ARTnewsletter Archive

A ‘Struggle’ to Meet Estimates at Sotheby’s Contemporary Auction

In its main contemporary art sale on June 28, in which almost half the lots sold for hammer prices at or below their low estimates, Sotheby’s struggled to meet the £38 million/53 million presale estimate, amassing just £35.5 million ($53.3 million) before buyers’ commissions were added, bringing the total up to £41.1 million ($61.8 million).

LONDON—In its main contemporary art sale on June 28, in which almost half the lots sold for hammer prices at or below their low estimates, Sotheby’s struggled to meet the £38 million/53 million presale estimate, amassing just £35.5 million ($53.3 million) before buyers’ commissions were added, bringing the total up to £41.1 million ($61.8 million). Significantly, eight of the 15 highest-estimated lots either sold at or below their low estimates, giving the sale a sluggish feel. Only one of the other seven exceeded its high estimate.

With only one work guaranteed by an irrevocable bid, it was clear that Sotheby’s was still feeling its way on prices and confidence, and that this sale, though reflective of the revival of the art market, had come dangerously close to the limit in meeting consignors’ expectations on estimates.

Nevertheless, 44, or 83 percent, of the 53 lots offered were sold, including most of the top lots. The total was the third highest for a contemporary summer sale in London, and a healthy improvement on last June’s £25.5 million ($42 million) for just 40 lots offered (ANL, 7/21/09).

European works of the 1960s dominated. Four bidders, including Larry Gagosian, made a play for Re 49, 1961, a sponge relief by Yves Klein, which had been in the collection of Munich-based HypoVereinsbank for 14 years. Perhaps aided by Klein’s current exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., it made the top price of the sale at £6.2 million ($9.3 million) on an estimate of £4.5 million/6.5 million, selling to a U.S. collector.

Lucio Fontana’s green Concetto Spaziale, La Fine di Dio, 1963, one of a small series of egg- shaped, punctured canvases that have claimed the top prices for the artist, at around £9 million and £10 million, was last at auction at Christie’s, London in 2001, when it sold for £465,700 ($677,142). It registered the artist’s continuing rise, selling for £4.7 million ($7.1 million) on an estimate of £4.5 million/5.5 million—near the low estimate but the fourth-highest price for the artist, to an Italian collector bidding against London dealer Ezra Nahmad. Also just squeezing in a sale near the low estimate and registering a slightly lower rate of increase, was Gerhard Richter’s Neger (Nuba), 1964, a photo painting that had been bought in 1995 for £298,500 ($457,800), and now sold for £3.7 million ($5.6 million) compared with an estimate of £3.5 million/4.5 million.

Measured Bidding for Warhol Works

American art was sprinkled throughout the sale, but no less prone to thin bidding. Of the three works by Andy Warhol that sold, all did so at hammer prices below estimate. A late Camouflage Self-Portrait, 1986, sold to a U.S. dealer over the phone for £1.7 million ($2.6 million) on a £1.5 million/2.5 million estimate; Three Jackies, 1964, sold to Gagosian for £1.5 million ($2.6 million) on an estimate of £1.5 million/2 million; and a self-portrait, 1978, sold to Jose Mugrabi for £481,250 ($721,875) compared with an estimate of £450,000/650,000.

Also selling at hammer prices below estimate were two Jeff Koons sculptures: Bear (Gold), 1999, sold to art adviser Kim Heirston for £385,250 ($577,875) on a £350,000/450,000 estimate, and Jim Beam — Baggage Car, 1986, to a phone bidder for £634,850 ($952,275) against an estimated £550,000/750,000. The same buyer acquired Richard Prince’s Millionaire Nurse, 2002, for £2.2 million ($3.3 million) on a £2 million/3 million estimate. The painting had sold previously for $4.7 million at Sotheby’s New York in May 2008 to Alberto Mugrabi, from whom it was acquired by the present consignor.

