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‘Adjusted Estimates’ Encourage Bidders at Sotheby’s Contemporary

Having first separated its London sales of contemporary art from the Impressionist and modern art series last year, Sotheby’s promptly reversed that decision this year, taking its competitors by surprise and rescheduling its February contemporary auction to immediately follow the Impressionist sales in the same week.

LONDON—Having first separated its London sales of contemporary art from the Impressionist and modern art series last year, Sotheby’s promptly reversed that decision this year, taking its competitors by surprise and rescheduling its February contemporary auction to immediately follow the Impressionist sales in the same week.

Going into the auctions it was clear Sotheby’s had taken drastic action to cut its losses and stabilize the market. The evening sale on Feb. 5 had just 27 lots, compared with 62 last February, and was estimated at £16.5 million/23 million ($23.9 million/33.3 million) compared with the £30.6 million/42.7 million ($61 million/85 million) of last year. In any event, the figures turned out well, as 25 lots, or 93 percent, sold for a total of £17.9 million ($25.8 million).

Perhaps the biggest boost came in the lower-value day sale on Feb. 6, for which the total, £7.3 million ($10.7 million), exceeded the high estimate of £6.5 million. The average price in the auction, which was 90 percent sold by lot and 92 percent sold by value, was double that in the February 2005 day sale.

It appears that whereas sales volume is back to the levels of four years ago, individual prices generally have dropped less, though that varies on a case-by-case basis. After the evening sale, which had 200 registered bidders, auctioneer and worldwide head of contemporary art Tobias Meyer commented that the results showed how “functional” the market was with the “new adjusted estimates.”

Topping the evening sale was Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale, 1961, which had not been exhibited or sold for 50 years. The market, which was looking farther back than the last two years for new price levels, apparently judged the £5 million/7 million estimate too high, and the work sold to a European collector for £4.4 million ($6.4 million), still a record for a Venetian-series work by Fontana.

This was followed by Jeff Koons’s sculpture Stacked, 1988, from the “Banality” series, which had been bought in 1997 by WeightWatchers founder Richard Cooper for $250,000 and was sold now for £2.8 million ($4.1 million) to Stefan Ratibor of the Gagosian Gallery (estimate: £2.2 million/3.2 million). Ratibor was one of the more active bidders at the sale. He was the underbidder for Gerhard Richter’s painting Troisdorf, 1985, which last sold in 2002 to Madame Hong of Seomi Gallery, Seoul, for $3.2 million, and which failed to recoup that outlay now, selling for £2.1 million ($3 million) on an estimate of £1.5 million/2 million. Ratibor won out, however, on Andreas Gursky’s Cibachrome print Monaco, 2006, which was consigned by Russian collector Oleg Baibakov. The photograph sold for £517,250 ($745,798) on an estimate of £400,000/600,000.

Another persistent bidder was dealer Jose Mugrabi. He was the underbidder on several lots, including Andy Warhol’s Mick Jagger, 1975, which last sold in June 2006 for £700,000 ($1.3 million) and was bought now by a U.S. collector for £797,250 ($1.1 million) against an estimate of £500,000/700,000. He was also the underbidder on Damien Hirst’s heart-shaped butterfly painting Dark Days, 2008, which was donated by the artist and sold for £361,250 ($520,200), with the proceeds earmarked for Russian collector Victor Pinchuk’s charitable foundation Cradles of Hope (estimate: £250,000/350,000). Mugrabi’s only purchase was a painting by Zeng Fanzhi, an artist he represents. Untitled (Mask Series), 1998, sold for £601,250 ($867,123) against an estimate of £300,000/400,000.

One Italian collector, from Rome, bought two works—Michelangelo Pistoletto’s mirror painting Visitor with Catalogue, 1969, which last sold in 2000 for £48,800 ($70,000) and sold now for £241,250 ($347,400) against an estimate of £250,000/350,000, and Anish Kapoor’s early mirror sculpture Untitled, 1996, which sold on the primary market the year it was made for £150,000, and sold now for £982,050 ($1.4 million), above the estimate of £500,000/700,000.

Another notable buyer was a Middle Eastern collector on the telephone, who bought Bridget Riley’s painting Gala, 1974, for £735,650 ($1.1 million), underbid by dealer Ivor Braka (estimate: £600,000/800,000); Mumbai-based artist Rashid Rana’s photographic work Veil IV, 2007, for a ­double-estimate £313,250 ($451,080); and Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri’s painting 974101, 2005, for £58,850 ($84,744) on an estimate of £60,000/80,000.

One example of how pricing had been kept low was Andy Warhol’s Three Self-Portraits, 1986, a set of three 12-inch-square fright-wig ­self-portraits, estimated at £550,000/750,000, even though a single 12-inch fright-wig self-portrait had brought $1.6 million at Christie’s in New York in November 2007. The triptych sailed over its estimate to sell to an Asian collector for £892,450 ($1.3 million).

The geographic breakdown of buyers at the sale was a relatively high 24 percent from the U.S., 48 percent from Europe, 12 percent from the Middle East and 16 percent from Asia. The most recent similar total for a Sotheby’s London sale was in February 2005, though officials of the house pointed out that the average lot price then was just £283,833, compared with £715,170 this time around.

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