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Sotheby’s Leads Contemporary Auctions by Small Margin

Once again, Sotheby’s held its sales of contemporary art in the same week as its sales of Impressionist and modern art (ANL, 7//7/09).

LONDON—Once again, Sotheby’s held its sales of contemporary art in the same week as its sales of Impressionist and modern art (ANL, 7//7/09). The auction house had announced in February of last year that London deserved a dedicated week for contemporary art, and that it would move its auctions. First Phillips de Pury & Company and then, last June, Christie’s followed suit. But the recession changed all that: With fewer lots on offer, Sotheby’s reverted to the old schedule last February, saying that it is more convenient for overseas buyers, and did so again this summer, leaving Christie’s and Phillips to trail in the following week. Sotheby’s benefitted last February, with a much higher total and sell-through rate, and this June, it again emerged at the front of the pack, but by a much smaller margin.

The evening sale on June 25 realized £25.5million ($42million), near the top of its £19.75million/27.4million estimate, but down from the £94.7million ($189million) total of last June by some 73 percent. What was encouraging was that in the trimmed-down sale of 40 lots (versus 75 last year), 37, or 93 percent, sold, including all of the highest-estimated lots.

These included three works by Andy Warhol from the esteemed Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart. Although prices for Warhol have generally fallen from their peak, these lots were estimated much as they would have been last year, according to Alexander Branczik, Sotheby’s head of sale.

Warhol’s canvas Mrs. McCarthy and Mrs. Brown (Tunafish Disaster), 1963, is a rarity, and was accordingly estimated at £3.5million/4.5million. The work sold to a phone bidder for £3.7million ($6.1million). Froehlich had acquired the work in 1995 at Sotheby’s in London for £290,000 ($449,500). Another Warhol from the Froehlich Collection, Hammer and Sickle, 1976, sold to Alberto Mugrabi for £2million ($3.3million), again below estimate (£2million/3million), and just short of the prices similar works from this series have made. A third work by the artist from the collection, a large Diamond Dust Shoes, 1980, sold to Larry Gagosian for £634,850 ($1million), also below estimate (£600,000/800,000). It was a good price, considering that a similar work from the same series went unsold at Christie’s in London last October against a £450,000 low estimate.

As much as possible, Sotheby’s concentrated on blue-chip works that were fresh to the market. Among the top lots was an early Alexander Calder mobile, A Cinq Morceaux de Bois, 1934, a sister piece to Ebony Sticks in Semi-Circle, which sold for $3.5million at Sotheby’s in New York last May (ANL, 5/26/09). Last sold at Sotheby’s in New York in 1987 for $198,000, it was estimated at £1.2million/1.8million, and attracted multiple bids, notably from dealers David Nahmad and Iwan Wirth, before it sold to London dealer Simon Theobald for £2.6million ($4.3million).

Arabe au Fusil, 1948, was one of two lots by Jean Dubuffet (1901–85)—whose work is experiencing renewed interest in the market of late—to exceed estimates. It sold for £903,650 ($1.5million) to a European collector, underbid by German dealer Michael Haas, on a £500,000/700,000 estimate. An unusual 1979 tapestry work by the Italian Conceptual artist Alighiero Boetti also attracted bids from London dealers Ben Brown and Ivor Braka before selling to the anonymous buyer of Tunafish Disaster for £469,250 ($769,570) on a £290,000/350,000 estimate.

The sale was not completely without younger artists, most of whose works lived up to expectations. Peter Doig’s Almost Grown, 2000, fetched a healthy £2million ($3.4million) from a phone bidder (estimate: £1.4million/1.8million). Maurizio Cattelan, almost a stranger at auctions these days, was back with Mini-Me, 1999, an editioned sculpture, which was sold for £493,250 ($809,125) against a £180,000/250,000 estimate—more than double the $355,200 price another work from the edition had fetched at Phillips in New York in 2004. And Julie Mehretu’s Untitled (Dervish), 2005, though it only sold near the £200,000 low estimate for £241,250 ($395,650), nonetheless set a record for the artist.

Sotheby’s also included two works by Damien Hirst. Homage to a Government, the Dwelling Place, 2006, a large butterfly collage, sold within the £500,000/800,000 estimate for £657,250 ($1.1million) to an Asian collector. Auctioneer Tobias Meyer had to work, however, to extract a bid for £235,250 ($385,810) from Mugrabi for the spin painting Beautiful Exploding Turquoise Nebula Painting (with Money), 1998, when there were no other bidders (estimate: £250,000/350,000).

Among other bidders in the room were art adviser Edmund Peel, who bought Gerhard Richter’s Antlers, 1967, for £481,250 ($789,250) on a £500,000/700,000 estimate; and Spanish dealer Fernando Mignoni, who bought Donald Judd’s horizontal Untitled, 1975, for £277,250 ($454,690) on a £250,000/350,000 estimate.

Fifty-seven percent of the buying at the sale was from Europe, 24 percent from the United States, and a very high 19 percent from Asia. Ten lots sold at hammer prices above estimate, and 16 sold either at or below estimate. Following the sale, Cheyenne Westphal, Sotheby’s chairman of contemporary art, Europe, said that the sell-through was one of the house’s best ever, and said the “new level of pricing” had “boosted confidence and bidding.”

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