Art Market

Jeff Koons Reclaims the Throne as World’s Most Expensive Living Artist

Nate Freeman
May 16, 2019 5:11AM

Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Jeff Koons reclaimed the title of most expensive living artist Wednesday night at Christie’s New York during its post-war and contemporary art sale, when Rabbit (1986) sold for $91.07 million with fees, narrowly beating the $90.3 million painting by David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972), which sold there in November. It was purchased by the art dealer Robert Mnuchin, who was bidding from his seat a few aisles back in the salesroom.

The record-breaking Koons helped bring the night’s total to $538.97 million including fees, beating out the low estimate of $422.25 million but missing the high estimate of $605.15 million (pre-sale estimates do not include fees). The total was a vast improvement over the $357.6 million sale in November 2018 and an improvement of more than $100 million on the equivalent sale from a year ago, when the house grossed $397.15 million.


With just five flops out of the sale’s 56 lots, the sell-through rate was an impressive 91%. Among the flopped lots were a Richard Diebenkorn expected to sell for between $12 million and $18 million, a 1974 Frank Stella from the artist’s personal collection, and an untitled Keith Haring expected to sell for $3.5 million to $5.5 million.

Led by the marquee Koons sale, Christie’s saw an additional five canonical post-war artists reset their markets with new world records: Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Bourgeois, Frank Stella, Larry Rivers, and Daniel Buren. There was also a record for Jonas Wood, who has become an art market superstar in the last year, and a record for a work on paper for Bruce Nauman.

Jeff Koons, Rabbit, 1986. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

The total was a triumph for a post-war department that just months ago was rocked by the departures of the rainmaking post-war head Francis Outred and chairman Loic Gouzer, the latter a force of gravity impactful enough to merit a full profile in the New Yorker detailing his feats of consignment derring-do.

“A few months ago, the team changed a little bit—people left,” Christie’s CEO Guillaume Ceruti said during the post-sale press conference, acknowledging the gutted post-war crew. “But it is a great team—I’ve been witnessing their hard work over the last months to assemble this sale.”

Top Lots

Robert Rauschenberg, Buffalo II, 1964. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Andy Warhol, Double Elvis [Ferus Type], 1963. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

  • Jeff Koons’s Rabbit (1986), sold for a hammer price of $80 million after 10 minutes of bidding, soundly above its high estimate of $70 million, beating the current auction record for Koons set at Christie’s in 2013 when Jose Mugrabi bought Balloon Dog (Orange) (1994–2000) for $58.4 million. Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen opened the bidding at $40 million. Christie’s chairman of global private sales Adrien Meyer hopped in with an offer of $45 million and deputy chairman of Christie’s Asia Xin Li came in at $55 million before Mnuchin raised his paddle to bid at $57 million. He traded bids with Li and Meyer before post-war and contemporary art chairman Alex Rotter of Christie’s came in at $70 million. Li countered with $71 million and then Mnuchin bid, holding off a feisty client on the phone with Rotter. When Mnuchin bid $80 million, Rotter dropped out, and the hammer came down. (It should be noted the Hockney work that made him the most expensive living artist last November also hammered at $80 million, but the recent shift in the fee structure at Christie’s pushed the final price for the Koons higher.) The result marks a meteoric rise in value for one of Koons’s most iconic works. This edition (there are three plus an artist’s proof) was purchased by the publishing magnate S.I. Newhouse in the late 1990s for $1 million, and it remained in his possession until he died in 2017. Other editions are in the collections of Stefan Edlis—who purchased the work in the 1990s for $950,000—and Eli Broad, with the last said to have been purchased by the Qatar Museum Authority as part of a $400 million purchase of work from the collection of Ileana Sonnabend in 2007 and 2008.
  • Robert Rauschenberg’s Buffalo II (1964) sold for $88.8 million dollars to a client on the phone with Sara Friedlander after 20 minutes of bidding, establishing a new record for the artist. The hammer price of $78 million surpassed the high estimate of $70 million and set the high mark for the 11-work suite of Pop treasures from the collection of Robert B. and Beatrice C. Mayer—which saw underbidding from the likes of Thaddaeus Ropac and Jose Mugrabi in the room, as well as from Larry Gagosian, who perked up from his seat on the aisle to buy Andy Warhol’s Liz [Early Colored Liz] (1963) for a $16.8 million hammer, or $19.3 million with fees, a few lots later. For the Rauschenberg, Pylkkänen opened the bidding at $38 million and Pace Gallery president Marc Glimcher interrupted the chandelier bidding with a flip of his paddle. But Glimcher eventually dropped out, ceding the final battle to clients on the telephones, with Friedlander eventually prevailing. The work has been in the collection of the Mayers and their heirs since the couple bought it from Leo Castelli for $16,900 in 1965.
  • Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis (Ferus Type) (1963) sold for $53 million, on a single $48 million bid from Alex Rotter, presumably to the lot’s guarantor. That put it just below the low estimate of $50 million. The work was consigned by David Martinez, who bought it from a Swiss collector through the dealer Dominique Lévy. Frank Stella’s Point of Pines (1959), another lot consigned by Martinez, also sold after a single bid from Rotter (for a hammer price of $24.5 million, or $28.08 million with fees), and again presumably went to the guarantor. The figure was still enough to set a record for Stella, besting Delaware Crossing (1961), which sold for $13.7 million at Sotheby’s in November 2015.

