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‘Zero’ to $85 Million: Lenz Collection Boosts Sotheby’s Sale

Sotheby’s part-one sale of Postwar and contemporary art on Feb. 10 was a resounding success, realizing a total of £54.1 million ($84.8 million), well above its estimate of £32 million/45 million, with 74, or 96 percent, of the 77 lots finding buyers.

LONDON—Sotheby’s part-one sale of Postwar and contemporary art on Feb. 10 was a resounding success, realizing a total of £54.1million ($84.8million), well above its estimate of £32million/45million, with 74, or 96 percent, of the 77 lots finding buyers. The total was the ­second-highest on record for a February contemporary auction at Sotheby’s in London. The evening opened with “Zero,” a single-owner sale of works from the prestigious Lenz Schönberg Collection. Assembled by Austrian collectors Anna and Gerhard Lenz, the collection focused on the experimental Zero movement, formed in Germany in 1957. Of the 47 lots from the Lenz collection, 46 sold, many for prices four or five times their estimates, yielding a total of £23million ($36.4million) against an estimate in excess of £11.5million.

European Artists Score New Highs

Nineteen of these lots set records, mainly for artists whose work is not usually included in London sales because their markets are considered local to Europe. At the top of the list of record prices was Hair of the Nymphs, 1964, a characteristic nail relief by Zero founder Günther Uecker, which sold to a buyer on the telephone for £825,250 ($1.3million) on a £100,000/150,000 estimate. Close behind was Dutch artist Jan Schoonhoven, whose work is mostly sold in the Netherlands—R 61-5, Jalouzieën­relief/Fanlight-shutters, 1961, set a €540,750 ($759,860) record at Sotheby’s in Amsterdam last July. Schoon­hoven’s papier-mâché relief Weißes Strukturrelief R 62-1, 1962, sold here for £780,450 ($1.2million) against an estimate of £150,000/200,000, underbid by Dutch dealer Siebe Tettero. Tettero bought Lucio Fontana’s ­single-cut canvas Concetto Spaziale, Attesa, 1967, from the Lenz collection, for £657,250 ($1million) against an estimate of £250,000/350,000.

Buyers in the room who paid record prices for Lenz material include adviser Hugues Joffre, who bought Gianni Colombo’s motorized Struttura­zione Pulsante, 1960, for £133,250 ($207,870) against an estimate of £70,000/90,000; Belgian dealer Axel Vervoordt, who purchased Piero Dorazio’s Petit poème de la délusion, 1961, for £241,250 ($376,350) against an estimate of £120,000/180,000 and Gotthard Graubner’s large and relatively late painting Grande Pietra e Fuoco (Farbraumkörper Orange), 1996–98, for £217,250 ($338,910) against an £80,000/120,000 estimate; Paris dealer Mimmo Vedovi, who bought Agostino Bonalumi’s shaped canvas Bianco, 1966, for £223,250 ($348,270) against an estimate of £100,000/150,000; New York dealer Jose Mugrabi, who acquired Raimond Girke’s synthetic resin on canvas Untitled (Work No. 4), 1960, for £28,750 ($44,850) against an estimate of £10,000/15,000, and Milan-based adviser Elena Geuna, who bought François Morellet’s wire-netting composition 3 Grillages Superposés, 0°, +15°, –15°, 1959, for £145,250 ($226,600), far above the estimate of £25,000/35,000.

The various-owner lots that followed the Lenz property did not do quite as well. Five small works by Lucian Freud from the collection of the bookmaker Victor Chandler, a onetime Freud model, realized a total of just £4million ($6.2million) hammer—£4.7million ($7.3million) with premium—against a combined estimate of £4.8million/6.5million. One lot out of the five, Girl’s Head, 1973–74, failed to sell against a £600,000/800,000 ($995,000/1.33million) estimate. The top Freud lot, the small Self-Portrait with a Black Eye, ca. 1978, sold to Geuna for £2.8million ($3.2million), below the estimate of £3million/4million. A small portrait drawing of Christian Bérard, 1948, sold to London dealer James Holland Hibbert for £241,250 ($376,740), likewise below its estimate of £300,000/400,000.

The top lot of the sale was Untitled XIV, 1983, a late work by Willem de Kooning, which sold to a European collector for £3.6million ($5.6million) on a £2million/3million estimate. Otherwise, the only American art of note in the sale was Andy Warhol’s reversed portrait Jackie, 1964, which sold to a Swiss collection for £1.1million ($1.7million) on an estimate of £800,000/1.2million. The last time it was on the block, in June 2005 at Christie’s in London, the painting sold for £456,000 ($775,200).

The same Swiss collection also bought the top two lots from the Lenz collection: Yves Klein’s fire painting F88, 1961, which sold for £3.3million ($6.2million) against an estimate of £2.8 million/3.5 million, and Concetto Spaziale, New York 26, 1962, an unusual graffiti work on copper by Fontana, which sold for £3.1million ($4.8million), well above the £1.5million/2million estimate. Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale Attese, 1968, a more typical white canvas with eight cuts, consigned from another source, sold to the Nahmad family of art dealers for £2.2million ($3.4million), within the £1.8million/2.5million estimate.

Untitled (Stoffbild), 1967–69, a two-tone felt painting by Joseph Beuys student Blinky Palermo from the Froehlich Collection, helped bolster the market for European Postwar art, selling to adviser Philippe Ségalot for a record £1.1million ($1.7million) against an estimate of £400,000/600,000.

British Art a Highlight

As this sale took place in London, British art naturally also came to the fore. An early 1956 portrait of Leon Kossoff by fellow School of London artist Frank Auerbach upstaged the Freud works, as the drawing’s date and subject matter excited several bidders. First Pilar Ordovás (Christie’s former head of contemporary art in Europe, now with the Gagosian Gallery in London) and then Holland Hibbert pushed the price far above the £60,000/80,000 estimate, before London dealer Offer Waterman, speaking on his cell phone with an unidentified private collector, fought off several other phone bidders to win it for £890,000 ($1million)—the biggest surprise of the sale With premium the work brought £1.1 million ($1.6 million).

For the other major lots of British art, the sale fast-forwarded from the ’50s to the ’90s with Peter Doig’s Saint Anton (Flat Light), 1995–96, which carried a strong £2million/3million estimate. The large ski painting sold without much competition to a phone buyer for £2.8million ($4.45million), netting a tidy profit for the consignor, who bought it on the primary market for about £12,000 ($20,400). Similarly, Doig’s smaller painting Bob’s House, 1994, had been bought at Christie’s in New York in November 1999 for $36,000 by French collector Marcel Brient, and sold now for £993,250 ($1.54million). The secondary market for Chris Ofili—who is the subject of a major exhibition at Tate Britain, London, through May 16—is also picking up. Through the Grape­vine, 1998, which had been acquired on the primary market in 1999 by a U.S. collector for less than $32,000, sold to a phone buyer for a record £802,850 ($1.25million) on a £250,000/350,000 estimate, underbid by Bona Montagu of Dickinson/Roundell. Ofili watercolors also sold strongly in Sotheby’s day sale: Salzau, 1999, a study of the head of an African woman bought for $7,500 at Phillips de Pury & Company in New York in November 2002, sold for £20,000 ($31,200) against a £3,000/4,000 estimate.

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