Estimates for works by Jean-Michel Basquiat appeared more realistic, as Jose Mugrabi snapped up two untitled paintings at the top end—a 1981 painting from the Basquiat estate for £937,250 ($1.4 million) that was estimated at £650,000/850,000, and a 1982 work for £881,250 ($1.3 million) that was estimated at £550,000/850,000. Cruising past a reasonable-seeming estimate of £700,000/900,000 was a 72-inch-span Alexander Calder mobile, Untitled, 1963, which sold to a phone bidder against Ezra Nahmad for £1.4 million ($2 million) compared with an estimated £700,000/900,000.

Also performing well against some pricey estimates were a group of School of London works from the collection of British financier Jonathan Green. Mornington Crescent – Summer Morning, 1991, by Frank Auerbach carried the highest-ever estimate for the artist at £1.5 million/2 million, and its size and painterly qualities saw it achieve the high end at a record £2.3 million ($3.4 million), selling to a phone bidder against bidding from Paris art adviser Hugues Joffre. A much smaller portrait of the critic William Feaver sold to Auerbach’s gallery, Marlborough Fine Art, for a tame £277,250 ($415,875) against a £250,000/350,000 estimate, but an early charcoal portrait, Head of E.O.W., 1957, by Auerbach soared to £325,250 ($487,875) on a £120,000/180,000 estimate.

Auerbach’s close friend Leon Kossoff was also in the money when the relatively late King’s Cross, March Afternoon, 1998, sold for a record £457,250 ($685,875) compared with an estimate of £250,000/350,000, to his dealer, the Annely Juda gallery, buying for stock, while his smaller and earlier Nude on Red Bed No. 1, 1968, sold to London dealer James Holland-Hibbert for £133,250 ($199,900) against an estimate of £70,000/90,000. The work last sold at Christie’s London in 1999 for £27,600 ($44,500). Also from Green’s collection was a rare-to-the-market stripe painting by Patrick Heron, October Horizon: October 1957, which sold well above expectations, for £481,250 ($721,875) compared with a presale estimate of £250,000/350,000, the third-highest price for the artist, to former Sotheby’s Amsterdam director (now art consultant) Siebe Tettero. Tettero also bought Zero movement artist Heinz Mack’s corrugated aluminum work No. 7, 1958–59, for £145,250 ($217,875) against an estimate of £60,000/80,000.

The sale had a sprinkling of works by younger artists, which produced erratic results. From the Charles Saatchi collection was Untitled (White Butterfly), 2002, by Mark Grotjahn, which sold on the low estimate of £250,000 ($385,000), considered a disappointing price given the $1.4 million double-panel White Butterfly painting (two of the same size as Saatchi’s) from the Halsey Minor collection that was sold by Phillips de Pury & Company in New York in May. With premium, the price was £301,250 ($451,875).

White Creep, 1995–96, by Peter Doig, had been bought by Saatchi in 2003 at Christie’s New York for $365,900 then sold privately to Sotheby’s before selling there in February 2008 for £1.4 million ($2.8 million). Back perhaps too soon, and with a hopeful £1.4 million/1.8 million estimate, it was caught by the cautious mood of the moment and found no bidders. Also, a 12-foot sculpture made from cooking utensils by Indian artist Subodh Gupta was passed way below the £400,000/600,000 estimate, one of the highest ever placed on a sculpture by the artist.

But Gupta’s wife, Barti Kher, was represented by one of her most striking sculptures, a bindi-covered fiberglass sleeping elephant, The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own, 2006. Estimated to do well at £700,000/1 million, it duly obliged with a record price of £993,500 ($1.5 million) after three phone bidders went for it. The buyer then bid unsuccessfully for Maquette, 2006, a bejewelled sculpture of strange, copulating creatures by the London-based Indian artist Raqib Shaw, which sold for £253,250 ($380,000) on a £200,000/250,000 estimate.

The sale ended with the liveliest bidding of the evening when a buyer in the room, identified by trade sources as a Russian collector, bought Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid’s satirical Sots Art classic The Red Flag, 1983, for £349,250 ($523,875) against a £100,000/150,000 estimate, the second-highest price for the Russian pair. Asian buying accounted for works by Takashi Murakami, Andreas Gursky and Richter, but the majority of works appeared to fall to American and European buyers, though Sotheby’s gave no geographical breakdown.

  • Issues