Just as it was during the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s on Monday, the post-war affair relied heavily on works consigned by the estates of high-profile collectors. Led by Rabbit, works from Newhouse’s legendary collection grossed $216.28 million over three days of sales. The Mayer collection that began the sale grossed $157.2 million on Wednesday night, bringing the total grossed by work from the estate to $173.4 million.

The sale mostly kept to the market’s reliable stalwarts, rather than the on-the-rise artists who often figure into the evening sales at Sotheby’s and Phillips. But Christie’s couldn’t resist slotting a work by KAWS into the mix, especially after an anonymous buyer shocked the art world by paying $14.8 million for one of his paintings last month at a Sotheby’s sale in Hong Kong. Estimated at $600,000 to $800,000, KURFS (TANGLE) (2009) hammered at nearly three times its high estimate on Wednesday night, selling to a client on the phone with post-war specialist Johanna Flaum for a final price of $2.65 million.

And Jonas Wood, who generated $13 million in sales last year, donatedJapanese Garden 3 (2019) to the sale, with the proceeds benefiting the Global Wildlife Fund. Estimated to sell for between $500,000 to $700,000, it ended up hammering for $4.1 million to a client on the phone with Andy Massad—beating out Li, who took out her cell phone to call a client in the middle of the bidding. (Could she have called up noted environmental activist, and Wood collector, Leonardo DiCaprio?) With fees, the price came to $4.9 million, easily a record for Wood; the hammer price will be quadrupled to protect a 600,000-acre swath of rainforest in South America.


As soon as the hammer hit on the Koons, speculation abounded over whom Mnuchin was bidding on behalf of when he captured what’s now the most expensive Koons ever sold at auction. Mnuchin’s son is U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and early chatter in the salesroom indicated that the Koons was also going to Washington—some speculated that the buyer was Mitchell Rales, a longtime client of Mnuchin’s who once developed a “hit list” of works for the dealer to secure for him and whose Glenstone Museum in suburban D.C. has a gigantic Koons flower sculpture, Split-Rocker (2000), installed on its grounds. But a Glenstone spokesperson denied in an email that they were the buyers; as he was leaving, Mnuchin said he would never divulge on whose behalf he was bidding.

Louise Bourgeois, Spider, 1996. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

But what appeared to be clear was that Rabbit did not go to an Asian collector, as Xin Li dropped out midway through the bidding. In fact, few of the trophy works are likely to have gone to Asian collectors; Li lost out not only on the Koons but also on the Wood and the KAWS, though she did manage to secure the record-breaking work by Louise Bourgeois, the massive Spider (1996), which sold for a $28 million hammer ($32 million with fees) to achieve a record price for a sculpture made by a female artist. The region of the buyer is another indication of the artist’s growing appeal in Asia. In late 2018, the Long Museum in Shanghai staged a Bourgeois show with a gigantic spider sculpture on view from the Tate Modern. And in March, Hauser & Wirth sold out a Bourgeois show at its Hong Kong gallery in a week, with works priced as high as $4 million.

Regardless of whether the Asian collectors were buying big, Christie’s recorded its biggest sale of post-war art since the November 2017 auction that contained the firmly pre-war Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500)—and in the midst of a panic on Wall Street about the effects of tariffs in China, no less. The state of the contemporary art market will be tested again Thursday, when Sotheby’s and Phillips hold their evening sales and Christie’s offers hundreds of post-war and contemporary works in its day sales.

Nate Freeman
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019