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$74.3 Million Contemporary Sales Set Record High

The London auction market reached an historic high in February when sales totals for the Part One auctions of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, from Feb. 9-10, tallied £39.8 million ($74.3 million), their highest combined total ever and almost double the £22.7 million ($41.8 million) realized one year ago. The number of

LONDON—The London auction market reached an historic high in February when sales totals for the Part One auctions of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, from Feb. 9-10, tallied £39.8 million ($74.3 million), their highest combined total ever and almost double the £22.7 million ($41.8 million) realized one year ago. The number of lots offered increased by only 15, from 104 to 119, with 8, or 14 percent, unsold at Christie’s and 12, or 18 percent, unsold at Sotheby’s. (Impressionist and modern art evening sales in London, on Feb. 7-8, brought £78.6 million, or $146.2 million, compared with £72.5 million [$132.7 million] last year. This includes sales of Surrealist art at both houses as well as offerings of German and Austrian art at Sotheby’s.)

The volume of sales nearly doubled again in the lower and middle market when Part Two sales of postwar and contemporary art, including those at the Sotheby’s outpost in Olympia, grossed an extra £14 million ($26.2 million), compared to £8.8 million ($16 million) last February. Here the number of lots offered had increased from 535 to 811. The Sotheby’s £7.25 million ($13.55 million) Part Two sale was the highest total ever for a day sale in London. Sixteen records, including new highs for works on paper, were set in the Part One auctions, with an average 68 percent of lots selling to European buyers—70 percent at Sotheby’s, 66 percent at Christie’s. American buyers accounted for about 30 percent of the lots at Christie’s, 25 percent at Sotheby’s.

For the first time, Christie’s claimed a 60 percent majority share of the market in the Part One auctions with a £24.5 million sale—the highest ever in London for postwar and contemporary art, and nearly three times more than any other auction held by this department. The stronger sale content, reports Christie’s Brett Gorvy, co-head of the postwar and contemporary art department, was not due to a diversion of stock from New York. “London was considered the best place to sell the works,” he told ARTnewsletter. Although outgunned this time, Sotheby’s £15.3 million ($28.5 million) sale was still its highest total to date in London. Trend watchers noted that 18 of the top 20 lots sold were paintings.

Says Manhattan gallery owner Christophe Van de Weghe: “I think the sales were very strong. People with money are more comfortable spending it on art than on other investments.”

Ironically the increase comes at a time when saleroom executives are trying to assess the impact of the droit de suite (artist’s resale royalty tax), which, starting January 2006 in the U.K., will hit sellers of works by living European artists—and, by 2012, by artists deceased up to 70 years. Christie’s International CEO Ed Dolman told ARTnewsletter he was “extremely concerned” about this, but would “wait and see” what the impact would be.

Two Lucian Freud Works Lead at Christie’s

Christie’s £24.5 million ($45.8 million) evening sale of postwar and contemporary art on Feb. 9 easily exceeded its presale estimate of £14/20 million. Why Christie’s soared ahead of rival Sotheby’s is explainable by the sum of its top three lots, which fetched a cumulative £9.9 million.

Lucian Freud’s 36-by-36-inch portrait of the artist Tim Behrens, Red Haired Man in a Chair, 1962-63 realized a record £4.15 million, or $7.7 million (estimate: £1.2/1.8 million) from an anonymous phone bidder. The painting, held in the collection of the late Erich Sommer since 1972, is an early example of the more painterly style Freud developed in the 1960s.

Freud’s 2002 Naked Portrait, a larger, 601⁄8-by-481⁄8-inch portrait of model Kate Moss, was an inferior composition that the artist had resolved by painting over two corners of the canvas in white. This unusual, and, for many, unsatisfactory solution, did not deter an Asian buyer from posting a winning bid of £3.9 million, or $7.3 million (estimate: £2.5/3.5 million).

The third-highest lot was Marlene Dumas’s The Teacher (sub a), 1987, which set a new record at £1.8 million, or $3.3 million (estimate: £350/450,000), paid by William Acquavella of New York’s Acquavella Galleries, bidding against Ivan Wirth of Hauser & Wirth.

A further six record prices were achieved, three of them for young artists on the rise. Ghada Amer’s Pink, 2001, went to a phone bidder for £62,400, or $116,000 (estimate: £35/45,000). Beatriz Milhazes’s Romantico Americano, 1998, was sold for £72,000, or $134,000 (estimate: £30/50,000), to London dealer Ivor Braka. And Ugo Rondinone’s circular painting, No. 280. . ., 2002, realized £66,000, or $122,000 (estimate: £30/50,000).

