Art Market

David Hockney Is Now the World’s Most Expensive Living Artist

Nate Freeman
Nov 16, 2018 5:53AM

David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972. Courtesy of Christie’s.

David Hockney became the most expensive living artist Thursday night when Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972) sold at Christie’s for $80 million at the hammer, or $90.3 million with fees. The work sold for exactly its on-request low estimate after nine minutes of bidding.

The Hockney was by far the night’s top lot—unsurprising given it nearly doubled the previous record-holder for a work by a living artist, Jeff Koons’s 12-foot-tall sculpture Balloon Dog (Orange) (1994–2000), which sold for $58.4 million in November 2013. But, overall the sale was only a modest success. The night’s $357.6 million total, which includes fees, came in below the sale’s low estimate, which does not include fees. It also narrowly missed the $362.5 million mark notched by Sotheby’s one night before when only two lots failed to sell.

Hockney’s record capped a quick rise in his status as one of the few artists who can command prices in the upper eight figures. Just two years ago, his auction record was $11.7 million. Thursday evening’s result now places him in the same echelon as Cy Twombly, whose record of $70.5 million was set in 2015, and Mark Rothko, whose $86.9 million record came in 2012.

The lack of a reserve on the Hockney, brought on by consigner Joe Lewis’s confidence in a strong performance, caused bidding to open at the relatively low threshold of $18 million and allowed for a wave of bidders to enter the fray. The majority of those bidders dropped out when the work crossed $55 million, leaving four Christie’s specialists to battle over the night’s star lot. After the sale, auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen said he counted nine people vying for the work.

“We got multiple bidders on it—which, quite honestly, was not easy this week,” said Alex Rotter, post-war and contemporary department chairman at Christie’s, in the post-sale press conference.

Christie’s top lots

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum), 1962. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Richcard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #137, 1985. Courtesy of Christie’s.

  • Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972) was long expected to be the night’s most expensive work, but it took a while to get there. Following Barrett White’s $55 million bid just a minute into the action, all the floor bidders were priced out, and the tempo slowed considerably. Marc Porter bid $60 million, Loïc Gouzer bid $65 million, and when Porter bested him with $70 million, a hush set in across the saleroom. But then Katherine Arnold came in at $71 million and she and Porter traded bids at increasingly low intervals. Arnold’s client was much slower to return the volley than Porter’s and eventually bowed out once Porter got to $80 million. The sum was exactly the work’s low estimate (estimates do not include buyer’s premium fees) and, with Porter’s bid, Pylkkänen exclaimed with some relief, “We got there!” His hammer fell seconds later when no further interest came forward. With fees, the price was $90.3 million.
  • Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum) (1962) went to a bidder in the room for a $32 million hammer. Unlike the rowdy start of the bidding on the Hockney, the action surrounding the Rothko was more sedate—in line with the trend this week of thin bidding for works estimated in the eight figures or above. As a result, despite coming with the imprimatur of the de Menil family, who commissioned works that would end up in the Rothko Chapel, the Rothko’s price missed its $35 million low estimate; the total was $35.7 million with fees.
  • Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park #137 (1985) sold to the client on the phone with Gouzer for $19.8 million, or $22.6 million with fees, after a long bidding war between Gouzer and Rotter, after specialist Margot Rosenberg dropped out. The work was from the collection of the entertainer Mary Tyler Moore.

Robert Colescott, Cultural Exchange, 1987. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Dealer Brett Gorvy explained as he walked out of the saleroom that rather than a watershed moment for the market, or an indication of the market’s expansion to a new stage, the Hockney was a unique case. He said that the result “reflects that painting, that this was an extraordinary painting, and there were at least two people who wanted it.”

Pylkkänen agreed, and hastened to let such an outlier define the current standing of the market. “I don’t think that price will be surpassed in my lifetime,” he said.

More indicative may be the lots where truly engaged bidding pushed prices well past the high estimate:

  • More than 10 bidders vied for the night’s opening lot, a Philip Guston work on paper titled Window (1969-1970). This deep demand pushed the price to more than four times the work’s high estimate of $500,000 to hammer at $2.6 million to the client on the phone with Francis Outred, or $3.1 million with the buyers premium.
  • Robert Colescott achieved a new record when eight bidders on the phones and the advisor Todd Levin in the room attempted to secure Cultural Exchange (1987). It eventually hammered at $750,000, more than double the high estimate of $350,000, purchased by the client on the phone with Gouzer for a price of $912,500 with fees.
  • KAWS, the street artist who just this year has started to appear at evening sales with regularity, saw his Chum (KCB7) (2012) quadruple its high estimate when it hammered for $2 million ($2.4 million with fees); it sold to a collector in Asia.

But that wasn’t the biggest KAWS sale of the night—that sale came a few hours earlier at Phillips’s 20th Century and Contemporary Art Sale where Untitled (Fatal Group) (2004) hammered at $2.9 million, above a $900,000 high estimate. It sold to Phillips specialist Kevie Yang for $3.5 million with fees, setting a record for the artist.

It was a bright spot in a sale that brought in $88 million—below its $100 million low estimate—with high-profile flops that included a Jackson Pollock consigned by the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro expected to sell for $18 million and work by Alberto Burri expected to sell for between $10 million and $15 million.

Phillips top lots

Joan Miró, Femme dans la nuit, 1945. Courtesy of Phillips.

  • Joan Miró’s Femme dans la nuit (1945) sold for a hammer of $19.8 million over a high estimate of $18 million, going to senior specialist Rachel Adler Rosan after she fended off a half-dozen fellow Phillips specialists on the phones as well as bidders in the room. With fees, the price was $22.6 million.
  • Andy Warhol’s Gun (1981-1982), consigned by the former Sotheby’s rainmaker Tobias Meyer, hammered at $8.2 million, coming to $9.5 million with fees, after bidding from multiple collectors in the room. The work beat out the low estimate of $7 million but fell short of the $10 million high estimate.
  • A Jean-Michel Basquiat untitled skull painting from 1982 hammered at $7.7 million, or $9 million with fees, to the client on the phone with Miety Heiden; her’s was the only bid on the lot. The price was significantly below its low estimate of $9 million but still ahead of the reserve, somehow.


Andy Warhol, Gun, 1981-82. Courtesy of Phillips.

Christie’s may not have had this past May’s Rockefeller Estate or last November’s Salvator Mundi, but at the post-sale press conference CEO Guillaume Cerutti announced that once again the house had pulled in a billion dollars this week (a so-called giga-week). This announcement comes even before the house’s day sales on Friday. Christie’s had the two biggest lots of the week by far: the Hockney and Edward Hopper’s Chop Suey (1929), which sold for $91.9 Million during Tuesday night’s sale of the Ebsworth estate. But in a head-to-head fight, Sotheby’s bested its archrival with a sale that had a sell-through rate of 96% by lot. The sell-through rate at Christie’s was 85% by lot.

In recent years, Christie’s has been the more successful of the two houses in terms of snagging masterpieces in the contemporary department, something Rotter readily acknowledged.

“When a department and a company is forceful about what we want to do—we want to get the collections, we want to get the works—you succeed,” he said. But this year, it was the sale that lacked a $90 million work but sold nearly every less-expensive work on offer that won the showdown.

Nate Freeman