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Brisk Contemporary Sales Open Fall Season

Midmarket sales of contemporary art in New York and London show the fall contemporary art season off to a healthy start.

NEW YORK—Midmarket sales of contemporary art in New York and London show the fall contemporary art season off to a healthy start. Christie’s First Open sale on Sept. 22, aimed at newer collectors, realized $7.5 million, up considerably from the $4.4 million realized last year (ANL, 10/6/09), and higher than the $6.5 million total achieved in September 2008.

Sotheby’s sale of contemporary art from the collection of failed investment firm Lehman Brothers, including works from the former Neuberger Berman collection, was held Sept. 25, two years after the firm filed for bankruptcy. The sale realized $12.3 million, clearing the high end of the $8 million/12 million overall estimate. Records were set for 17 artists, albeit that many of them have relatively short track records at auction. Of 142 lots offered, 118, or 83 percent, found buyers. By value the auction was 95 percent sold.

On Sept. 29, Christie’s South Kensington branch sold works from the London offices of Lehman Brothers, adding another £1.6 million ($2.6 million) to the total raised to repay its creditors. All but two of the 308 lots offered were sold. By value the auction realized 97 percent. The sale, comprising ephemera as well as fine art, brought prices far in excess of estimates. A metal sign bearing the corporate logo, for instance, was estimated at £2,000/3,000, but sold for £42,050 ($66,439).

Sotheby’s held its regular contemporary art sale—with works consigned by various owners—on Sept. 27, realizing $7 million for 283 lots offered. Of these, 208, or 74 percent, were sold. By value the auction realized 85 percent.

Prior to Sotheby’s Lehman collection sale, equity analyst Rommel Dionisio, of Wedbush Securities, issued a report raising his firm’s earnings estimate on Sotheby’s stock, citing “solid auction trends.” Given strong auction results for the quarter to date, “as well as impressive pre-sale estimates for upcoming auctions as the global art market continues to display encouraging momentum, we are raising our third-quarter revenue estimates to $62 million from $55 million,” Dionisio wrote. As ARTnewsletter was published, shares of Sotheby’s were trading above $36 on the New York Stock Exchange, having risen from around $27 at the beginning of the month.

Established Names Top Christie’s Offerings

At Christie’s First Open, 246 lots were offered, nearly 100 more than last autumn, and 196, or 80 percent, were sold. By value the sale realized 89 percent. Unlike past First Open auctions, which were dominated by works of cutting-edge contemporary artists, the top lots in the sale featured more established blue-chip contemporary names including Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Hockney, Frank Stella and Sam Francis.

Christie’s specialist Koji Inoue said, “The market responded enthusiastically to attractively priced works of great quality. . . . we are confident that the excitement and positive results will bode well for our upcoming sales in November.” A wide range of buyers accounted for the top lots, according to Christie’s postsale results, including U.S. dealers and private buyers, Asian private buyers and European dealers.

The top lot of the sale was an acrylic-and-paper collage on canvas, Plaid, 1983, by Basquiat, which was estimated at $300,000/500,000 and sold for $470,000 to a private buyer. The next-highest lot was Hockney’s oil on canvas Harvesting Near the Road to Thwing, 2006, which was estimated at $250,000/350,000 and sold to a U.S. dealer for $422,500, followed by an oil by Stella, Kufa Gate, 1968, which was estimated at $120,000/180,000 and sold well above that, for $410,500, also to a U.S. dealer.

A chromogenic print mounted on Plexiglas by Thomas Struth, Kunsthistorisches Museum III, Vienna, 1989, sold for $254,500 compared with an estimate of $100,000/150,000. An acrylic and ink on canvas by Helen Frankenthaler, Distillation, 1973, sold well above the $40,000/60,000 estimate, for $146,500, while an oil on board by Peter Doig, Briey, 1994, just made it past the low estimate of $120,000 with a premium-inclusive price of $122,500, selling to a private U.K.-based buyer. Anselm Kiefer’s watercolor and gouache on paper Landschaft, 1971, also exceeded expectations when it fetched a price of $110,500 (estimate: $60,000/80,000).

$1 Million for Mehretu at Lehman Sale

The top lot of the Lehman sale at Sotheby’s was Julie Mehretu’s untitled ink and acrylic on canvas laid on board, 2001, which sold for just over $1 million, surpassing the $600,000/800,000 estimate and more than tripling the artist’s previous auction record of $314,000.

It was followed by a painting by Liu Ye, The Long Way Home, 2005, which sold for $962,500 (estimate: $500,000/700,000) and a painting by Marc Grotjahn, Untitled (Three-tiered Perspective), 2000, that sold for $782,500 (estimate: $600,000/800,000).

One high-profile offering—and also one of the highest-estimated lots in the sale—was a large installation by Damien Hirst, a wall-hung painted blue cabinet featuring an array of glass and ceramic dishes, mugs and vases, entitled We’ve Got Style (The Vessel Collection-Blue/Green), 1993. It was estimated at $800,000/1.2 million but failed to find a buyer.

Other artist records set at the sale included $434,500 paid for Glenn Ligon’s Invisible Man, Two Views, 1991, oil and gesso on canvas in two parts (estimate: $100,000/150,000), and $194,500 paid for Rodney Graham’s monochrome color print, Welsh Oaks (No. 6), 1998.

Carefully Curated Collection

Sotheby’s worldwide head of contemporary art, Tobias Meyer, who conducted the sale, said the Lehman collection “was put together with great care and foresight…[Its buyers] were very well informed and bought from artists often at the early stages of their careers.”

Sotheby’s specialist and head of day sales for contemporary art, Gabriela Palmieri, said that participation “came from an international community of bidders, including several successful online purchasers.”

At Sotheby’s Sept. 27 sale, the top lot was a painting by Jim Dine, A Robe in the Winter, 2002, an oil, acrylic, sand and charcoal on panel (estimate: $150,000/200,000), which more than doubled expectations to sell for $410,500.

An untitled maquette by Alexander Calder, 1953, made of painted sheet metal, brass and wire, sold for $278,500, also clearing the high end of its $150,000/200,000 estimate. And Andy Warhol’s silk screen on canvas, Soup Box, 1986, depicting a carton of Campbell’s onion soup, fetched $230,500, compared with an estimate of $120,000/180,000. A record for a painting by Lee Bontecou was set when bidding for an untitled painting, 1964, soot dye on muslin, leapt above the $20,000/30,000 estimate to sell for $170,500. However, another work by the same artist, an untitled sculpture, 1960, made of canvas, copper wire and welded steel, sold for $194,500 falling under the $200,000/300,000 estimate.

The top lot of the Lehman offerings at Christie’s Sept. 29 sale was a computer-generated print mounted on aluminum by Gabriel Orozco, Atomists: Jump over, 1996, which sold for £99,560 ($157,305) against an estimate of £60,000/80,000. It was followed by an abstract painting by Gary Hume, Madonna, 1994, which missed the low end of the £80,000/120,000 estimate to sell for £73,250 ($115,735).

A 19th-century work by Théophile Poilpot (1848–1915)—L’embarquement de La Normandie au Havre, 1889—fared better, doubling the £20,000/30,000 estimate to sell for £67,250 ($106,255). And an etching by Lucian Freud, Head of Bruce Bernard, 1985, sold for £28,750 ($45,425) compared with an estimate of £8,000/12,000.

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