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London Sales: ‘Catching Up on New York’ Sotheby’s Scores After Uneven Christie’s Sale

After holding sales of Impressionist and modern art alongside Christie’s in early February (ANL, 2/19/08), Sotheby’s opted to push back a series of contemporary art sales to the end of the month.

LONDON—After holding sales of Impressionist and modern art alongside Christie’s in early February (ANL, 2/19/08), Sotheby’s opted to push back a series of contemporary art sales to the end of the month. Consequently, the house was able to devote its entire space to a preview of contemporary offerings. Phillips de Pury & Company followed suit, noting that the later sale date allowed more time to ready its new building on Howick place and to add more lots to the sale. Despite some decidedly selective buying, demand was intense for the best works, and both houses noted several records. Says dealer Philippe Ségalot, of Giraud, Pissarro, Ségalot, New York and Paris: “Within the last two-to-three years the market has become more global. London is now catching up on New York.”

In evening and day auctions held Feb. 27-28, Sotheby’s contemporary sales totaled £119.9 million ($239 million). Ségalot, who bought three of the highest lots of the week for private clients, reports, “Sotheby’s had masterpieces that were well-priced.”

Phillips garnered £32.3 million ($64 million), including the take from an evening sale of contemporary Russian art on Feb. 28. Christie’s earlier contemporary series earned £97.5 million ($191.3 million), but its evening auction was overshadowed by a relatively high 30 percent buy-in rate. Including the Part Two, or day sale, totals, the February contemporary sales set a record for a London series at £249.7 million (about $495 million).

Sotheby’s $189M Contemporary Sale Tops Its Own Overseas Record

LONDON—After the Christie’s uneven contemporary art sales in London on Feb. 6(ANL, 2/19/08, pp. 4-5), Sotheby’s put the market back on track with a record £95 million ($189 million) Part One evening sale on Feb. 27—the highest take ever for a contemporary art sale outside the U.S. In comparison, Sotheby’s year-ago contemporary sales in London realized a then-record £45.8 million, or $90 million, for 79 lots (ANL, 2/20/07, pp. 4-5). Of the 70 lots on offer at this February’s auction, 14, or 20 percent, went unsold, compared with 31 percent at Christie’s last month.

Bacon Figure Fetches $40M

As at Christie’s, some of the top-selling lots were by European postwar masters Francis Bacon, Lucio Fontana and Gerhard Richter—all in the same price brackets now as their American contemporaries. The top lot was Bacon’s oil-on-canvas Study of Nude with Figure in a Mirror, 1969, with an estimate “in excess of £18 million,” which fetched £19.9 million ($39.8 million).

Offered back in 1993 with a £1/2 million estimate, the painting went unsold after bidding climbed no higher than £680,000. It was then acquired postsale by London dealer Ivor Braka for an undisclosed figure; he sold it to Hong Kong lawyer Sir Po-Shing Woo, who was the seller at this auction, having obtained a guarantee of approximately £20 million ($39.9 million).

If Sotheby’s failed to profit on the Bacon, it made a killing with Lucio Fontana’s glittering bronze, egg-shaped painting La Fine di Dio, 1963. There are only 38 in this series of canvases, and just a couple in gold and bronze—one of them in the Italian Embassy in Tokyo.

Punctured to resemble the pitted surface of the moon, works from the series have produced record prices for the artist before—and this one, says Sotheby’s head of sale Francis Outred, was “the best in the series.”

Estimated to break the record at £4/6 million, La Fine di Dio was marked in the catalogue with a triangle, denoting that Sotheby’s had a financial interest in the work. This meant the house had bought either the whole work or a share of it.

No doubt assisted by the huge £6.7 million ($13.4 million) paid for a large, red-slashed canvas at Christie’s three weeks before, the Fontana fetched a record £10.3 million ($20.6 million) from New York dealer Philippe Ségalot.

Richter Prices Bound Past Estimates

Destined for American private collections were two high-flying Gerhard Richters. The first, the large 1989 abstract painting Struktur (I), 1989, more than doubled the £2 million high estimate to sell for £4.6 million ($9.2 million), against bidding from San Francisco dealer Anthony Meier. Meier then underbid again on Richter’s Candle, 1983, which snagged a record £8 million ($15.9 million), more than triple the high estimate of £2.5 million.

Remarked Sotheby’s Outred: “The continued strength of the market allowed us to source a group of works that included a number of masterpieces. Our clients responded with appropriate enthusiasm.” Outred characterized the bidding for works by Richter and Fontana as “frenetic.”

Topping the charts for works by U.S. artists was Andy Warhol’s Three Self-Portraits, 1986, a triptych of canvases in red, white and blue, which sold to Ségalot for £11.4 million, or $22.8 million, against an estimate “in excess of £10 million.” The Warhol, slated for a European collection, and the Fontana were acquired for different buyers, Ségalot told ARTnewsletter. Both, he notes, are “connoisseurs.”

In the wake of the Warhol sale, Jeff Koons’ transitional stainless-steel sculpture Kiepenkerl, 1987, fell to Damien Hirst for £3.2 million, or $6.3 million (estimate: £1.5/2 million); and Joan Mitchell’s La Grande Vallée XI, 1984, went to a private U.S. phone bidder for £2.6 million, or $5.2 million (estimate: £1/1.5 million).

More record prices were set for Spanish sculptor Juan Munoz’ Broken Nose II, 1999 (£356,500 or $710,611, within the £200,000/300,000 estimate); Gilbert and George’s Bad Thoughts No. 2, 1975 (bought by White Cube for £636,500, or $1.3 million—estimate: £300,000/500,000); Paula Rego’s pastel Baying, 1994 (sold for £558,100, or $1.1 million—estimate: £350,000/500,000); and Malcolm Morley’s Cristoforo Colombo, 1965 (won for £502,100, or $1 million—estimate: £175,000/225,000).

White Cube also acquired two photographic works by Andreas Gursky that informed sources believe were bought on behalf of Ukranian collector Victor Pinchuk. Gursky’s Los Angeles, 1998, achieved his second-highest price, selling for £1.5 million, or $2.9 million (estimate: £800,000/1.2 million). His Börse, Tokyo, 1990, took £636,500, or $1.3 million (estimate: £500,000/700,000).

Other buyers in the room included dealer Thaddeus Ropac, of Paris and Salzburg, who gave £580,000, or $1.2 million (estimate: £300,000/400,000), for Georg Baselitz’s early upside-down painting Group #11, Red Elke and Bottle, 1938; art adviser Rosario Saxe-Coburg, who took Peter Doig’s Concrete Cabin, 1994, a painting acquired by Sotheby’s from the Charles Saatchi collection, for £1.1 million, or $2.1 million (estimate: £400,000/600,000); Alberto Mugrabi, who bought two Warhols—a pink and green Self-Portrait, 1966-67, for £636,500, or $1.3 million (estimate: £700,000/ 900,000), and a small, 1964 Jackie for £580,500, or $1.16 million (estimate: £700,000/1 million); and David Nahmad, who purchased Fontana’s slashed white canvas, Concetto spaziale, attese, 1961, for £602,900, or $1.2 million (estimate: £300,000/400,000).

Volatile Market for Chinese Works

The auction ended weakly with a string of unsold lots, notably three Chinese works that included Yue Minjun’s Overwhelm, 1994 (estimate: £1.2/1.8 million). Afterward Sotheby’s auctioneer and head of contemporary art Tobias Meyer explained that the Chinese market has escalated so rapidly that sometimes estimates can be difficult to assess.

Of the Chinese contemporary works that did sell, some prices were just at or near the low estimate, indicating selective buyer demand. Zhang Xiaogang’s Big Family No. 1, 2001, the largest work by the artist offered at auction to date, sold for £1.7 million ($3.9 million), against an estimated £1.5/2 million. Elsewhere, Minjun’s lower-priced painting Fools in the Night, 1997-98, featuring the artist’s trademark “self-portrait” subject matter—rows of identical laughing faces—earned £916,500 ($1.8 million), toward the upper end of the £750,000/950,000 estimate.

The buyer breakdown was: European (including U.K. and Russian), 65%; U.S., 30%; Asian, 4%; and all others, 2%.

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