Art Market

Why Jeff Koons’s “Rabbit” Could Sell for up to $70 Million

Nate Freeman
Apr 19, 2019 9:53PM

When Jeff Koons’s retrospective opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the summer of 2014, visitors were greeted by a full smorgasbord of the wildly famous, endlessly polarizing artist’s classic works. There was the panoramic pornography of his “Made in Heaven” series, made between 1989 and 1991. There were the iconic suspended basketballs, the gigantic yellow balloon dog, and the porcelain rendering of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp, Bubbles. And then, holding court in the biggest room, there was the gigantic, decades-in-the-making Play-Doh (1994–2014), which towered ten feet high, its crags of putty cast in aluminum and held together simply by their own gravity.

But perhaps the most important work in the show was a three-foot-high stainless steel bunny—a work that’s key to understanding not just Koons, but the transformative power of the art object in our modern world.


“The rabbit, I would say, is one of the most famous works of Jeff Koons’s career, and in fact, one of the most famous artworks of the last 40 or 50 years,” Scott Rothkopf, the curator of the show, said.

And now, one of the four copies of Rabbit (1986) in the world, previously owned by Condé Nast owner S.I. Newhouse, has been consigned to Christie’s, where it is expected to sell at the May 15th evening sale for between $50 million and $70 million—setting it up to perhaps break the Koons record, set in 2013 when Balloon Dog (Orange) (1994–2000) sold at Christie’s for $58.4 million.

And while the “Balloon Dog” works may be the more obvious trophy items for big game hunting mega-collectors—they tower over ten feet and feature the impeccably rendered, brightly colored stainless steel glistening for all to see—the sale of the much smaller Rabbit could give one lucky billionaire something else entirely: the chance to own a piece of art history.

As Alex Rotter, the chairman of the post-war and contemporary art department at Christie’s, put it, the release of Rabbit in 1986 “would not only shake the art world to its core, but alter the course of popular culture as we now know it.”

Koons on Wall Street

To get to the bottom of just what makes Rabbit endlessly important, you have to go back to the earliest days of Koons’s practice. It was 1979, and he was making his first serious artworks while working at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), selling memberships. Koons was a gifted salesperson, combining charm with some light hucksterism, and would stand out from the other museum workers by dressing in loud polka-dot shirts and wearing an inflatable flower around his neck. The inflatables were to become part of his second-ever series as an artist—but the works weren’t in a gallery, they were installed in his apartment on East 4th Street, right by the restaurant Phebe’s. Like Marcel Duchamp before him, Koons was taking cheap, everyday objects—in this case vinyl air-filled toys, which you needed to inflate by blowing—setting them on top of one small mirror and in front of another small mirror, and proclaiming the result art. Koons called this “Entering the Objective Realm.” One of the few visitors to see the work was a writer named Alan Jones, who said the apartment was “like a huge installation.”

“There were inflatables everywhere, floor to ceiling,” he said. “Including a rabbit.”

Jones was describing a work now in the collection of Eli Broad called Inflatable Flower and Bunny (Tall White, Pink Bunny) (1979), which features a vinyl inflated rabbit, its ears askew, with a carrot in its mouth. It was an intriguing and visually striking homage to Duchamp, but it didn’t stick with collectors. No one bought the work initially, and in 1980, the young Koons left the art world by taking a radical left turn: He did a five-year stint selling commodities on Wall Street and was the highest-performing salesperson on his team for two months in a row. He liked selling cotton commodities. His pitch to clients went like this: “Cotton is light…it’s fluffy…you can’t get hurt by cotton.”

But by 1983 he was plotting his art world comeback, so he retired from The Street and in May 1985 staged a show he called “Equilibrium” at a tiny East Village gallery called International with Monument—it debuted to the world the now-famous floating basketballs. In July 1986, he showed an exhibition at Daniel Weinberg Gallery in Los Angeles that he called “Luxury and Degradation”—it featured a seven-piece model train in which each car is a stainless-steel-cast bottle of Jim Beam whiskey. And then, in October, he contributed work to a group show at Ileana Sonnabend’s gallery in New York’s SoHo—including, pivotally, Rabbit, an exact stainless steel copy of the inflatable bunny toy work Koons had lived with in his apartment six years earlier.

“A dazzling update on Brancusi’s perfect forms”

The work was an immediate hit. As Kirk Varnedoe, the former curator at MoMA, recalled later to Vanity Fair: “There are just a few occasions in my art experience in New York where I’ve been sort of knocked dead by an object instantly.”

The New Yorker profile of Koons, published in 2003, cited the late Varnedoe’s reaction to the work as well. Varnedoe had said it was “one of those very rare hits at the exact center of the target.” It was, he said, “a piece where a ton of contradictions (about the artist, about the time) are fused with shocking, deadpan economy into an unforgettable ingot.”

Why exactly it was so gripping was, at first, simply due to its aesthetic power.

“Another aspect of the rabbit that makes it so iconic is the incredible balance that Koons achieves between the tremendous specificity of the casting—the fine detailing of the crimps, the puckers of the plastic—with its abstraction: the blankness of the face, the missing printing on the vinyl,” Rothkopf said. “The tension that he creates between fine detail on the one hand, and a blankness on the other, is incredibly mesmerizing.”

