Propelled by an iconic, dazzling and record-breaking portrait by Andy Warhol of screen siren Marilyn Monroe, the collection of deceased Swiss siblings Thomas and Doris Ammann has reached $273 million ($317.8 million with the fresh) at Christie’s New York on Monday evening. Presale expectations ranged from $284 million to $420 million, partly indicating the effect of a sharp day’s decline on Wall Street and other financial markets.
Only two of the 36 lots on offer failed to sell for a low buy-per-lot rate of six percent. There were no guarantees or third-party support, apparently reflecting the confidence of the sellers. Seven artist records were set.
All net proceeds will benefit the newly established Thomas and Doris Ammann Foundation in Switzerland, which aims to improve the health, well-being and education of disadvantaged and at-risk children.
The results made it the second most expensive sole proprietor sale at Christie’s, far behind the $646.1 million collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller in May 2018 and the first sale last November of the Macklowe collection at Sotheby’s. , which grossed (also with fees) $676.1 million.
The siblings established Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG in Zurich in 1977 and quickly became a world-class dealer, specializing in aftermarket works by artists such as Francis Bacon, Alberto Giacometti, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, as well than Brice Marden and Andy Warhol. .
The title of a 1988 vanity lounge profile on the charismatic Thomas, who began his career as an art dealer at 18 with gallerist Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich, was titled ‘Ammann of Style’ and described a jet-set dealer who ‘lives on Concorde’ .
Ammann died of cancer aged 43 in 1993, when her sister Doris took over the business and grew it with agility – and still secured a front row seat at New York auctions, London and Paris. She died suddenly in March 2021 at 76 years old.
The evening started with a bang with prankster artist Mike Bidlo Pas Picasso (Bather with beach ball, 1932) from 1987, which sold for a record hammer price of $1 million (estimated between $60,000 and $80,000), or $1.2 million with fees. It last sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 2009 for $37,500.
The atmosphere got a bit more serious with the third batch, Francesco Clemente’s large-scale composition The Fourteen Stations, No. XI (1981-82) which sold to mega-collector Peter Brant for a record $1.5 million (estimated at $80,000-120,000), or $1.8 million including fees. Emblematic of the evening’s batches, the Clemente had a royal provenance, starting with the Saatchi collection.
Brant returned to trap Alberto Giacometti’s decorative plaster Eagle model vase from around 1934 for $1.4 million (estimated at $500,000 to $700,000), or $1.7 million with costs.
Prices skipped a beat and jumped higher with Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s collaborative pastiche GE/Skull from 1984 to 1985 which sold for $3.8 million (est. $2–3 million), or $4.6 million including fees. Along the same lines, Robert Ryman’s exquisitely white 12-inch little square dress Untitled (1961) ran to $3.2 million (estimated $1.5–2 million) or $3.9 million with fees. Ammann acquired it in 1977 from the Peder Bonnier Gallery in New York.
A second and larger oil on linen Ryman from circa 1961, also Untitled but hard to miss with its dense upper right quadrant with rich brushstrokes, sold to a telephone bidder for $17.2 million (estimated $15-20 million), or $20.1 million with the costs.
Heavier offerings came quickly with Cy Tombly’s lush, large-scale abstraction Venere Sopra Gaeta from 1988, housed in the Artist’s Frame. It was sold to New York dealer Larry Gagosian for $14.5 million (estimated at $10–15 million), or $16.9 million with costs.
A second Twombly made hay with the start, 1955 Untitledelegantly strewn with graffiti and executed in a mixture of homemade oil-based paint, wax crayon, colored pencil and graphite on canvas, also went to Gagosian, bidding from its third row, the headquarters of the went for a hammer price of $18 million (est $10-15 million), or $21 million with fees.
Although a relatively old and distinctly minimal abstraction by Brice Marden, For Otis (Rear Series) of 1967-68 and executed in oil and beeswax on canvas failed to sell (estimated at $5-7 million), a second offering from Marden, Mine (1976), dominated by dark-colored vertical stripes, sold to (you guessed it) Gagosian for $7 million (estimated at $8-10 million), or $8.4 million with fees.
One of the most evocative batches of the evening, if only by its title, the gravelly from Basquiat His servant sniffing glue (1984), depicting a scowling figure in a wheelchair with a figure standing behind, face obscured by a paper bag gone, for a hammer price of $6 million (estimated $6–8 million) , or $7.2 million with fees. Ammann acquired the work from the Mary Boone Gallery in SoHo during Basquiat’s first exhibition there.
German art was also widely highlighted such as Martin Kippenberger’s powerful self-portrait with a bearded figure in red, Untitled (1992), sold to New York and London-based dealer Per Skarstedt for a hammer price of $3.1 million (estimated at $3–5 million), or $3.7 million with costs. A racy figurative scene by AR Penck sold to a bidder over the phone for $450,000 (estimated $100,000-$150,000), or $567,000 including costs.
Among the four works by female artists featured in the sale, Ann Craven’s 60-inch by 48-inch canvas I wasn’t sorry (2003), depicting a blurry trio of perching birds, fetched a record $540,000 (estimated $20,000-$30,000), or $680,400 including fees.
Of the trio of Warhol offerings, two stood out, starting with the large flowers from 1964, wearing phantom white petals and a dark green background. He hammered in $13.5 million (estimated $15-20 million), or $15.8 million with fees. Amman acquired it from Sotheby’s in November 1983 when the pre-sale estimate was $50,000–60,000 and excitedly called the artist to tell him the news. The conversation ended in Andy Warhol’s Diariesfirst released in 1989 (and recently used as the basis for a Netflix documentary series of the same name).
The covered lot of the evening and perhaps the most expensive trophy of the season was Warhol’s 40-inch square Blow Sage Blue Marilyn from 1964, so titled after Warhol Factory addict Dorothy Podher, who, dressed in black leather and white gloves, walked into the studio in Warhol’s presence that year, calmly pulled a pistol from her purse and fired a stack of guns of different colors. Marilyn webs, aiming precisely at the starlet’s forehead.
The bidding battle opened at a record price of $100 million and charged the sky at a record $170 million, sold to Gagosian. With fees, the sticker price came in at $195 million, compared to an unpublished estimate of $200 million. It surpassed and nearly doubled Warhol’s previous record set at Sotheby’s New York in November 2013 with Silver Car Crash (Double Catastrophe) (2 part) from 1963, which grossed $105.4 million.
From the small series of the same size of five, Red Marilyn Blow sold for $3.6 million at Christie’s New York in November 1994. The sage blue version escaped damage from the famous shot.
It is understood that another variant, marilyn orange, also spared from Podher’s bullet, was privately acquired four years ago by Chicago hedge fund mogul and collector Ken Griffin for $250 million. It had previously sold as a cover lot for $17.3 million at Sotheby’s New York in May 1998.
Anyway it’s tonight Marilyn became the most expensive 20th-century work to be sold at auction, surpassing that of Pablo Picasso The Women of Algiers (‘O’ Version) from 1955 sold at Christie’s New York in May 2015 for $179.3 million with fees.
Christie’s had announced that the new owner could select a charity of their choice to receive 20% of the sale price, possibly offering another incentive to bid. Even given the huge prize and charitable inducements, some observers seemed disappointed that Warhol hadn’t flown higher. “I think people were expecting a little more,” dealer Per Skarstedt said as he left the Rockefeller Center auction room.
The evening action continues at Christie’s 21st Century sale on May 10.