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London Contemporary Sales Surge Again

The ever-expanding London October art season, pegged to the annual Frieze Art Fair, underscored the strength and resilience of the contemporary art market, which—with the exception of a few weak spots—continues to surge and shrug off broader economic woes.

LONDON—The ever-expanding London October art season, pegged to the annual Frieze Art Fair, underscored the strength and resilience of the contemporary art market, which—with the exception of a few weak spots—continues to surge and shrug off broader economic woes.

The auction series, which also included the usual dedicated offering of 20th-century Italian art, amounted to a robust £125 million ($196.5 million). That is well above the £94 million ($150 million) achieved last year and the £47.4 million ($75.8 million) seen in 2009 when the economic crisis sparked a sharp downturn in the market.

Italian art, a mainstay of these annual sales, did not disappoint, realizing £21.6 million ($40 million) at Sotheby’s and £17.6 million ($27.6 million) at Christie’s and, in all, accounting for £39.2 million ($61.5 million) of the total.

Evening and day sales of Postwar and contemporary art at Phillips de Pury & Company (ANL, 10/18/11), Bonhams, Sotheby’s and Christie’s totaled £85.9 million ($134.8 million), up from last year’s £58.3 million ($93.3 million).

The series hit a peak of £174 million ($353 million) in 2007, so this year’s was the second-highest total, but for less lots. At their height, these sales were also heavy with Chinese contemporary art, which was now largely absent.

When the Frieze fair started in 2003, these October sales, described as “mid-season” sales, would typically gross around £20 million—the majority for Italian art—with contemporary sales averaging about £6 million.

While Frieze-related sales usually concentrate on art of the last 30 years, and exclude very high-value works, this time Sotheby’s and Christie’s were extending on both counts—Sotheby’s with an early Lucian Freud and Christie’s with a high-value Gerhard Richter, the latter of which the seller agreed to put in these sales because of the retrospective at Tate Modern, a source told ARTnewsletter.

A Shot of Confidence at Christie’s

After a few up and down sales, Christie’s restored a sense of optimism in the market with the final contemporary art sale of Frieze week on Oct. 14. Carrying a pre-sale estimate of £27 million/39.4 million, it garnered £38.1 million ($60 million) with all but six of the 53 lots selling.

The star of the evening was Richter, who is currently the focus of a retrospective at Tate Modern. For this sale, an unidentified Scandinavian collector had submitted one of only 27 candle paintings made by Richter in the early 1980s. Although there was practically no demand for, or sales of, these works at the time they were created—their realism was considered unfashionable—the candle paintings have since become Richter’s most sought-after pieces. This single candle painting, Kerze, 1982, attracted five telephone bidders before selling for a record £10.5 million ($16.5 million) against an estimate of £6 million/9 million, beating the previous £8 million record set for another candle painting at Sotheby’s London in February 2008.

Four other Richter paintings were in the sale, and all found buyers. Abstraktes Bild, 1992, which had been included in the 2002–3 Museum of Modern Art retrospective in New York, and had sold at Christie’s New York in November 2002 for $1.1 million, now sold for £3.6 million ($5.7 million) compared with an estimate of £2.5 million/3.5 million.

A lantern sculpture by Martin Kippenberger, Untitled, 1990, was acknowledged as a signature example from his “Lanterne” series and soared past expectations selling for a record £1.3 million ($2.1 million) to New York dealer Philippe Ségalot on an estimate of £250,000/350,000. And a large abstract by Albert Oehlen, Geschmeidig (Malleable), 1999, sold for £385,250 ($607,154), a record for the artist at auction, on an estimate of £250,000/350,000. Oehlen had just enjoyed a sell-out exhibition of new large drawings and paintings at London’s Thomas Dane Gallery, where prices ranged from €175,000/285,000. By the time of the auction, it was widely known that Oehlen had been snapped up by Gagosian Gallery.

Other records were set for artists including Antony Gormley, whose 16-foot-wide Angel of the North (Life-Size Maquette), 1996, sold for £3.4 million ($5.4 million), compared with an estimate of £1.5 million /2 million, to the London trade, acting for a collector, and Karen Kilimnik’s Prince Albrecht at Home at the Castle on School Break, 1998, sold for £337,250 ($531,506) against an estimate of £200,000/300,000—a good return on the $30,500 the seller paid for it at Christie’s New York in November 2001.

The Oehlen and the Kilimnik were both guaranteed by third parties, while six other works were guaranteed by Christie’s. One was Richard Prince’s Nurse Forrester’s Secret, 2004, which became the sale’s major casualty when it went unsold with a £2.1 million/3 million estimate. Four years ago it would have been a flyer, observers said. After soaring as high as $8.5 million in mid-2008, before the art market downturn, prices for works from Prince’s “Nurse” series have cooled considerably.

Most of the other guarantees had been made on works from the collection of U.S. collector Kent Logan. Although one, Juan Muñoz’s bronze figure, From One to Five–Two, 1991, went unsold with an estimate of £300,000/400,000, Logan did well with the others. Ron Mueck’s hyper realist sculpture, Man Under Cardigan, 1998, had been bought from dealer Anthony d’Offay in 1998 for between £10,000 and £20,000 and now sold against bidding from d’Offay for £601,250 ($947,570) on an estimate of £400,000/600,000. Glenn Brown’s Earth, 2004, a translation of a portrait by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, had been bought at the Frieze art fair in 2004 for $175,000 and now sold for £937,250 ($1.5 million) on an estimate of £500,000/700,000.

Another seller was Charles Saatchi with five works that brought £1.3 million ($2 million) including three record prices: Joe Bradley’s Double Runner, 2006, bought in 2006 when the artist’s prices were around $6,000, which sold for £79,250 ($124,898) against an estimate of £25,000/35,000; Zhang Dali’s sculpture of hanging bodies, Chinese Offspring, 2003–5, which sold for £91,250 ($143,810) against an estimate of £80,000/120,000, to Christie’s Hong Kong specialist Ingrid Dudek on the phone; and Ahmed Alsoudani’s Baghdad I, 2008, bought three years ago for around £20,000 from New York dealer Robert Goff, which sold for £713,250 ($1.1 million) against an estimate of £250,000/350,000.

Christie’s also tested the Damien Hirst market with five works that all sold with varying degrees of success. A butterfly painting, Midas and the Infinite, 2008, which Hirst sold at his landmark one-man sale at Sotheby’s London in September 2008 (ANL, 9/30/08) for £825,000 ($1.4 million), found only one bidder, identified as Israeli entrepreneur and arms dealer Hezi Belazal, who bought it for £601,250 ($947,570) on an estimate of £600,000/800,000. A much more rare Hirst piece was Judas Iscariot (The Twelve Disciples), 1994, a bull’s head in formaldehyde from a series of 12 works, each representing one of Jesus’s twelve disciples, that was never exhibited. Hirst remade the series and exhibited them at White Cube gallery as part of his collection almost a decade later. Estimated at £500,000/700,000, Judas Iscariot sold for £993,250 ($1.6 million).

The sale came within a fraction of the highest total for an October contemporary art sale in London—£39.8 million ($80.6 million) set by Christie’s in 2007 (ANL, 10/30/07), though that sale, with 110 lots, had many more offerings. Christie’s cited one interesting statistic to emerge after the sale: while 49 percent of buyers were from Europe and Russia (there was also strong Russian underbidding), and 38 percent from the U.S., an unexpectedly high 13 percent of buyers were from Asia.

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