A pair of record-setting sales of contemporary art Wednesday night at Christie’s kicked off a seven-day round of auctions, expected to sell more than $300-million worth of late 19th-and 20th-Century art.
Thirty-two pieces from the Burton and Emily Hall Tremaine collection, estimated to bring $20 million, totalled $25.8 million in sales (including the standard 10% buyer’s premium) and set records for 15 artists. The sales total tripled the record of $8.6 million for a single-owner sale of contemporary art.
Attracted by the cachet of a celebrated collection and the opportunity to buy first-rate works by major artists, eager bidders jammed the Park Avenue sales room and snapped up every work that was offered.
“These are A-plus works by A-plus artists,” said a euphoric Martha Baer, head of Christie’s contemporary art department, in an interview following the highly publicized auction.
A second sale of 58 artworks consigned by various owners racked up an additional $11.5 million and set 10 more records. Together the two sales grossed $37.3 million, the record for a single session of contemporary art.
As expected, Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollock were the stars of the Tremaine sale, but a surprising new player emerged in the person of Hans Thulin, a Swedish real estate mogul. As a gesture announcing his intention to assemble an important collection of postwar art, Thulin paid $7 million for Johns’ “White Flag,” a subtle, off-white image of an American flag done in encaustic and newsprint on three adjoining canvases.
The trademark piece by one of the United States’ premier artists brought the highest auction price ever paid for a contemporary artwork and shattered Johns’ record of $4.2 million, established only last May with the sale of a much larger, encyclopedic work called “Diver.”
Thulin, a collector of fine arts and antique automobiles, is the sole owner and chairman of Consolidator-Granaten Group, a Swedish real estate conglomerate with international holdings. He placed his winning bid by telephone, then released a prepared statement that the stunning acquisition “reflects my general belief that you can never pay too much for outstanding quality.”
The statement further revealed that “White Flag” would be the cornerstone of a new collection of “at least two major works by each of the 10 most distinguished artists from the period 1950 to 1980.”
Pollock’s “Frieze,” a 7-foot-wide “drip” painting, also created a stir when it fetched $5.7 million from New York dealer William Acquavella. The sale eclipsed the record $4.8 million paid last May for Pollock’s similarly styled but much smaller canvas called “Search.”
The Tremaine sale also set records for Franz Kline ($2.3 million), Mark Rothko ($2.8 million) and Roy Lichtenstein ($2.1 million). Arnold Glimcher of Pace Galleries in New York reportedly bought the Rothko and the Lichtenstein, along with Willem de Kooning’s “Yellow Woman” ($715,000).
“I’m not surprised that so many records were set, but I am surprised by how much was paid,” said Tracy Atkinson, curator of the Tremaine collection. “It just proves that people pay for quality.”
The Tremaine collection is regarded as one of the best private holdings of American postwar art. Its strength, according to Atkinson, is the late Emily Hall Tremaine’s eye for important new talent. “She knew when an artist had reached maturity and bought immediately,” Atkinson said.
She and Burton Tremaine, a Connecticut manufacturer of industrial lighting, began collecting in the 1940s and continued through the 1970s. They were among the first collectors of Abstract Expressionism and Pop art.
Although most of the crowd came to see the Tremaine auction, the second sale of the evening was also successful. Only four lots failed to sell, but two of them were among works expected to bring top prices. Bidding on a painting by Arshile Gorky stopped just short of the reserve price of $3.5 million. Andy Warhol’s paint-by-number spoof, “Do It Yourself (Violin),” was expected to sell for at least $2 million, but the top bid was $1.5 million, less than the undisclosed reserve price.
“Towards Disappearance 1,” a masterful 1957-58 painting by Sam Francis, who lives in Los Angeles, suffered no such difficulty. Citibank Art Advisory snapped it up for $1.3 million, a record for the artist. In the Tremaine sale, a glass disc by Robert Irwin, a major figure in Southern California’s Light and Space school, sold for a record $88,000 to an anonymous buyer.
According to Baer, Californians were active bidders throughout the evening, though none was identified as a purchaser. New York dealers bought seven of the auction’s 10 most expensive items.
Only two of the top 10 lots were bought by foreign bidders: Johns’ “White Flag” and another Johns’ work, called “Figure 3,” which sold for $825,000 to a Japanese dealer.
“We hear so much about the Japanese, but American buyers are the strength of the contemporary market,” Baer said.
Proceeds from the Tremaine sale will go to a trust to be established from Emily Hall Tremaine’s estate. During her life, she supported organizations working for population control, Atkinson said, but the foundation will serve “broader purposes,” including education and culture.
The Tremaine collection would have been a spectacular addition to many museums’ collections, but Atkinson indicated that Emily Hall Tremaine became disenchanted with museums about 20 years ago, after giving important works to the National Gallery for a national art bank program that never materialized.
Neither did the Tremaines consider joining the recent trend of private collectors who establish their own museum. “They never sought the limelight,” Atkinson said, and they never thought of their collection as an entity that should be preserved intact. “It was always an organic thing, and now it is going out into the world so that other people can enjoy it,” he said.