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Postwar Art Is a Potent Lure at London Sales

Contemporary art sales, timed to coincide with the Frieze Art Fair in London, produced buoyant results and numerous records for Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Christie’s held a sale of contemporary art midway through the fair on Sunday, Oct. 23—the first Sunday sale to be held in its main King Street saleroom. Unlike Christie’s, Sotheby’s waited until

LONDON—Contemporary art sales, timed to coincide with the Frieze Art Fair in London, produced buoyant results and numerous records for Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Christie’s held a sale of contemporary art midway through the fair on Sunday, Oct. 23—the first Sunday sale to be held in its main King Street saleroom.

Unlike Christie’s, Sotheby’s waited until the Frieze fair was over to hold its auction on Oct. 25. It also stuck to a conventional length of sale, offering 206 lots in the main auction that realized £9.3 million ($16.4 million), comfortably above the high presale estimate of £8 million and the highest total for a mid-season contemporary sale in London.

At Christie’s, a Dozen World Records

In a short 56-lot sale, Christie’s raised £6 million ($10.6 million), with only eight lots unsold. The sale focused primarily on European artists whose works are difficult to buy at galleries because of extensive waiting lists. In this they were entirely successful. The first lot, Wilhelm Sasnal’s small painting Untitled (Two Men Throwing Bombs from a Balloon), 2002, sold for a record £57,600, or $102,000 (estimate: £18,000/22,000), to dealer Daniella Luxembourg.

Two lots later a 2003 painting of an interior by Matthias Weischer, Ohne Titel, flew above its high estimate of £22,000 to sell at a record £209,600 ($372,000). The same phone buyer also bought works by Peter Doig (House on Iron Hill, 1994, for £176,000, or $312,576, more than twice the high estimate of £80,000); and by Andreas Gursky (N.Y. Mercantile Exchange, 2000, for £276,800, or $491,596, again more than double the high estimate of £220,000). But it was not Charles Saatchi, as some observers had speculated. (Saatchi recently acquired eight paintings by Weischer privately by calling owners of his work and offering them well- above retail prices—up to £150,000, or $265,000 per canvas, according to market sources. There is a considerable waiting list at the artist’s dealer Eigen+Art, of Berlin and Leipzig.)

Other German painters to score record highs at the sale were Tim Eitel, whose Mondrian (Blau/Weiss), 2001, an oil and acrylic on canvas, fetched £120,000, or $213,120 (estimate: £25,000/35,000); and Albert Oehlen, whose oil-on-canvas Untitled, 1990, took £243,000 ($432,000), nearly seven times above the high estimate of £35,000. Oehlen’s latest paintings, priced at just €130,000 each, made for a sellout show at Thomas Dane that opened in London just before the Frieze fair began.

The top lot of the sale was Chris Ofili’s Nooca, 1999—using oil, acrylic, paper collage, resin, elephant dung, glitter and beads on canvas—which sold for a low-estimate bid from Thomas Gibson Fine Art, realizing £344,000, or $611,000 (estimate: £300,000/400,000). Gibson Fine Art also bought Dirk Skreber’s Untitled (House), 1994, at a mid-estimate £108,000 ($192,240); and Glenn Brown’s painting Entertainment, 1995, for a high-estimate £142,400 ($252,902). The works will be held for an art show at Gibson Fine Art’s London gallery next year, marking Impressionist and modern dealer Thomas Gibson’s move into the more contemporary arena.

The second-highest sale was Bruce Nauman’s unique neon Eating Buggers (Version 11), 1985, which fell to Zwirner & Wirth, New York, for £299,000 ($531,379), more than double the low estimate of £140,000. It was one of several works from a guaranteed collection, including Brown’s Entertainment and Jeff Wall’s The Crooked Path, 1991, a Cibachrome transparency in a lightbox, which had last sold in New York in 2001 for $130,000 and now made a record £198,000 ($352,000), nearly twice the high estimate of £100,000.

