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MURRAY WHYTE | COMMENTARY

Was Jeff Koons’s balloon bunny worth a record $91 million?

“Rabbit” by Jeff Koons is displayed at Christie's in New York on May 3.
“Rabbit” by Jeff Koons is displayed at Christie's in New York on May 3.(Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

Jeff Koons set another contemporary-art price record at auction when his chromium balloon bunny commanded $91.1 million at Christie’s in New York Wednesday night. And for many, that’s just as it should be.

Koons has been the poster boy of art-world excess for three decades running. He emerged to instant success in the 1980s greed-is-good era, Wall Street at its most bloated and self-adoring. The most bloated except for right now, of course, and the bunny is the ultimate trophy for any moneyed nostalgist who might be looking to erase those lean years — the 1987 stock market crash, the subprime mortgage crisis — in between. (“Rabbit,” Koons’s record-breaker, was made in 1986.)

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To me, the sale makes a statement: Then is now, now is then. Let the good times roll. And the fact that “Rabbit” was bought by Bob Mnuchin, the New York art dealer whose son Steve was a high-rolling hedge-fund manager and film producer and is now President Trump’s secretary of the treasury, is the proverbial icing on the cake: This is a small club, and auctions for such objects are an elite game of one-upmanship within it. The rest of us press our faces up against the glass, agape.

That aside, the art market is governed more by the rules of free-market capitalism than most. Things are worth what someone will pay for them; absent any specific purpose, art is governed by supply and demand in its most unadulterated form. While demand can be cultivated — competition amid the billionaires’ club for certain must-have pieces is the auctioneer’s bread and butter — supply is more fixed. “Rabbit” — made as an edition of three plus one “artist’s proof,” with the others in museum collections — is a rare creature indeed. This was the one and only “Rabbit” out there for acquisition, and there’s a price for that.

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Why $91.1 million? Don’t think the number’s not significant. It’s just a hair beyond the record at auction for a living artist set by David Hockney, who was briefly the heavyweight champion with a $90.2 million sale last November. In a world of moneyed collectors looking to outdo one another, and bragging rights count.

When Hockney’s 1972 painting “Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures)” broke the record, he was asked about all the hype around it. “I ignore it,” he said, and fair enough: Artists don’t share in auction proceeds unless they own the work themselves.

For Koons, though, it might be a little different. Before Hockney, Koons was the record-holder himself with “Balloon Dog (Orange),” which sold in 2013 for $58.4 million. The artist was then near his peak. But for Koons, these are different times.

While there’s no denying his significance to contemporary-art history — Koons took off when the market was ruled by Neo-Expressionist painters like Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat, offering a coolly absurdist counterpoint to all the painterly bluster — this big sale comes as he endures a rare downtime.

Koons appeared in the recent art-market documentary “The Price of Everything” as clownish and out of touch. Interviewed in his studio, which he recently had to downsize due to sluggish sales, his usual kindergarten-teacher manner — wide-eyed and chipper, speaking in soft, deliberate tones, he’s the art-world equivalent of Mr. Rogers — was on full display as a battalion of assistants copied Old Master paintings in the background.

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Koons seemed to struggle to explain the idea behind his new work, his typically car-salesman cheer seeming weary somehow. To his ersatz Old Master works, Koons affixes a colored mirror “gazing ball,” suggesting a new perspective on a revered piece. To me, it looked ungainly, like mean-spirited satire mocking the inscrutable whims of the billionaire class.

If only. Koons is too sincere for that. Instead, the sense was of a past-his-prime artist trying to stay in the game. Whatever you think of his work — and I think it’s been undeniably great, conflating consumer obsession and junk culture in a canny arc of object-making that implicates every one of us with gleeful, inviting wonder — nothing lasts forever. The art world is small. People talk, and Koons isn’t immune to any of it.

Take Sotheby’s executive vice-president Amy Capellazzo, who doesn’t bother to suppress an eyeroll in the film when it comes to Koons, talking about how far his star has fallen. She derides him for making “condo art” — Koons has made several huge, shimmering sculptures for lobbies and plazas of multimillion-dollar condo developments in Florida in recent years — and for tarnishing his reputation, and more importantly, his brand.

Indeed, condo art seems a long way off the artist’s apex, which crested only a half-dozen years ago — such is the fickleness of the art world. Koons’s jaunty, inscrutably weird pieces — a gilded porcelain statue of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp, Bubbles; a giant topiary puppy, installed at Rockefeller Center and museums around the world — were global sensations. In 2008, his outsize balloon animals — a dozen feet tall, in mirror-finish shades of cherry, cobalt, and banana yellow — populated the palace at Versailles. In 2015, billionaire Eli Broad, a longtime Koons patron, filled his new private museum in Los Angeles with Koons’s shimmering works. (Broad’s “Rabbit” is in its collection.)

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But that’s the thing about the art world: It demands newness, but when it doesn’t like what it sees, it falls back. “Rabbit” is the rarest of things: a bonafide icon of one of the few moments when art truly changed (Warhol did much the same thing, 20 years earlier, though Koons’s formal trickery and bald-faced sunniness were entirely his own).

Koons’s apparent recent stumbles — will he ever be that good, that fresh, again? — only add to the appeal of “Rabbit,” and, inevitably, to its price. It’s a grim spectacle, I think, speculating on an artist’s posthumous value — professional death, a career on life support — while he’s alive and well to watch. While the free market gives — and it’s given Jeff Koons plenty — it also takes away. For Koons, watching his own funeral may be the ultimate price.


Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte