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Christie’s Scales Back and Scores Record $172M Postwar Sale

Christie’s achieved its highest total for a contemporary-art sale in Europe on June 30 when its evening sale realized £86.2 million ($171.9 million).

LONDON—Christie’s achieved its highest total for a contemporary-art sale in Europe on June 30 when its evening sale realized £86.2 million ($171.9 million). The amount is £11.5 million more than the previous high, achieved last June, and with a little more than half the number of lots this time—58, compared with last year’s 106. The unsold rate of 17 percent by lot, however, was higher than that of last year’s evening sale (just 11 percent), which points to a more discriminating market where works by a few top-end artists are still seeing substantial rises while others are struggling to sell at inflated prices.

Francis Bacon is an obvious example of this top-end expansion (see box, page 4); the sale was led by his 1975 triptych of small canvases, Three Studies for Self-Portrait, with an unpublished estimate of £12 million, which sold for £17.3 million ($34.5 million) to an anonymous buyer thought by trade sources to be from Ireland, the artist’s country of birth.

Lucian Freud is another example—his Naked Portrait with Reflection, 1980, which sold in 1998 for £2.8 million ($4.6 million), fetched £11.8 million ($23.5 million) on an estimate of £10 million/15 million. American artists whose prices demonstrated similar expansion included Andy Warhol, whose Last Supper, 1986, last sold in 2003 to PaceWildenstein for $1.8 million and sold here for £3.2 million ($6.4 million) to dealer Tony Shafrazi bidding against Jose Mugrabi (estimate: £2 million/3 million); and Jeff Koons, whose Balloon Flower (Magenta), 1995–2000, bought originally for a reported $1 million, was sold by U.S. collectors Howard and Cindy Rachofsky for £12.9 million ($25.7 million) on an unpublished estimate of £12 million. The price was a record for Koons, but whether Christie’s saw much of a return on the estimated $25 million guarantee it gave the Rachofskys is another matter.

Altogether Christie’s guaranteed 14 lots with a combined low estimate of £40.2 million ($80.2 million) without premium, and realized £47.5 million ($94.8 million) with premium. The major guaranteed but unsold work was a vast Damien Hirst spot painting, L-Tyrosine-15N, 2001 (estimate: £2 million/3 million), which received a bid of £1.8 million from White Cube gallery, not enough to secure a sale. Another Hirst, Untitled, 1995, a sculpture with 42 small fish in formaldehyde that had been bought in New York in 2005 for $288,000 by collector Peter Brant, did sell, and at a good profit, for £421,250 ($839,551) against an estimate of £350,000/550,000. As at Phillips de Pury & Company the night before (see story, page 5), White Cube was supporting the market for Hirst; it was the gallery who won the work on a single bid.

Another major unsold work was a pink egg-shaped oil on canvas, (Concetto Spaziale) La Fine di Dio, 1964, by Lucio Fontana, bought by Milan dealer Daniele Pescali in 1996 for £397,000, but now carrying a hefty £8 million unpublished estimate following Sotheby’s sale of a gold-colored work from the same series for £10.3 million ($20.6 million) in February (ANL, 3/18/08). Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nude No. 44, 1963, which last sold in 2002 in New York for $944,000, failed to live up to the £2.5 million/3 million estimate and was bought in, and Zhang Xiaogang’s Father and Daughter, 2000, also failed to sell on an estimate of £900,000/1.5 million.

Several records were set, though most record lots, like the Koons sculpture, sold at hammer prices on the lower end of punchy estimates, and some sold to the artists’ dealers. Madrid desde Torres Blancas, 1976–82, by the Spanish artist Antonio López (estimate: £1.5 million/2 million), sold to Marlborough Fine Art for £1.4 million ($2.8 million); The Cathedral, The North East Face/Uluru (Ayers Rock), 1985, by the School of London artist Michael Andrews (estimate: £1 million/1.5 million), sold to Oslo’s Galleri K for £937,250 ($1.8 million); Koons’s Auto, 2001 (estimate: £2.2 million/2.8 million), set a record for a painting by the artist, selling on a single bid to Larry Gagosian for £2.5 million ($5 million); and La Terre, 1973, by the Indian artist Syed Haider Raza (estimate: £1 million/1.5 million), sold for £1.3 million ($2.5 million).

The standout records were the £1.7 million ($3.4 million) price paid for Marseilles sous la neige, 1954, by Nicolas de Staël (estimate: £400,000/600,000); the £517,250 ($1 million) paid for Karin “Mamma” Andersson’s panoramic landscape Heimat Land, 2004, in bidding that left her dealer, David Zwirner, far behind (estimate: £120,000/180,000); and the £1.9 million ($3.7 million) paid by a phone bidder against L&M Arts for Gilbert & George’s early photographic work To Her Majesty, 1973 (estimate: £400,000/600,000).

Buyers in the room included Acquavella Galleries, which outbid Jose Mugrabi to obtain Warhol’s Nine Multicoloured Marilyns (Reversal Series), 1979–86, for £4.1 million ($8.1 million) on an estimate of £2.5 million/3.5 million; collector Laurence Graff, who bought Warhol’s Skull, 1976, for £657,250 ($1.3 million) on an estimate of £400,000/600,000; and White Cube, which outbid Larry Gagosian to buy Hiroshi Sugimoto’s large gelatin silver print Black Sea, Ozuluce, 1991, for £646,050 ($1.3 million) on an estimate of £250,000/350,000 and bought Fred Tomaselli’s Big Bird, 2004, for £457,250 ($911,299) on an estimate of £150,000/200,000. Italian dealer Giorgio Bassi bought Richard Hamilton’s Fashion-Plate (Cosmetic-Study VII), 1969, for £457,250 ($911,299) on an estimate of £400,000/600,000, and Jose Mugrabi bought Warhol’s large painting Dollar Sign, 1981 (estimate: £1.2 million/2 million), for £1.5 million ($3.1 million) and Wesselmann’s 1966 painted-Plexiglas Great American Nude #82 (#4), one of an edition of five, for £493,250 ($983,047) on an estimate of £220,000/280,000. Richard Green outbid Timothy Taylor for Bridget Riley’s August, 1995, for £457,250 ($911,300) on an estimate of £350,000/450,000, and L&M Arts bought Gerhard Richter’s small color-chart painting Zwölf Farben, 1966–78, estimated at £750,000/1 million, for £713,250 ($1.4 million).

Of the 48 lots that were sold, Christie’s reported that 48 percent went to U.S. buyers, 42 percent to U.K. and European buyers, and 8 percent to Asian buyers.

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