A shiny stainless steel sculpture created by Jeff Koons in 1986, inspired by a child’s inflatable toy, sold at Christie’s on Wednesday night for $91.1 million with fees, smashing the record at auction for a work by a living artist, set just last November by David Hockney.
Robert E. Mnuchin, an art dealer and the father of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, made the winning bid for Mr. Koons’s 1986 “Rabbit” from an aisle seat near the front of the salesroom. He was seated near Peter Brant, the collector and private museum-owner, and Jeffrey Deitch, the dealer.
It was the ultimate prize among six works offered at Christie’s from the collection of the magazine publisher S.I. Newhouse Jr., who died in 2017. Estimated to raise at least $50 million, this sculpture, made in an edition of three and one artist’s proof, was the last example left in private hands, according to Christie’s.
The price, surpassing the $90.2 million with fees achieved, again at Christie’s, for Mr. Hockney’s 1972 painting, “Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures),” confirmed how Mr. Koons’s metal sculptures have become the ultimate billionaire trophies produced during the contemporary art boom of the 1980s and ’90s. The Hockney milestone came at the expense of Mr. Koons, the previous record-holder, whose “Balloon Dog (Orange)” sold at auction for $58.4 million in November 2013.
Critics pointed out that the “Rabbit” sculpture elegantly and enigmatically alludes to earlier pieces by such artists as Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol.
The artist Jeff Koons, with an illustration of “Bouquet of Tulips” in 2016. He offered it to the city of Paris and the people of France as a symbol of friendship. It will finally have a home at the Petit Palais in Paris.
“I always thought it would be in the pantheon,” said Mr. Deitch. “It was instantly embraced by artists and cultural critics, and it’s kept its resonance for all these years.”
This validation is all the sweeter for Mr. Koons, whose career trajectory has been contradictory, controversial and uneven. In 2017, slowing demand for some of his more recent works necessitated a major downsizing of his studio. Auction prices for his most valuable sculptures have also slumped. Since 2014, the most recent spike in sales of contemporary art, the highest price paid for a Koons sculpture at auction was $22.8 million, for the colored aluminum sculpture “Play Doh,” according to the Artnet database of salesroom prices.
Mr. Koons has been embroiled in suits accusing him of copying, and in 2016, he upset the French cultural establishment by giving Paris a colorfully upbeat “Bouquet of Tulips” sculpture, inspired by the Statue of Liberty, as a memorial to victims of recent terrorist attacks in France.