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$43M Valentine’s Day Auction a Celebrity Love-In at Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s made charity auction history on Feb. 14, when its contemporary art sale “Red,” organized by U2 lead singer Bono and artist Damien Hirst fetched a total of $42.6 million.

LONDON—Sotheby’s made charity auction history on Feb. 14, when its contemporary art sale “Red,” organized by U2 lead singer Bono and artist Damien Hirst fetched a total of $42.6 million. The proceeds are earmarked for a United Nations-funded program for HIV and AIDS relief in Africa. In the packed saleroom celebrities commingled with major art dealers and collectors.

Given the economic climate and the uncertain results produced by Christie’s contemporary art auction in London the week before (ANL, 2/19/08, p. 4-5), the sale was not guaranteed to be a success, although it helped that buzz had been generated by a preview exhibition of the works at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea. The auction carried a presale estimate of $20/28 million, with 83 works on offer by the likes of graffiti artist Banksy, John Currin, Hirst, Jeff Koons, Keith Tyson and Bill Viola. All but one found buyers.

Included were pieces made specially for the auction by British artists Tracey Emin ($220,000 for a heart-shaped neon sign saying, “I Promise to Love You”); Peter Blake ($418,000 for Love, a collage of found red objects); and Marc Quinn ($605,000 for Red Sphinx, the famous convoluted bronze sculpture of supermodel Kate Moss, with painted lips.)

Bono Taps into Market Strength

By approaching Hirst and artists represented by his two galleries, White Cube and Gagosian, Bono tapped what probably were the most powerful forces in the market.

Bidding for several collectors, White Cube acquired five works for a total just above $10 million. These included the top-selling lot, a Hirst pill cabinet, Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way, 2007, which won $7.1 million, just above its $7 million high estimate; and a record $1.9 million for a work by Banksy, Keep It Spotless, 2007—depicting the uniformed figure of a maid spray-painted onto a spot painting by Hirst. The previous record for a Banksy had been $660,000, but since this was a collaborative work by the two artists, it assumed added value, fetching $1.8 million, more than triple the the $350,000 high estimate.

While dealer Larry Gagosian did not buy anything, he actively bid on several lots, driving prices way over their estimates. More successful was London dealer Ivor Braka; bidding both for himself and a client, he bought two paintings by Hirst as well as photographs by Chuck Close, contributing $6 million to the auction total.

Hirst’s Love You, 2007, depicting small butterflies against a red background, achieved the second-highest price for a Hirst butterfly painting ($3.3 million, more than twice the $1.5 million high estimate); and a spot painting on a red background, Bromphenol Red, 2007, took the second-highest price for a Hirst spot painting ($2.6 million, comfortably above the high estimate of $1.5 million).

After the sale, Braka said both paintings were “spectacularly beautiful,” and that the prices were much as he had expected. He rejected the idea that because this was a charity sale, results bore little relevance to the art market.

Where Philanthropy Ends

“There is a comfort zone, up to about $200,000,” he explained, “where rich people [can pay over the odds and] don’t mind making fools of themselves. But when you’re paying more than that, it’s not just philanthropy.”

Oliver Barker, the London-based expert who conducted the sale, confirmed that most of the buyers were established collectors, including Bono, who spent more than $1 million. Celebrity impulse-buying—as when model Christy Turlington bought a watercolor on paper by Francesco Clemente, Red Flower on Scorched Earth, 1996, for $170,500, more than twice the $70,000 high estimate—was rarer.

Said Barker: “We had a lot of first-rate works by artists the market is looking for—like Andreas Gursky and Takashi Murakami, for whom there are waiting lists in the galleries.”

Dealer Braka pointed out that estimates at the “Red” auction were reasonable, which encouraged bidding. The question now is whether the slew of records will impact Sotheby’s sales of contemporary art in London.

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