A work by Jeff Koons once again achieved the highest auction price for a living artist when his stainless steel Rabbit, 1986, sold for $91.1 million, with fees, before a packed audience at Christie’s in New York Wednesday evening.
The art dealer Bob Mnuchin, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s father, bought the work on behalf of a client, Liana Gorman, exhibitions director at Mnuchin Gallery confirmed Thursday morning. Further details on the purchaser weren’t available.
The soaring result edged out David Hockney, whose seminal Portrait of an Artist (Pool with two figures), 1972, had smashed an earlier record by Koons when it fetched $90.3 million at Christie’s last November. Koons’ Balloon Dog (Orange) sold for $58.4 million at the auction house in 2013.
The new record was achieved after more than six minutes, largely between three potential buyers, going to a bidder in the room for a hammer price of $80 million. The nearly three-and-a-half foot statue, executed in 1986 and previously in the collection of publishing magnate S.I. Newhouse, carried a low estimate of $50 million.
About 20 minutes earlier, Robert Rauschenberg’s eight-foot-tall Buffalo II, one of his Silkscreen Paintings, achieved a hammer price of $78 million after nearly 10 minutes of intense bidding that came down to two bidders on the phone. The result for the iconic work of the 1960s, picturing President John F. Kennedy when he was a senator, was a record for the artist of US$88.8 million, including fees.
The sky is “the limit for art-historical icons in our stratified global economy,” says Evan Beard, National Art Services Executive at Bank of America Private Bank.
Overall, Beard says, Christie’s put on a strong sale, and can claim success for the first estate-driven auction of predominantly contemporary pieces, referring to the collection of the late Sara Lee heiress Beatrice (Buddy) Mayer and her husband Robert, who had owned the Rauschenberg. Most estate sales to date at the major auction houses have featured impressionism, modern, and post-war works.
Christie’s spring sale of post-war and contemporary art achieved $539 million, within an initial estimate range of $441million to $633 million, with 91% of the lots sold, the auction house said.
While Koons can be a polarizing American artist—critics and collectors either seem to love his often playful sculptural works, or hate them—the buyer of the last Rabbit in private hands clearly fell into the “love” camp, recognizing his role in shaping the contemporary art market.
The Koons’ Rabbit, one of four created, copied balloon figures the artist picked up on Canal Street in New York. It’s considered emblematic of the artist in that period—shiny and minimalist.
“It has the magic of being a realistic image of a copy, but being incredibly abstract,” says Suzanne Gyorgy, Citi Private Bank’s global head of art advisory and finance.
Louise Bourgeois also hit a new record with the sale of a ten-foot-tall Spider, which sold for $32 million with fees, surpassing the $28.2 million the artist achieved for another Spider from the same series at a Christie’s auction in New York in November 2015.
The market for works by Andy Warhol showed a little weakness, however, on Wednesday night, with Warhol’s Double Elvis (Ferus Type), achieving a hammer price of $48 million, $53 million with fees—a significant result, but at the low end of its estimate range. Liz (Early Colored Liz), from the Mayer collection, hammered at $16.8 million, or $19.3 million, below the $20 million expected.