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Jeff Koons sculpture smashes record at auction for work by a living artist

Robert E Mnuchin, an art dealer and the father of US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, made the winning bid of US$91.1m for the 1986 Rabbit at a Christie's auction, surpassing the US$90.2m with fees achieved last November for a David Hockney work

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Jeff Koons' Rabbit was the ultimate prize among six works offered at Christie’s from the collection of magazine publisher S I Newhouse Jr. The price confirms how Koons’ metal sculptures have become the ultimate billionaire trophies produced during the contemporary art boom of the 1980s and ’90s.

New York

A SHINY stainless steel sculpture created by Jeff Koons in 1986, inspired by a child's inflatable toy, sold at Christie's on Wednesday night for US$91.1 million with fees, smashing the record at auction for a work by a living artist, set just last November by David Hockney.

Robert E Mnuchin, an art dealer and the father of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, made the winning bid for Koons' 1986 Rabbit from an aisle seat in the front of the salesroom. He was seated near Peter Brant, the collector and private museum-owner.

It was the ultimate prize among six works offered at Christie's from the collection of magazine publisher S I Newhouse Jr, who died in 2017. Estimated to raise at least US$50 million, the sculpture had three animated telephone bidders and another in the room. Made in an edition of three, and one artist's proof, this sculpture was the last example left in private hands, according to Christie's.

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The price - surpassing the US$90.2 million with fees achieved last November, again at Christie's, for Hockney's 1972 painting, Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures) - confirmed how Koons' metal sculptures have become the ultimate billionaire trophies produced during the contemporary art boom of the 1980s and '90s. In November 2013, the artist's reflective Balloon Dog (Orange) from the 1990s sold at auction for US$58.4 million.

Critics pointed out that the Rabbit sculpture elegantly and enigmatically alludes to earlier pieces by such artists as Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol.

"I always thought it would be in the pantheon," said Jeffrey Deitch, the dealer. "It was instantly embraced by artists and cultural critics, and it's kept its resonance for all these years."

This validation is all the sweeter for Koons, whose career trajectory has been contradictory, controversial and uneven. In 2017, slowing demand for some of his more recent works necessitated a major downsizing of his studio. Auction prices for his most valuable sculptures have also slumped. In the past five years, the most recent spike in sales of contemporary art, the highest price paid for a Koons sculpture at auction was US$22.8 million, for the coloured aluminium sculpture Play Doh, according to the Artnet database of salesroom prices.

Koons has been embroiled in suits accusing him of copying, and in 2016, he upset the French cultural establishment by giving Paris a colourfully upbeat Bouquet of Tulips sculpture, inspired by the Statue of Liberty, as a memorial to victims of recent terrorist attacks in France.

"There are so many strange, disconcerting aspects to Jeff Koons, his art and his career that it is hard to quite know how to approach" it, Roberta Smith wrote in the The New York Times, reviewing his retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2014, then its largest survey devoted to a single artist.

His work ranges from the notorious pictures that depict the artist in flagrante with his then-wife, Ilona Staller, known in her porn-star days as La Cicciolina; to knowingly kitsch sculptures like one of Michael Jackson with Bubbles, his pet chimpanzee; to his reflective, oversize Rabbit that "turns the hare into a space-invader of unknown origin", Ms Smith wrote.

In all, the six contemporary works from the Newhouse collection raised US$115 million on Wednesday evening. On Monday evening, five Impressionist and modern works owned by Newhouse had raised US$101 million. Before this week, this group of 11 had been estimated at US$130 million.

Because Christie's offered the two choicest estate collections of the week, the sale was packed with classic works by major names of American postwar and contemporary art. The auction began with 11 works from the Robert B and Beatrice C Mayer family, based in Chicago. Buying directly from dealers in the 1960s, the Mayers amassed a formidable collection of Pop Art.

"They were important collectors, and they bought early," said David Nisinson, a collector and art adviser in New York. "Christie's had a lot of fresh material from well-known collectors that hadn't been seen for years."

The pick of the Mayer works was Robert Rauschenberg's 1964 silk-screen painting, Buffalo II, evoking the febrile political climate after President John F Kennedy's assassination. It sold for US$88.8 million with fees. The couple had acquired the painting in 1965 from the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York.

"It's a very significant painting," said Mr Nisinson. "And Rauschenberg has been undervalued compared to other artists."

Most of Rauschenberg's most innovative works from the 1950s and '60s, particularly his trailblazing Combines, have long been held in museums and rarely appear on the market. This early silk-screen painting, packed with evocative imagery, is the most significant Rauschenberg to appear at auction in years. The previous high for Rauschenberg had been US$18.6 million in 2015, according to Artnet.

Other Pop trophies from the Mayer collection included Roy Lichtenstein's Kiss (1962), which brought in US$31.1 million. NYTIMES