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    Uneven Demand for Contemporary Art at End-of-Year Paris Sales

    There were mixed results for sales of contemporary art in Paris last month. The high point of the series came in Sotheby's evening sale on Dec. 10, when a new auction record was set for a work by Pierre Soulages. His Peinture, 21 juillet 1958, sold to a French dealer for €1.52 million ($1.97 million)

    PARIS—There were mixed results for sales of contemporary art in Paris last month. The high point of the series came in Sotheby’s evening sale on Dec. 10, when a new auction record was set for a work by Pierre Soulages. His Peinture, 21 juillet 1958, sold to a French dealer for €1.52million ($1.97million) on an estimate of €800,000/1.2million. Soulages’s work has become a specialty of Sotheby’s: the firm’s inaugural contemporary sale in Paris, in July 2006, posted a then-record for the artist of €1.2million ($1.5million) for an untitled 1959 painting.

    Sotheby’s 140-lot sale brought in €6.2million ($8.03million), with a respectable sell-through rate of 73 percent by volume, helping the auction house take the lead in sales of contemporary art in Paris for 2008 (see story, page 4) with a total of €29.9million ($31.4million). But a sell-through rate of just 49 percent by value for this sale reflected the failure of several top lots, most notably Francis Bacon’s Two Figures, 1961 (estimate: €5million/7million).

    After the record price for Soulages, the next-highest price was €372,750 ($483,000), paid by a U.S. collector for Yves Klein’s ­burnt-cardboard-on-panel F94, 1961 (estimate: €300,000/400,000). Sotheby’s officials said that only 11 percent of the sale’s buyers were from the United States; the overwhelming majority hailed from Europe, split roughly equally between France and the rest of the continent.

    Nonetheless, helped by what Sotheby’s officials termed a “recent revision” of sale estimates in line with economic circumstances, six lots out of the top ten cleared their high estimates, notably Maurice Estève’s canvas Trophée, 1952, which sold for €270,750 ($350,900) on an estimate of €180,000/250,000, and Jean Fautrier’s Tête de Partisan, Budapest, 1956, an oil on paper mounted on canvas inspired by the Hungarian anti-Soviet uprising, which sold for €180,750 ($234,200) on an estimate of €100,000/150,000. Both works sold to French collectors.

    Christie’s 227-lot sale on Dec. 9–10 brought in €7million ($9million) and was 61 percent sold by lot, 55 percent by value. Private buying predominated, but it was a U.S. dealer who paid the top price: €541,000 ($694,600), for Jean Dubuffet’s Partie liée au sol, 1958, within the estimate of €450,000/650,000. Most of the top lots sold within estimates; a rare exception was a second, later work by Dubuffet, Papa la cravate, 1973, which sold for €367,000 ($471,000) against an estimate of €150,000/200,000.

    Christie’s department head in Paris, Jean-Olivier Desprès, described the market as “selective and demanding,” albeit with solid bidding for works from the 1950s; he conceded that the high buy-in rate was the result of estimates that bidders considered excessive in the current climate. Sculpture, however, yielded some healthy prices, led by Jaume Plensa’s monumental illuminated kneeling figure Tatoo IV, 2004, in wood, stainless steel and polyester resin, which sold for €99,400 ($129,200) on an estimate of €80,0000/100,000.

    Artcurial’s sale on Dec. 15 totaled €1.83million ($2.45million) and was 65 percent sold by value, 58 percent by lot. Luis Feito’s abstract Composition, 1962 (estimate: €15,000/20,000), yielded an unexpected price of €55,063 ($73,760), and works from France’s Figuration Narrative movement posted solid results, with 19 out of 23 lots sold, notably La Bicyclette, 1975, by Erró (Gundmundur Gudmundsson), from his series “Légercomics,” which sold for €29,000 ($38,800) on an estimate of €22,000/26,000.

    At the lower end of the price scale, there was a healthy response to Street Art (or Graffiti Art), with 100 lots bringing in a total of €369,000 ($504,200). This session was 80 percent sold by value, 65 percent by lot; buying came mainly from Europeans, particularly French, Swiss and Italian collectors. A record price of €35,236 ($47,200) was set for a work by the French-based American artist JonOne with the large spray-paint-and-acrylic Le Départ (Mme Protis), 1994 (estimate: €20,000/30,000).

    Mathematics, 1984–85, a work by another American artist, Dondi White, sold for €19,126 ($25,600) on an estimate of €15,000/20,000, and Ronnie Cutrone’s acrylic-painted U.S. flag Fellowship, 1988, fetched a ­mid-estimate €17,214 ($23,000). This Machine Kills Fascists, 2007, a serigraph on wood by Obey Giant (Shepard Fairey), fresh from his work for the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, surpassed its €1,800/2,200 estimate, selling for €3,825 ($5,100).

    An untitled 1990 work by the Banksy-inspired French stencil artist Blek Le Rat took in €11,476 ($15,400) on an estimate of €10,000/12,000, and a work produced by the Barcelona artists Sixeart and Nano4814 in a performance in Artcurial’s premises on the Champs-Elysées two days before the sale, sold for €7,650 ($10,200).

    SIMON HEWITT