Two of the records were for postwar Italian artists experiencing reassessment. Italian abstractionist Emilio Vedova’s Ciclo 1961—S2, 1961, fetched £254,400 or $472,000 (estimate: £100/150,000). Mario Merz’s seminal Arte Povera sculpture Igloo Objet cache-toi, 1968-77, earned £792,000, or $1.47 million (estimate: £350/450,000). The sixth record was for Irish abstract painter Sean Scully, who is experiencing a comeback. Scully’s Bridge, 1991, fetched £198,400, or $358,000 (estimate: £100/150,000).

Only seven lots were unsold, with one, Damien Hirst’s When Logics Die, withdrawn due to conditional problems, according to trade sources. The major unsold lot was Cy Twombly’s Untitled (Rome), 1959 (estimate: £700,000/1 million). Further works by Twombly were sold, but below estimate, at Sotheby’s the following night.

Private buyers at the sale included British collector Muriel Salem, who bought Gerhard Richter’s photo-portrait Volker Bradke, 1966, for £960,000, or $1.78 million (estimate: £900,000/1.3 million). The painting previously had gone unsold at Sotheby’s New York in 2001 with a $3/4 million estimate. Another re-offer was a 1966 Andy Warhol Self-Portrait, 1966, in which Christie’s had a financial interest. The painting, bought in at Christie’s New York in 2003 (estimate $900,000/1.2 million), now was sold for £444,800, or $826,000 (estimate: £400/600,000).

There was a high turnout of dealers buying for stock or, more likely, clients, with many results offering comparison with previous sale prices. Gagosian Gallery acquired Mark Rothko’s oil-on-paper Untitled, 1959, for £960,000, or $1.78 million (estimate: £800,000/1.2 million), having bought it last time round at auction in 1997 for $310,500. Alberto Mugrabi took Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled, 1981, for £411,200, or $763,000 (estimate: £250/350,000). The painting had last fetched $27,000 when offered at auction in 1988.

Galerie Vedovi, Brussels, acquired Maurizio Cattelan’s 1997 Turisti (Tourists), seven taxidermied pigeons (from the 120 or so made for the Venice Biennale that year) for £153,600, or $235,000 (estimate: £90/120,000). The price was higher than 20 Turisti had achieved in 2003.

Supporting the photography market, London dealer Benjamin Brown bought a set of 22 prints of old mine heads in Pennsylvania by Bernd and Hilla Becher for £86,400, or $150,000 (estimate: £45/65,000). The set had last been sold in New York in 2001 for $94,000.

Not everything was going up. Brown purchased one of Thomas Ruff’s large “Night Sky” prints for £42,000, or $78,120 (estimate: £25/35,000), still nothing like the highest price for this series, which is around £80,000.

London dealer Helly Nahmad acquired Jean Dubuffet’s La route du pas-de-Calais for £310,400, or $576,000 (estimate: £300,000/500,000)—slightly less in dollar terms than the $662,500 the work had fetched last time out at Phillips, New York, in May 2000.

Also failing to mark up in price was Sarah Lucas’s boots sculpture, 1-123-123-12-12, 1992, last sold in 2002 to Spanish collector Jose Maria Cano for £30,550 ($45,800), but now bought for £26,400 ($49,400). Although a Donald Judd wall piece had looked too expensive when unsold earlier in the sale, Anthony Meier, of Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco, stepped in to buy his 1985 Untitled, a painted-iron-and-aluminum work, against little competition for £142,400, or $254,000 (estimate: £120/180,000).

Two series records were set when Nine Multicoloured Marilyns, from Warhol’s “Reversal” series, 1979-86, fetched £1.1 million, or $2.1 million (estimate: £450/650,000); and when the Galerie Beaubourg in Paris paid £232,000, or $431,000 (estimate: £120/180,000), for Yves Klein’s small Cosmogenie, COS 31, 1960—an auction record for a work from this series.

A rare success for museums in the sale occurred when the Frisia Museum, the Netherlands, acquired two works by Dutch artists: Michael Raedecker’s Untitled (Abachi), 1994, for £54,000, or $100,000 (estimate: £30/50,000); and Dumas’s The Show Must Go On, 1988-91, for £344,00, or $639,000 (estimate: £250/350,000).

Sotheby’s Fulfills Presale Expectations

Sotheby’s, too, could be satisfied with its £15.3 million ($28.5 million) Part One sale on Feb. 10, which was comfortably within its presale estimate of £12.7 million/17.5 million.

The sale felt less upbeat than Christie’s, probably because there was only one £1 million sale as compared with five, and that was sold below estimate. Lucio Fontana’s pink Concetto Spaziale, 1963, from his “La fine di Dio” series, estimated to set an auction record at £1.1/1.5 million, realized £1.01 million ($1.89 million) from Paris art adviser Hugues Joffre against no competition. The painting had been bought in 1993 by Milan dealer Daniele Pescali for £320,500.

