WHEN TWO MAJOR PIECES from Jeff Koons's "Celebration" series, 1994-, came up for auction for the first time last November, a breach was torn in the fabric of the Koons market, not to mention the cultural cosmos. Diamond (Blue), 1994-2005, sold at Christie's for $11.8 million, more than doubling the highest price ever paid for a Koons work at auction; the following night, Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold), 1994-2006, sold at Sotheby's for $23.6 million, making it (as headlines trumpeted) the most expensive piece by a living artist ever auctioned.
Recent private trades for key pieces from "Celebration"--sixteen hyperrealist paintings and twenty oversize sculptures of inflatable animals, childhood toys, and the garish flotsam of holiday revelry--were already known, with a Balloon Dog, 1994-2000, said to have sold for more than $15 million. And though the actual buyers weren't named, both Diamond (Blue) and Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold) were purchased by dealer Larry Gagosian, who had been instrumental in seeing that the "Celebration" pieces were fabricated and brought to market. From one standpoint, the moment was of a piece with the rest of Koons's now-you-see-it, now-you-see-it-again career--a small, dedicated circle of Olympian dealers and collectors providing support amid a simmering market, with prices ready to climb to astonishing new levels. Nonetheless, for "Celebration," it represented the decisive step in a dramatic, if not entirely unforeseen, change of fortune.
In 1993, Koons rented a loft on lower Broadway in Manhattan and began hiring dozens of assistants for the project. With Koons's approval, Jeffrey Deitch formed a partnership with fellow dealers Anthony d'Offay in London and Max Hetzler in Cologne to finance the series, with an initial investment of approximately $3 million. However, the project's staff soon rose to more than seventy, and according to some reports, Koons, within a few years, was spending more than half a million dollars annually on salaries and overhead alone.
The technical challenges--now legendary--involved in fabricating the bulbous, reflective stainless steel sculptures turned out to be far more complex and time-consuming than imagined, and Koons, true to his reputation, insisted on flawless execution. His acrimonious custody battle with his ex-wife led to long absences from the studio. Time was mismanaged, mock-ups built and rebuilt. Within two years, funds from the initial investment were running out, and the Pennsylvania foundry Koons had contracted proved unable to make the sculptures to his specifications; when Koons sued, it went bankrupt.
In a vaguely Borgesian turn, Deitch persuaded a group of Medici-like collectors, including Eli Broad and Dakis Joannou, to buy unrealized works like Moon, 1994-2000, Cat on a Clothesline, 1994-2001, and Balloon Dog in advance, for a million dollars each. "No one knew what they were getting into," recalled James Cohan, who visited the studio frequently while working with d'Offay. "There were no models, just full-scale sculpted-foam and clay maquettes that simply weren't fully realized. There was a fantastic amount of tap dancing."
"These works weren't individualized for certain clients. They were going to be exactly as Jeff wanted them," said Amy Cappellazzo, international cohead of postwar and contemporary art at Christie's. …