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High Buy-In Rate Subdues Christie’s Contemporary Sale

Christie’s described its Part One evening auction of postwar and contemporary art as a tightly edited auction of just 54 lots, with a presale estimate of £72/100 million, excluding commission charges.

LONDON—Christie’s described its Part One evening auction of postwar and contemporary art as a tightly edited auction of just 54 lots, with a presale estimate of £72/100 million, excluding commission charges. Had the hammer price total fallen within the estimate, it would have been a record for a London sale in that category, which stood at £74 million ($147.3 million ) realized by Christie’s last June.

However, the resulting total of £72.9 million ($143 million), including charges, with 17, or 31 percent, of lots unsold, was a double disappointment. Not only was the buy-in in rate the highest for a major contemporary sale in London since June 2003, but it was the first for an even longer time where the hammer total (£64.5 million) has been below the low estimate.

Bacon Triptych Takes $51.7M

Nonetheless, it did rate as the second-highest total for a London contemporary sale. This was due to the sale of Francis Bacon’s Triptych, 1974-77, for £26.3 million ($51.7 million)—the highest price for a postwar work in a European auction—though even this had its anxious moments.

Starting the bidding at £20 million, auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen took two offers in the room from Lebanese collector Samir Traboulsi—but then found himself stranded on £22.5 million without another bidder and, presumably, still below the reserve. Pylkkänen then made two more bids to take it up to £23 million. After he spent several moments searching the room, a £23.5 million bid came from the doorway from Geneva jewelry dealer Andrew Cohen, and the sale was made. Cohen, Christie’s said, was acting as an agent for the anonymous buyer.

In all, nearly half the lots that sold did so on bids either on or below the low estimates. One of Richard Prince’s nurse paintings, Settlement Nurse, 2003, was guaranteed with a £2/3 million estimate; it earned £2.1 million ($4.2 million) after a single bid by dealer Larry Gagosian at £1.9 million ($3.7 million). Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Palm Springs Jump, 1982, was also guaranteed and sold on a single £5.5 million phone bid.

The price with commission was £6.5 million ($12.8 million)—the second-highest for a Basquiat at auction. Similarly, Andy Warhol’s double portrait of Judy Garland, circa 1979, was guaranteed (estimate: £2/3 million) and sold on a single £1.9 million ($3.7 million) bid from Jose Mugrabi, taking the final price to £2.1 million ($4.2 million).

Among the higher-value lots that failed to attract bidding were a 1966 Warhol self-portrait (estimate: £1.4/2 million); a large 1985 Gerhard Richter abstract (estimate: £1.5/2 million), last sold in 2002 for £500,000; and a Damien Hirst butterfly painting (estimate: £700,000/900,000), bought at the Pharmacy sale in 2004 for £263,200.

Just as conspicuous was the fate of three works by Rudolf Stingel, all guaranteed with estimates ranging from £80,000/700,000, none of which were sold. Stingel had appeared to be one of the hottest artists in the market, enjoying sellout shows and rapidly rising auction prices, but dealers and collectors agreed that the Christie’s estimates, pitched at twice the retail levels, were far too high.

With even the small number of Chinese works failing to ignite in the customary manner, the only depth of bidding was found for postwar classics from the 1960s. A large, red Concetto spaziale, attesa, 1965, with a single cut by Lucio Fontana, fetched a record £6.7 million, or $13.2 million (estimate: £3.5/5.5 million).

Compensating for a rocky night for Richter was a record £7.3 million ($14.3 million) paid by a U.S. buyer for the 1966 photo painting Zwei Liebespaare 1966 (estimated at £6 million). An early Cy Twombly, Untitled (Rome), 1958, saw dealers Christophe Van de Weghe, Gagosian and Karsten Greve locked in competition before Greve won out at £3.9 million, or $7.7 million (estimate: £1.5/2 million).

And, Static 2, 1966, a large, early op-art painting by Bridget Riley, rose to a record £1.5 million, or $2.9 million (estimate: £700,000/900,000).

Strong prices were also achieved for a large photograph, Aegean Sea, Pilion, 1990, by Hiroshi Sugimoto, which sold for £524,500, or $1 million (estimate: £250,000/350,000)—the second-highest price for the artist; for Andreas Gursky’s Klitschko, 1999, which fell to art adviser Sandy Heller, also for £524,500, or $1 million (estimate: £350,000/450,000); and for a set of 12 Warhol prints, Mao [Tse-tung], 1972, which went to Mary Hoeveler of the Citigroup Art Advisory Service for £558,100, or $1.1 million (estimate: £200,000/300,000).

Other trade buying in the room came from Gagosian, who snapped up an early Ed Ruscha painting, Sauce, 1967, for £412,500, or $809,300 (estimate: £350,000/500,000); and from Van de Weghe, who acquired a small Bacon, Head, circa 1967, for £558,100, or $1.1 million (estimate: £500,000/750,000). The 37 sold lots were divided fairly evenly between European and U.K. buyers (57%) and the Americas (43%).

After the sale, Christie’s department head in London, Pilar Ordovás, put a positive spin on the results, insisting they demonstrated the “underlying, continued strength of the market.” But not everyone was convinced.

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