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London Contemporary Sales Clear Stunning $353M

London has effectively added a third season to its contemporary art sales calendar. Sales of contemporary art and 20th-century Italian art, held from Oct. 12-16 to coincide with the fifth Frieze Art Fair, amassed a substantial £174 million ($353 million).

LONDON—London has effectively added a third season to its contemporary art sales calendar. Sales of contemporary art and 20th-century Italian art, held from Oct. 12-16 to coincide with the fifth Frieze Art Fair, amassed a substantial £174 million ($353 million).

To judge the effects of the fair on these fall auctions (referred to in past years as “mid-season” sales), go back to October 2002, just before Frieze started up, when combined sales by Sotheby’s and Christie’s amounted to just £10.5 million (though Christie’s held no Italian sale that month, and Phillips de Pury & Company was not operational in the U.K.).

This time around, Christie’s edged out Sotheby’s—albeit with 117 more lots on offer—realizing £66.6 million ($135 million), compared with Sotheby’s £66.25 million ($134.8 million). Phillips’ total for four sales was £41.9 million ($85 million). There were some market adjustments, particularly where estimates had been set too high. The failure of several works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol were the most prominent examples. Still, the series fell just short of its overall presale high estimate of £184 million ($373.5 million). Average unsold percentages from the 1,250 lots offered totaled only 13 percent, apart from a Part Two sale at Christie’s that rose to 28 percent.

The sales were assisted by the inclusion of contemporary Chinese art, which brought £21.7 million ($44 million) for 56 lots in the main sales alone at the three houses. Contemporary design was also included, assisting totals at both Phillips and Christie’s. The effect of the falling dollar ($2.06 to the pound) was difficult to assess. It seemed pronounced at Sotheby’s, where only 19 percent of buyers in the Part One sale were U.S.-based, but apparently had negative impact at Christie’s (35 percent).

One statistic to emerge is that, with the advent of this third season, contemporary art sales in London have overtaken the traditionally dominant Impressionist and modern art sales, which enjoy just two seasons—February and June—and do not benefit from the contribution of a third auction house. Impressionist and modern art sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London have realized £476.2 million in 2007, while contemporary sales, including those at Phillips, have risen to £553.3 million.

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