De Kooning Work Sells for Record $20.6 Million


A seminal Abstract Expressionist painting by Willem de Kooning ran away with a contemporary art auction Wednesday night at Sotheby’s, selling for $20.68 million, the highest auction price ever paid for a contemporary artwork.

The $20.68 million bid for “Interchange,” a vigorous composition of slashing brush strokes painted in 1955, surpassed last November’s $17-million sale of Jasper Johns’ “False Start,” which stunned the art world at the time. It was a record price for contemporary art that seemed impossible to beat, but the De Kooning sailed past that mark after breaking the artist’s record of $3.63 million and clearing Sotheby’s high pre-sale estimate of $7 million.

Bidding started at $1.5 million. Then Bo Alveryd, a Swedish dealer living in Switzerland, upped the ante to $6 million as the audience gasped. Several people in the sale room joined the competition and others chimed in on telephones, edging the price upward in increments of $200,000. Finally, a Tokyo dealer who calls himself and his company Mountain Tortoise made the winning bid.

Lucy Mitchell-Inness, head of Sotheby’s contemporary art department, said she wasn’t surprised by the sale because there had been “a lot of interest in the painting” and it is a rare work, synthesizing De Kooning’s themes and techniques of the ‘40s and ‘50s.


“Interchange” was sold from the collection of the late Edgar J. Kaufmann Jr., an heir to a Pittsburgh department store fortune, who bought the painting the year it was made for about $4,000, Mitchell-Inness said.

Alveryd, who buys contemporary art for a group of investors, lost the De Kooning, but he landed Johns’ “Two Flags” for $12.1 million. The oil and encaustic painting of a pair of American flags, hanging side by side, had been valued at $5 million to $7 million.

“Tomlinson Court Park (Second Version),” Frank Stella’s 1959 black painting with concentric rectangles outlined in white, brought $5.06 million from an unidentified telephone bidder, easily breaking the artist’s record of $1.32 million. The painting was sold by Los Angeles collector Robert Rowan, who bought it in 1967 and has frequently loaned it to museums for special exhibitions.

Little more than a year ago, Sotheby’s sale would have been unfathomable, but in today’s overheated contemporary art market, the Wednesday night affair seemed rather like business as usual.


Records were set--a dozen of them--for such artists as Mark Rothko ($3.63 million), Kenneth Noland ($2.04 million), Cy Twombly ($1.7 million) and Robert Motherwell ($1.1 million).

Fifty of the 74 lots offered exceeded the auction house’s most optimistic pre-sale estimates.

The $98.3-million sale total far surpassed Sotheby’s estimate of $50 million to $70 million.

Five lots failed to sell--two works by Jackson Pollock, two by Richard Diebenkorn and one by Andy Warhol--but those disappointments barely fazed the enthusiastic audience.


Routine as these semi-annual, big-ticket auctions seem to be, each has its own character. Wednesday was an unusually hot night for De Kooning, an 86-year-old artist who is said to be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Five De Koonings were offered for sale, and each exceeded its high estimate. “Untitled (Woman),” a 1966 oil valued at $350,000 to $450,000, brought $935,000.

De Kooning was also the top seller in a sale at Christie’s Wednesday of contemporary art. His oil painting “Woman in Landscape No. 10" fetched $825,000, said Christie’s spokeswoman Dana Micucci. The two-day sale of art, which began Tuesday, totaled $83,014,680, double Christie’s previous high for a two-day contemporary art sale, Micucci said.