"Rabbit" by Jeff Koons sold for $91 million at an auction on May 15, 2019 (Credit: Christie's)

On Wednesday, May 15, 2019, an anonymous buyer paid slightly over $91 million to acquire American artist Jeff Koons' "Rabbit" sculpture at Christie's Post War and Contemporary Sale in New York. The price, which includes the auction house's commission, is the highest-ever paid for work by a living artist. The previous record was held by British artist David Hockney, whose acrylic-on-canvas pop art painting "Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)" sold for $90.3 million in November 2018.

Created by Koons in 1986, the three-foot-tall, faceless steel bunny was one of 11 works of art offered at the auction from the collection of magazine publisher S.I. Newhouse, who died in 2017. The longtime chairman of Condé Nast acquired the iconic sculpture privately in 1992 from New York artist Terry Winters for $1 million, a princely sum at that time.

The "Rabbit" balloon float at the 2007 Macy's Thanksgiving Parade (Credit: Jeff Koons)

The gleaming sculpture, which had been displayed prominently on a pedestal in a custom-built room at Christie's Rockefeller Center headquarters for two weeks prior to the auction, was expected to fetch between $50 million to $70 million. However, with five eager buyers, four on the telephone and New York-based art dealer Robert Mnuchin in the room, the price escalated rapidly from the original bid price of $40 million. It took Mnuchin 10 minutes and 40 seconds to seal the deal for his customer with an offer of $80 million, or $91.1 million with Christie's premium.

While paying such an exorbitant amount for a "stainless steel bunny" may sound excessive, the"Rabbit" sculpture is considered the "holy grail" of Koons' works among some collectors. It has also become somewhat of a cultural icon and even appeared as a balloon float at the 2007 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in Manhattan, New York. The sculpture sold on Wednesday is the only one of the four "Rabbits" — three sculptures plus the artist's proof cast by Koons — owned by a private collector. The other specimens are housed at the Broad Art Foundation in Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and the National Museum of Qatar.

Koons' orange "Balloon Dog" was sold for $58.4 million in 2013, then the highest price for art by any living artist (Credit: Jeff Koons)

This is not the first time a Koons creation has broken this record. In November 2013, the artist made history when his orange "Balloon Dog" — one of five similar stainless steel sculptures each sporting a different transparent color coating — fetched $58.4 million, which at the time was the highest price paid for a piece of art by any living artist. Though he lost the title briefly in November 2018 to Hockney, the latest sale places the American sculptor back at the top.

Resources: NPR.org, artnews.com, artnet.com