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Bidders Play a ‘Cautious Game’ at Christie’s Contemporary Sale

Christie’s went into the auction week with the highest presale estimate for a midseason October sale in London ever set (£57.8 million/75.6 million), but came away with a more modest £32 million ($55.5 million) after 21, or 45 percent, of the 47 lots were unsold, and a further 16 sold below their estimates.

LONDON—Christie’s went into the auction week with the highest presale estimate for a midseason October sale in London ever set (£57.8 million/75.6 million), but came away with a more modest £32 million ($55.5 million) after 21, or 45 percent, of the 47 lots were unsold, and a further 16 sold below their estimates.

Christie’s, too, had been caught out by the sudden economic downturn; some prices, however, could still be classed as historically high. Lucio Fontana’s black Concetto Spaziale, La Fine di Dio, 1963, consigned by the family of dealers Philippe and Denyse Durand-Ruel, was given an unpublished estimate of about £12 million, which would have been a record. The £9 million ($15.6 million) it ultimately fetched is still the ­second-highest price for a Fontana, and had it been sold at that price this time last year would have been a record by some distance. However, the curious circumstances of the bidding—just one commission bid after it was announced that a party with a financial interest in the work might be bidding—made the result seem slightly artificial, according to some observers.

Similarly, Lucian Freud’s unfinished portrait of Francis Bacon, which sold to London Old Master drawings dealer Stephen Ongpin, on behalf of a client, for £5.4 million ($9.4 million) with premium, failed to reach the estimate of £5 million/7 million on the hammer price—the only bid against the reserve. But it was still the highest price on record for a small painting by Freud at auction.

Two works among the top ten lots also realized prices far in excess of their recent auction prices. Richard Prince’s Dude Ranch Nurse #2, 2002–3, had been bought in May 2007 in New York for $2.5 million, and sold here for £3.2 million ($5.5 million), at the top of its estimate of £2.8 million/3.2 million. Willem de Kooning’s late painting Untitled XVIII, 1986, had been bought in November 2006 in New York for $3.4 million, and sold now for £2.7 million ($4.7 million) against an estimate of £2.5 million/3.5 million.

There was a certain amount of opportunistic buying, in which collectors bid against the reserve to acquire a work. “Some collectors felt that if the market goes down, great works are less likely to become available, and if such works did not sell in this auction, they would not be offered again in the near future,” said Brett Gorvy, Christie’s deputy chairman, Americas, who took the winning bid for Freud’s early oil-on-copper Girl Reading, 1952, which sold with no competition for £2.2 million ($3.8 million) on an estimate of £2 million/3 million). Andy Warhol’s Two Marilyns (Double Marilyns), 1962, was snapped up by art adviser Hugues Joffre for £3.7 million ($6.5 million), far below the estimate of £4.5 million/6.5 million and also against no competition.

Buyer’s Market

Other bidders played a more cautious game. One of the top-estimated lots, Bacon’s small Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, 1969, had come in with a £5.5 million/7.5 million estimate. The lot received a bid of £3.6 million from dealer Ivor Braka, who could not be persuaded to go higher, and went unsold. Similarly, Jose Mugrabi went to £1.8 million on Warhol’s Nine Multicolored Marilyns, 1979–86 (estimate: £2.2 million/2.8 million), but no further, so that, too, went unsold.

Both works were guaranteed, and three other guaranteed works, including the black Fontana, realized a total of only £11.3 million ($19.6 million) against a combined low estimate of £14.2 million ($24.7 million). “Obviously we need to adjust our pricing,” said London’s head of department, Pilar Ordovás, at the postsale press conference.

Chinese art had a mixed reception, with Zeng Fanzhi’s early masked portrait Untitled, 1998, doing best, selling for £289,250 ($502,138) against a £120,000/180,000 estimate.

The sale was notable as the first time works by Middle Eastern artists were included in an evening sale. This led to the respectable prices of £145,250 ($252,150) for Farhad Moshiri’s Koonsian gold cabinet, Golden Love Super Deluxe, 2003 (estimate: £100,000/150,000), and £217,250 ($377,150) for Charles-Hossein Zenderoudi’s calligraphic Harvest of Harmony, 1982 (estimate: £200,000/300,000).

As at Sotheby’s, the strengthening U.S. dollar led to a relatively high rate of buying from the Americas, 30 percent by lot compared with 48 percent for Europe and the U.K. Among the U.S.-based dealers buying were Per Skarstedt and Alicia Bona, who picked up Warhol’s small painting Mao, 1973, for £657,250 ($1.1 million), just within the estimate of £600,000/800,000. Swiss collector Madame Georges Marci bought Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Anne Boleyn, 1999, for £97,250 ($168,825) on an estimate of £80,000/120,000, and Christie’s head of Asian client services, Ken Yeh, bought works by Ron Arad, Takashi Murakami and Bill Viola, contributing to the 18 percent (by lot) of buying that came from Asia.

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