In a review of the 1986 Sonnabend Gallery show that ran the same month as it opened, Roberta Smith said of Rabbit: “In stainless steel, it provides a dazzling update on Brancusi’s perfect forms, even as it turns the hare into a space-invader of unknown origin.” She also noted the force of its transformation—this gorgeous, gaze-grabbing object “once made of inflatable plastic.”

Because of this transformative potency, Rabbit retained its unique power not just among the Koons works to come, but also in terms of the way art objects would be made and looked at going forward. Making a cheap item into art had been done decades earlier by the Dadaists and many, many others who followed, but Koons harnessed the energy and wealth of the go-go 1980s—and his first-hand knowledge of the flash of pre-crash Wall Street—and turned the Duchampian gesture on its head. He transfigured the throwaway-object-as-art into a meticulously crafted thing to covet, a silver dynamo, a sparkling expensive orb—a luxury purchase. Rabbit wed high and low, kitsch and beauty, in a way that would usher in a world where those categories are forever blurred.

And it was the gateway drug Koons was looking for, the turning point in his career. We would soon have to fathom gigantic Koons balloon animals and even bigger Koons flower puppies—and Koons Louis Vuitton bags and Koons Dom Perignon bottles. Rabbit exploded the notion of what made an object art—to such an extent that Rotter had to reach back to Michelangelo’s David (1501–1504) to signify the seismic quality of the breakthrough.

“For me, Rabbit is the ‘anti-David,’ which signaled the death of traditional sculpture—disrupting the medium in the same way that Jackson Pollock’s Number 31 (1950)permanently redefined the notion of painting,” Rotter said. “From my first day in the auction world—this is the work that has represented the pinnacle of both contemporary art and art collecting to me.”

From $40,000 to $80 million

Like with many of his works, Koons’s Rabbit was made in an edition of three, with one artist’s proof. Koons held onto the proof, while Sonnabend took one edition for herself before selling the two others for $40,000: one to the artist Terry Winters and one to the English advertising executive Charles Saatchi. While $40,000 was a high price for a Koons at the time—Winters had to be cajoled by Sonnabend and the gallery’s director to take the plunge—the widely held belief was that this was the Koons masterpiece, and the value increased steadily.

In the mid-90s, Koons was hard up for cash as he tried to raise funds to create his hugely ambitious “Celebration” series and, through the dealer Jeffrey Deitch, off-loaded a number of works from his collection to Eli Broad, the life insurance billionaire and philanthropist who was building a collection in Los Angeles with the help of his dealer Larry Gagosian. Among them were Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988), St. John the Baptist (1988), and Rabbit. At some point after that, Saatchi also sold his edition of Rabbit, this time to the German-born Chicago collector Stefan Edlis, for the price of $950,000—a 2,375% return on Saatchi’s investment. In the late 1990s, the Rabbit owned by Terry Winters ended up in the hands of Larry Gagosian, who sold it to Newhouse for $1 million instead of keeping it for himself—a move he would later regret, telling Sarah Thornton that it was a “bittersweet story” when he handed the work over to his most important client. In hindsight, Gagosian said he would have kept it if he’d had “a million dollars sloshing around.”

Jeff Koons
Smooth Egg with Bow (Magenta/Orange), 1994-2009
Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art LLC

It would not remain at that price point for long. By 2001, Sonnabend still hung on to her version of Rabbit, and told Vanity Fair she would never sell it, even though she said it would probably sell for between $2 million and $3 million. And in the years that followed, the global art market expanded rapidly, with prices skyrocketing as the economy hurtled toward a global recession. Sonnabend died in 2007, and in the months that followed, her estate received an offer for Rabbit that exceeded any Koons auction record: $80 million. It was eventually sold as a part of a $400 million trove of Sonnabend works in a sale arranged by the art dealers Franck Giraud, Lionel Pissarro, and Philippe Ségalot—their firm was called GPS Partners—on behalf of several of their biggest art collecting clients. The works were disseminated among billionaires such as Israeli shipping kingpin Sammy Ofer and Mexican telecommunications baron Carlos Slim Helú. But the most likely owner of Sonnabend’s Rabbit might be the firm’s highest roller: the Koons-collecting billionaire, and Christie’s owner, François Pinault.

Given who owns these works, there’s a good chance this will be the last time a Rabbit comes to the auction block. Edlis’s Rabbit has been promised to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and it is unlikely that the secretive GPS client—whether it’s Pinault or someone else—will offload the work. The Rabbit in the Broad Museum is one of the Los Angeles institution’s most popular works, so it’s unlikely it will be parting with this important piece of contemporary art anytime soon. Newhouse’s Rabbit was once promised to MoMA, but at some point between 2001 and 2007, those plans were scotched—as it happens, his version has not been seen in public since 1988.

The Rabit balloon by artist Jeff Koons floats in Times Square during the 81st annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 22, 2007 in New York City. Photo by Hiroko Masuike/Getty Images.

And after it emerges briefly at Christie’s New York salesroom next month, there’s a chance that Rabbit—a work so iconic it once went back to balloon form as a 50-foot-long spectacle floating through Manhattan in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—will once again be shunted off to a billionaire’s pad, not to be seen again for many, many years.

Nate Freeman