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Robert Mapplethorpe wearing a leather jacket and gloves and holding a gun in front of a star sculpture.

Self Portrait, 1983


NEW YORK, NOV. 2 -- The three-day-old record for a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph, set on Monday at Christie's, was eclipsed today at Sotheby's when the late artist's 1983 "Self-Portrait (with gun and star)" snared $38,500. Decked out in a black leather coat and gloves, and a white silk aviator's scarf, the artist stares menacingly at his camera, cradling an automatic rifle in his arms. Another black-and-white print from the same edition is currently on view in Hartford, Conn., part of "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment," the exhibition canceled by the Corcoran Gallery of Art this past summer. The new price levels for Mapplethorpe's self-portraits -- more than doubling their previous highs at auction -- made instant classics out of "Self-Portrait in Leather Jacket" and the vixenlike "Self-Portrait in Drag," which realized $35,750 apiece. All told, 23 out of the 25 Mapplethorpes offered today fetched $396,275. Two less significant portraits of male models failed to sell. The Mapplethorpe works were part of a larger wide-ranging sale of contemporary photographs. The pre-sale estimates for the Mapplethorpe group ranged from $173,000 to $242,500. The results unequivocally proved that the Mapplethorpe market is red hot. Asked to comment on the new prices, Howard Read, head of photography at Robert Miller Gallery -- Mapplethorpe's longtime dealer -- said, "When you consider the record prices for the self-portraits, he can be thought of as his own best creation. That was his greatest contribution. ... Even as he died, he continued to work in this direction. It was something that kept him going." Outside the self-portrait category, Mapplethorpe's 1988 dye transfer print "Poppy" sold for $32,750 to the Weston Gallery in Carmel, Calif. Magically lit from underneath the sensuously open blossom, an exposed flower is set against a jet black background. The most expensive single lot, "Floral Still Life" -- a trio of photogravures sold for $60,500. The stunning and dramatically lit close-ups of an orchid, a hyacinth and a vase of irises were purchased by an unidentified American collector bidding by telephone. Pointing out the tremendous jump in Mapplethorpe's market, Paris-based dealer Harry Lunn said: "Mapplethorpe was undervalued for a long time. He's just starting to catch up." According to Lunn, the edition of floral still lifes that sold today for approximately $20,000 per image was originally offered for $3,500 in 1987. The highest price for a Mapplethorpe before his death was just under $7,000 in May 1988. The Mapplethorpe prices far outdistanced those for other front-ranking contemporary artists in today's sale. Andy Warhol's "Sorry, Full," a collage of eight photographs, sold for $27,500. Cindy Sherman's "Untitled (The Swimmer)" brought $9,900. "It's certainly a new level," said Beth Gates-Warren, head of photographs at Sotheby's. "It reflects the incredible growth and interest in his work. I'm sure the Corcoran controversy is contributing to this interest. He's becoming a kind of symbol." Most of the action in this morning's session of contemporary photographs -- especially Mapplethorpe's -- was dominated by telephone bidders, communicating to Sotheby's representatives glued to phone sets at the front of the salesroom. The top six lots were all purchased by telephone bidders, leaving the modestly attended salesroom with nothing much to do but listen to the auctioneer rattle off the high-stakes bids. One of the few Mapplethorpes that sold to bidders in the room was an untitled collage from 1971, created when Mapplethorpe was 25 and barely out of art school. The silk-screen photograph -- excised from a gay porno magazine and showing a bare-chested young man in cowboy hat and bandanna exposing himself -- is printed on a brown paper bag. A red grid runs over the image as if the figure were in detention. It sold for $18,700 to Ezra Mack, a New York private collector and photography consultant. It seemed that Mack had the winning bid at just under $12,000 when a new bidder raised his paddle and the price quickly escalated to $17,000, not counting the 10 percent buyer's premium. "I was upset," Mack said, "but it's a fantastic piece." The pre-sale estimate was $3,000 to $5,000. In the celebrity portrait category, Mapplethorpe's 1983 black-and-white study of Warhol in a turtleneck and blazer, clasping his fingers at waist level, sold for $27,500, more than double its high estimate. In contrast to Warhol's wispy figure, the bulging physique of Arnold Schwarzenegger, posed against a luxurious backdrop of drapery, sold for $23,100. It too went to an anonymous telephone bidder. A full-figure nude pose of bodybuilder and performance artist Lisa Lyon, flexing her muscles, brought $18,700 from a telephone bidder. Of interest but at a more modest price, Mapplethorpe's portrait of photographer Lynn Davis from 1979 sold for $1,825 to her SoHo art dealer, Simon Lowinski. Davis is one of four board members of the new Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, enriched by $2.2 million in Tuesday's daylong estate sale at Christie's. The foundation was set up to benefit AIDS research and to help museums acquire and support contemporary photography. The last of the Mapplethorpe items reaching the auction block today was a limited-edition portfolio of eight photogravures bound in red leather. "A Season in Hell" sold for $10,450 to a telephone bidder. One of the images reproduced from the portfolio in the catalogue shows a bare-chested Mapplethorpe sporting Devil's horns. Accompanying the images is the complete text of the poems of the same title by the 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud. It was Rimbaud's last work. The morning session for the photography sale as a whole totaled $768,020, bringing the photography tally at Sotheby's to a new high of $3,583,745. The highest price fetched over the three days of sales was Man Ray's solarized silver print from 1929, "The Primacy of Matter Over Thought," setting a record for a single photograph at $121,000.