In all, 12 record prices were claimed. Discounting the three that were claimed for specific mediums by an artist, the others were: Antony Gormley’s Fathers & Sons, Gods & Artists, Monuments & Toys, 1985-86, using lead, fiberglass, air and plaster, which went for £176,000, or $312,576 (estimate: £60,000/90,000); Katharina Fritsch’s Geist und Blutlache, 1988, in painted polyester, Plexiglas and lacquer, which realized a triple-estimate £159,200 ($283,000); William Kentridge’s animated DVD Shadow Procession,1999, which brought a double-estimate £102,000 ($181,152); Elger Esser’s photograph Paris, 1999, which made a triple-estimate £72,000 ($128,000); Vera Lutter’s photo Brooklyn Bridge, 1996, which took £48,000 ($85,000); Beatríz Milhazes’ painting Pedras, Botões e Contas, 1999, which realized £102,000 ($181,000); and Anton Henning’s oil-on-canvas Tankstelle im Abendlicht, 2000, which sold for a mid-estimate £36,000 ($64,080)—all to phone buyers.

Among the unsold lots were two works by Damien Hirst, triggering speculation that work by Young British Artists (YBAs) was on the wane. However, both pieces—a small butterfly painting and a small spot painting—were considered to be overestimated.

After the works by Ofili, Doig and Gormley, which were among the ten top-selling lots, the highest price for a British artist was a mid-estimate £153,600 ($271,872), given by U.K. collector Muriel Salem for a Rachel Whiteread casting, Untitled (Double), 1998.

At Sotheby’s, Two Troves Add Cachet

All the top lots at Sotheby’s found buyers, apart from an Yves Klein monochrome, Portrait of Iris Clert (estimate: £250,000/350,000). Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Leonardo and his Five Grostesque Heads), 1983, more than doubled its price in 2000, selling via phone to the U.S. trade for £736,000 ($1.3 million), well above its high £600,000 estimate.

A much bigger markup was achieved for Keith Haring’s tarpaulin Sneeze (Via Picasso), 1984, which made seven times its price in 2000 when it fell to another U.S. trade bidder on the phone for £181,600, or $320,488 (estimate: £50,000/70,000). Exceeding the previous record by a mile, Victor Vasarely’s black-and-white op art painting Vega, 1956, went to a private Belgian couple in the room for £164,800 ($290,839), more than twice the high estimate of £80,000.

The Vasarely was one of ten record prices set. As at Christie’s there was a selection of fashionable German works; and Eberhard Havekost’s painting of a train carriage, Untitled DD OO, 2000, sold over the phone for a record £102,000, or $180,540 (estimate: £40,000/60,000).

The record for Milhazes was again broken when her large 1996-97 painting O Piexe fell on a phone bid for a double-estimate £159,200 ($281,784); and a large stainless-steel sculpture by Marc Quinn, DNA Garden, 2002, was purchased by a private U.K. buyer in the room, within estimate, for £114,000 ($201,780).

Several records fell for works from the collection of Wolfgang Hahn, the Cologne restorer who died in 1987. Three were “affiches,” or torn poster works by Nouveau Realistes—France’s answer to pop art. A François Dufrêne décollage-on-canvas, 1/8 du plafond la 1er Biennale de Paris, 1959,

was bought for £62,400, or $110,448 (estimate: £10,000/15,000). Jacques de la Villeglé’s Avenue de la Liberté, 1961, took £90,000, or $159,300 (estimate: £20,000/30,000). And Raymond Hains’ décollage on jute La lessive génie, 1961, realized £60,000, or $106,200 (estimate: £15,000/20,000).

Other records from the Hahn collection were set for Jörg Immendorff’s sculpture Quadriga, 1981-83, which sold for £136,800, or $232,560 (estimate: £90,000/120,000); a Daniel Spoerri assemblage, Amora, 1960-61, which sold for £66,000, or $112,200 (estimate: £10,000/15,000); and Hermann Nitsch’s Schüttbild, 1962, which fetched £69,600, or $123,192 (estimate: £18,000/25,000).

Although Sotheby’s had pushed the younger artists in its presale publicity, “these results,” stated sale specialists Francis Outred and Helen Perkins, showed clearly that there was “a large appetite for outstanding postwar art that is fresh to the market.”