Jeff Koons’ “Rabbit,” a 3-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture reminiscent of a silver balloon animal, is officially the world’s most expensive work by a living artist.
“Rabbit,” which sold at Christie’s for $91.1 million this Wednesday, was one of six auction items drawn from the collection of S.I. Newhouse Jr., a magazine magnate who died in 2017 at age 89. The trove also included works by Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Lucian Freud.
Writing for The New York Times, economist Allison Schrager describes the sale as demonstrative of the state of the current art market. Thanks to the rise of billionaire art collectors who push the merely millionaires out of the race for the most exclusive items, the art world has lost a class of middle-tier collectors who would typically invest in on-the-rise or second-tier artists.
When these less affluent collectors see a Hockney painting sell for $90 million, Schrager writes, they “assume the $50,000 work they can afford is not worth buying, especially if they can’t flip it for a quick profit at auction.”
“Rabbit” was cast in an edition of three, plus one artist’s proof. A Christie’s statement on the work provides an apt commentary on its place in the art world: “At once cute and imposing,” evocative of fun and frivolity while remaining inscrutable, the sculpture simultaneously embodies and rejects postmodern aesthetics. It’s alternately interpreted as a meaningless, lazy joke and a mirror for viewers, “reflecting us, incorporating us within the ever-shifting drama that plays out on its surface.”
The winning bid—which far exceeded Christie’s estimate of $50 to $70 million—was placed by art dealer Robert E. Mnuchin (father of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin), who reportedly made the purchase on behalf of a client. The astronomical price tag just surpassed the $90.2 million record set by David Hockney’s “Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures)” last November. Ironically, Hockney’s short-lived record actually came at Koon’s expense, skyrocketing past the polarizing artist’s existing 2013 record of $58.4 million.
Given the speed with which Hockney’s November 2018 record fell, it’s likely a new record-breaker will soon dethrone Koons, too. Who knows? Perhaps it will be Hockney once more, and the two artists will simply trade the title back and forth in perpetuity. After all, stranger things—say, a 3-foot-tall balloon animal sculpture selling for $90 million—have happened.