ARTnewsletter Archive

20th-Century Italian Art Leads Record London Auctions

Sales of 20th-century Italian art continue to be a main driver of the October auction season, timed to coincide with the Frieze Art Fair each year.

LONDON—Sales of 20th-century Italian art continue to be a main driver of the October auction season, timed to coincide with the Frieze Art Fair each year. Christie’s scheduled its Italian sale immediately after its sale of contemporary art on Oct. 14, and though the room stayed packed, three of the first four lots sold below estimate, and the fourth was unsold.

As the sixth lot came up, the atmosphere warmed up, with a bidding battle over a rare and large hand-chiseled cast of Marino Marini’s Cavaliere, 1951–55. Ben Frija, director of Galleri K, Oslo, was still in the bidding close to the end, but the work finally sold to a phone bidder for a record £4.5million ($7.1million) against an estimate of £1.2million/1.8million—the highest auction price of the week.

The midrange Lucio Fontana market was strongly represented with four out of the top ten lots, three of which sold above estimate. By the end, though, only seven of the 45 lots offered had sold above estimate; 11, or 22 percent, were unsold, and 14 sold at or below their low estimates. Still, it was the top lots that counted, and the total of £18.6million ($29.8million) was the highest in that category for Christie’s, falling within the £14million/20million estimate.

The buyers included dealer Daniella Luxem­bourg, who acquired Alberto Burri’s encrusted black canvas Nero Cretto, 1973, for £959,650 ($1.5million) on an estimate of £700,000/1 million; London dealer Ben Brown, who bought Afro’s Terra d’ombra, 1968, for £385,250 ($616,400) on an estimate of £350,000/450,000; and Stefan Ratibor of the Gagosian Gallery, who bought Giulio Paolini’s Museo, 1970–73, for £37,250 ($59,600) on a £30,000/40,000 estimate.

Apart from the Marini, the most significant record price was for Star to Purify Words, 1978, a star-shaped sculpture by Gilberto Zorio, which sold for £181,250 ($290,000) on an estimate of £150,000/200,000 to a commission bid.

The previous record for Zorio was £58,850. Surprisingly, only 22 percent of the buyers were Italian—67 percent came from the rest of Europe and 11 percent were from the U.S., according to Christie’s officials.

Sotheby’s Italian Sale Scores New High

Sotheby’s began its evening sale early on Oct. 15, offering 35 lots of Italian art, of which 31, or 89 percent, were sold. The sale brought in a total of £17.2million ($27.5million), just grazing the high end of the £12million/16.9million overall estimate. This sale felt livelier than Christie’s, with only seven lots selling at or below low estimates and 14 at or above their high estimates.

Fontana was again the predominant artist, with five of the top ten lots. A large white 1965 canvas with eight slashes from the “Concetto Spaziale Attese” series brought the top price of the sale, fetching £2.3million ($3.7million) from a European collector on the phone, against bidding from Paris dealer Paolo Vedovi in the room (estimate: £1.5million/2million). An unusually large early figurative ceramic sculpture by Fontana, Figura Femminile con Fiori, 1948, sold for £914,850 ($1.5million) on an estimate of £400,000/600,000 to a phone bidder—one of the highest prices for such a work.

One successful buyer of the Fontanas was art adviser Abigail Asher, who bought a smaller 1963–64 white canvas with four cuts from the same series for £713,250 ($1.1million) on an estimate of £400,000/600,000, again against competition from Vedovi. Asher also bought Fausto Melotti’s tall steel Scultura No. 17, 1936–68, for £109,250 ($174,800) on a £100,000/150,000 estimate.

Milan dealer Giulio Tega was among the buyers of top lots, acquiring Achrome, 1962–63, a mottled white monochrome painted on polystyrene beads by Piero Manzoni, for £690,850 ($1.1million) on an estimate of £300,000/400,000. Tega lost out, however, on Concetto Spaziale, 1966–67, a pierced gold canvas by Fontana, which sold for £505,250 ($808,400) on a £350,000/450,000 estimate.

As at Christie’s, demand for Marini was high, with four works selling within or above estimates. Cavallo, 1952, a small hand-chiseled bronze, sold for £541,250 ($866,000) to a phone bidder against competition from London dealer Daniele Pescali (estimate: £350,000/450,000). Pescali also underbid on a Marini gouache, Cavaliere, 1953, which sold for £67,250 ($107,600) on an estimate of £40,000/60,000. The top-selling Marini in Sotheby’s sale was a large (though still much smaller than Christie’s record-breaker) bronze, Cavaliere, 1947, which sold for £1.5 million ($2.4million) on a £700,000/900,000 estimate.

Three works by Alighiero Boetti also sold within or above their estimates. Non Parto Non Resto, 1981–82, a ballpoint-pen drawing on cardboard, sold for £361,250 ($578,000) on an estimate of £150,000/200,000, and a 44-inch square tapestry, Oggi Venticinquesimo Giorno Dell’ottavo Mese Dell’anno Millenovecento­ottantotto, 1988, sold to London collector Amir Shariat for £205,250 ($328,400) on a £150,000/200,000 estimate.

Among the earlier works to hit the top lots was Giorgio de Chirico’s Interno Metafisico (Natura Morta Metafisica), 1916. Sotheby’s had a financial interest in the painting, having bought it in at a November 2008 sale of Impressionist art in New York, where it was guaranteed with an estimate of $5million/8million. Now with a reduced estimate of £1.6million/2.5million ($2.5million/3.9million) it sold to a European collector for £1.8million ($2.9million).

Still, this was Sotheby’s highest total ever for an Italian sale, and its international appeal was illustrated by the geographic breakdown of buyers—29 percent Italian, 55 percent other European, 13 percent U.S and 3 percent Asian.