ARTnewsletter Archive

Prices Fall as Collectors Drive Hard Bargain at Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s £22 million ($38.1 million) sale on Oct. 17 ended with a round of applause, even though 17 of the 62 lots offered had gone unsold, a further 28 had sold at hammer prices below estimates, and the total was far short of its £30.6 million/42 million estimate.

LONDON—Sotheby’s £22 million ($38.1 million) sale on Oct. 17 ended with a round of applause, even though 17 of the 62 lots offered had gone unsold, a further 28 had sold at hammer prices below estimates, and the total was far short of its £30.6 million/42 million estimate. The packed saleroom was simply relieved that, in spite of the calamitous events in the global financial markets, there was still a market for contemporary art, even if it was at a reduced level.

Of the two highest-estimated lots, Gerhard Richter’s Jerusalem (estimate: £5 million/7 million) was unsold, while Andy Warhol’s Skulls, 1976, ten differently colored canvases, sold on a single bid to dealer Alberto Mugrabi for £4.4 million ($7.5 million) to become the top lot of the auction. The next highest lot, Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (Rot), 1991, sold to U.S. dealer Nancy Whyte, bidding for a client, for £2.8 million ($4.9 million) against an estimate of £3 million/4 million, while Warhol’s Two Gold Mona Lisas, 1980, was bought by Zurich dealer Andrea Caratsch for £959,650 ($1.7 million), just below the estimate of £1 million/1.5 million.

Where reserves had been severely reduced, it looked as if there were bargains to be had—at least in comparison with previous market levels. Roy Lichtenstein’s colored pencil drawing Final Study for Amerind Landscape, 1979, sold to U.K. collector Joyce Reuben for £193,250 ($334,000) against an estimate of £250,000/350,000, and Warhol’s small Self-Portrait, 1966–67—offered last November as part of a diptych at Sotheby’s in New York, where it went unsold with an estimate of $1.5 million/2 million—was picked up by Mugrabi for £343,250 ($594,168), well below its estimate of £400,000/600,000.

Among the few works that exceeded estimates were Jenny Saville’s Rosetta 2, 2005–6, which had been consigned to the sale by the liquidators of troubled financial conglomerate Dawnay Day and fetched £634,850 ($1.1 million) from a European collector (estimate: £350,000/450,000), and two works by the popular British sculptor Antony Gormley. Gormley’s Domain LXIV, 2008, consigned by the artist to benefit the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, sold to New York private dealer Leslie Rankow for £193,250 ($334,320) on an estimate of £100,000/150,000, and his bronze maquette for Angel of the North, 1996, sold to U.K. private dealer John Pillar for £577,250 ($998,500) on an estimate of £350,000/450,000.

The sale featured a number of Indian, Chinese, Russian and African artworks. Indian art was most prominent among these, including three lots by Subodh Gupta, whose rise in the contemporary-art market has been underscored by his recent representation by Hauser & Wirth, London and Zurich.

Accordingly, the gallery underbid Gupta’s painting Untitled–Pots and Pans, 2004, which sold within estimate for £385,250 ($666,480), and bought his sculpture Cow, 2005, for £313,250 ($541,920), also within estimate. A third Gupta sculpture, Curry 2 (1), 2005, which had been sold at Art Basel the year it was made for $50,000, now sold for £241,250 ($417,360), just shy of its estimate of £250,000/350,000.

That lot showed that profits are still being made on artists whose recent rise to prominence has been meteoric. Another example was the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, whose wall hanging, Healer, 2006, made from metal bottle tops had been bought from the October Gallery in London for $60,000 and now sold for £349,250 ($604,202), well above its estimate of £180,000/250,000.

Otherwise, prices seemed to have fallen back to the levels of two years ago, Salzburg- and Paris-based dealer Thaddaeus Ropac said after the sale. Damien Hirst’s pink, heart-shaped butterfly painting, Untitled, 1996, which last sold in March 2006 in New York to Dawnay Day for $710,000, showed little improvement here, selling for £361,250 ($624,960) on a £250,000/350,000 estimate. Donald Judd’s Untitled (DSS 74), 1967, which sold in November 2006 for $408,000, now sold for £217,250 ($375,800), just within its estimate of £200,000/300,000.

One interesting statistic that emerged from the auction was that the guaranteed works that were sold carried a combined low estimate of £10 million and brought in a surprisingly healthy £9.4 million. Another interesting fact was the large proportion of U.S. buying—40 percent, compared with 54 percent for the U.K. and Europe (including Russia).

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