, the Japanese dealer who bought the record-setting Pollock on Monday, snapped up a smaller drip painting by the Abstract Expressionist for $3.5 million, about twice its estimate.

Jan Krugier, a dealer with galleries in New York and Geneva, bought Francis Bacon’s “Study for Figure I” for $935,000, but not before auctioneer Christopher Burge had declared it unsold when bids stopped at $600,000. Krugier complained that he hadn’t had a chance to complete his bidding and Burge reopened the bidding.

A tiny painting of an American flag by Johns sold anonymously for $660,000, more than three times its estimate. Wayne Thiebaud’s painting of heart-shaped cakes brought $605,000 from a California dealer, doubling its estimate and setting a record for the Bay Area artist.

There were also successes for the late Andy Warhol, whose vast collection was sold for $25.3 million in a 10-day auction that ended Tuesday morning.

Warhol’s silk-screened portrait of Elvis Presley, estimated at $250,000 to $350,000, soared to $880,000. His “Four Marilyns,” depicting Marilyn Monroe, was expected to sell for $60,000 to $80,000, but a New York dealer finally snagged it at $484,000.