While David Smith's six-foot-high welded steel and iron sculpture "Voltri Bolton Landing XXIII" sold for $1.32 million at Christie's contemporary art sale tonight, setting a new record for a contemporary sculpture, the bigger news was what didn't sell.
Although Jasper Johns' blue and yellow concentric ringed "Target" hit the magic $2 million mark, the painting did not reach the secret reserve price mutually set between the seller, who was not identified, and auction house. The painting was -- as is said in the trade -- "bought in," even though the offered price would have been the highest ever paid for a contemporary work of art.
Willem de Kooning's "Two Women," auctioned at Christie's in 1984 for $1.98 million, still retains the contemporary record. The record for a Johns was set at Sotheby's in November 1985, when the artist's "Painting With Ruler and Gray" sold for $687,500.
The practice at art auctions is to keep reserve prices secret. No announcement is made if the bidding fails to reach those marks and a work has therefore been bought in. This procedure is under review by New York City's Department of Consumer Affairs and could be overruled by newly proposed regulations that may go into effect this summer.
"I was the only person in the building who knew what the reserve was," said Christie's President Christopher Burge, who was also serving as auctioneer. "We always said it might make over $2 million. I think it's a wonderful picture, although its failure to sell obviously threw a bit of a wrench in the overall figures." Burge explained that "Target" had been offered for sale privately for $3 million before its arrival at Christie's and therefore "wasn't totally fresh," usually a criterion for a record sale.
Tonight's sale held at Christie's Park Avenue showroom drew standing-room-only crowds. In an hour and a quarter 56 works were sold for a total of $5,518,000 (including the mandatory 10 percent buyers' premium added on to the sale price). Only seven lots were bought in. A number of records were set for individual artists. Joseph Cornell's "Object, Cabinet of Natural History," a velvet-lined wooden box filled with 55 labeled glass bottles, sold for $181,500. Adolph Gottlieb's canvas with a blood-red sun, "Deep Over Pale," fetched $308,000, and Joan Mitchell's abstract "Maize" went for $60,500.
Three of the lots in tonight's auction were sold by order of the trustees of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to benefit its acquisitions program. Two small Franz Kline works on paper (which sold for $15,400 and $28,600) and one Hans Hofmann oil (at $33,000) are the first in a Hirshhorn group of 39 works to be auctioned by Christie's between now and June 24.
"We have deaccessioned before," said Sidney Lawrence, public affairs officer at the museum, "but this is the first time we've put up work at auction." Some of the major works are duplicate casts of bronze sculptures held by the museum, such as Henry Moore's "Seated Woman" of 1957 and Matisse's "Henriette III" from a 1929 cast. The Moore is expected to fetch $550,000 to $750,000 in the upcoming Impressionist and Modern Paintings and Sculpture sale.
In contrast to Christie's sale, Monday evening's auction of 54 contemporary works at archrival Sotheby's realized a disappointing $3.9 million. Roy Lichtenstein's lemon yellow "Tzing!," a pop cartoon panel of a soldier toting a machine gun, sold for $396,000. But half of the top six estimated lots did not find buyers and were bought in after failing to reach their reserves.
Eight Calder mobiles rang up sales totaling $940,000 at Sotheby's. The top four of these lots were from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. The Guggenheim is selling off certain works from its collection (17 Calders remain) to help pay off the $2 million-plus recently paid for the Constantin Brancusi white marble sculpture "Muse."