The sale set a total of seven records. These included Sol LeWitt’s minimalist classic Three Dimensional Modular Grid, 1968, which sold for £276,800, or $514,850 (estimate: £80/120,000). Two other records were established for early Pop-art drawings from the collection of Jean-Yves Mock, who worked at the Hanover Gallery in London in the 1950s. Roy Lichtenstein’s black-and-white-drawing Temple of Apollo, 1964, fetched a triple-estimate £545,600 ($1 million), as did Warhol’s large pencil-and-wash Soup Can, 1962—both from U.S. buyers.

The other four records were for the rising stars of a younger generation of British and European artists. From the collection of former London gallerist Charles Asprey, Glenn Brown’s 1999 Beatification, a flat-surfaced copy of a Frank Auerbach portrait, was sold for £198,400, or $369,024 (estimate: £50/70,000). The price followed a reportedly sold-out show of Brown’s paintings at the Gagosian Gallery, New York, and exceeded the price for a genuine Auerbach painting, Julia V, 1988, bought by Salem for £108,000, or $200,880 (estimate: £100/150,000) in the same sale.

Franz Ackermann’s Evasion V1, 1996, from his sought-after “Mental Map” series, fell for a record £153,600, or $285,700 (estimate: £70/90,000), to New York dealer Irena Hochmann, bidding for Charles Saatchi. Taking instructions on her cell phone, Hochmann also bought the previous lot, Martin Kippenberger’s painting NYZRA, 1985, for £232,000, or $431,500 (estimate: £150/200,000), for Saatchi.

The painted-ceramic pots of British artist Grayson Perry reached a new high when his Isn’t That Damien Hirst Over There?, 1995, from London collector, Oliver Peyton, sold for £54,000, or $100,400 (estimate: £20/30,000). A works-on-paper record for Dumas was set when the picture X-Plicit, 1999, was sold to a phone bidder against Benjamin Brown for £120,000, or $223,200 (estimate: £70/100,000).

Among the sale’s disappointments, Nicolas de Staël’s Figure Accoudée, 1953-54, sent for sale by the artist’s family, found no bidders close to the £800,000 low estimate. And from a group of four guaranteed works by Cattelan from a European collection, only two were sold: The cover lot, Charlie Don’t Surf, 1997, had been restored and went to a single phone bidder for £680,000, or $1.26 million (estimate: £600,000/800,000); and

-76.000.000, a broken safe turned into an artwork in 1992, was acquired by Hochmann for £108,000 or $200,880 (estimate: £100/150,000). The two remaining lots were estimated to bring at least another £250,000.

Another surprise was the failure to sell of Hoch in Bremen, 2000, by red-hot German artist Daniel Richter (estimate: £40/60,000). Its condition, said a Sotheby’s spokesman, was the problem.

Sotheby’s received a further setback when two works belonging to an American architect based in Germany were withdrawn. Bridget Riley’s Study for Black to White Discs, 1961 (estimate: £180/250,000), had been rejected by the artist because of subsequent repainting. Ad Reinhardt’s Untitled (Black in Black), 1955, also was withdrawn (estimate: £120/180,000).

Other buyers in the room: London/New York dealers Dickinson Roundell bought Richter’s Niagara Falls, 1965, for £467,200, or $870,000 (estimate: £280/400,000). Sotheby’s former Vienna representative Agnes Husslein bought Yves Klein’s small body painting ANT 23, 1960, from the Mock collection for £276,800, or $514,800 (estimate: £100/150,000), as well as Richter’s Stadtbild (M.7), 1968, for £232,000, or $431,500 (estimate: £150/200,000).

German dealer Paul Schonewald took Richter’s Lassie, 1965, for £209,600, or $389,900 (estimate: £150/200,000). Joffre purchased Serge Poliakoff’s colorful Composition Abstraite, 1954, last sold at £220,000 ($330,000) in 2002, for £388,800, or $723,168 (estimate: £150/200,000). New York dealer Amalia Dayan bought Warhol’s Two White Mona Lisas, 1980, for £232,000, or $348,000 (estimate: £250/350,000).

London collector Simon Reuben won Auerbach’s landscape Primrose Hill, Autumn, 1979-80, last sold at a record £137,500 ($247,500) in 1988, for £388,800, or $723,160 (estimate: £200/300,000). And London dealer Timothy Taylor bought Scully’s Winter Days, 1990, for £108,000, or $200,800 (estimate: £90/120,000).

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