Auction Season Breaks $1 Billion; New Stars Anointed on Insider Info

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, 1972 Photo: Image: Christies.com

New York's big annual art-auction season broke $1 billion for the first time in history last night, and nearly two dozen artist's records have been set in just the past two days. Amid the skyrocketing prices, new stars are being anointed left and right. New geniuses suddenly discovered? Hardly. The artists hitting record prices are often either backed by a network of powerhouse alliances or their buyers are betting on the art world's version of insider information.

The sales crossed into ten-figure mark late last night at Christie's, where the main sales room featured every major art-world player from Jeffrey Deitch to Aby Rosen to artist and Louis Vuitton handbag designer Takashi Murakami. (The auctions are something like the Oscars of the art world: There's campaigning and backroom deals, and everyone in the room has gotten a new haircut for the event.) The waiting list for seats, the auction house said, numbered more than 1,000.

The highlight of the restless, energetic sale was the auction record of $27.1 million set for a late Willem de Kooning. The buyer was new Manhattan art dealer Nick Maclean, who defected from Christie's last year to start his own gallery. On a good night for Andy Warhol, Hong Kong real-estate billionaire Joseph Lau, on Forbes magazine's list of the top 500 richest men in the world, set the auction record for a Warhol by buying a giant baby-blue portrait of Chairman Mao for $17.4 million.

Striking prices were set for some very new art — "in this market," noted Robert Goff of Chelsea gallery Goff & Rosenthal, "five years old is vintage." And there were even more striking reasons behind the buys. Super-hot Leipzig School painter Neo Rauch soared to $296,000, nearly double its estimate. Though it's not widely known yet, the Metropolitan Museum is giving the artist a one-man show next summer, a rare endorsement for a living artist. Similarly, the whole Guggenheim Museum will be turned over to Louise Bougeois in 2008, and that didn't hurt the sale of her giant steel spider which hunkered down in Christie's lobby. L&M Gallery bought it for $4 million, setting a record. And the buyer who bought a five-year-old Barnaby Furnas painting at Sotheby's for $520,000 wasn't necessarily just wowed by his candy-colored painting of a battle at Gettysburg. The artist's dealer is Marianne Boesky, daughter of deep-pocketed financier Ivan.

In something of a rout for its European cousin, Sotheby's evening and day sales totals were $476 million, a leap above its totals last year but Christie's took the season handily with its jaw-dropping $730 million — and it still has sales going on through the end of today. And it's not over yet: Auction house Phillips de Pury, known for its embrace of freshly painted art, starts its sale at 7 p.m. tonight.

Alexandra Peers