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London Contemporary Sales Surge Again

Who bought what at the recent auctions

Gerhard Richter’s Kerze (Candle), 1982, one of only 27 candle paintings by the artist, sold for $16.5 million at Christie’s

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.

At Christie’s, the star of the evening was Gerhard 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.

Among the buyers at the Christie’s auction was New York dealer Philippe Ségalot who acquired a lantern sculpture by Martin Kippenberger, Untitled, 1990. It was acknowledged as a signature example from the artist’s “Lanterne” series and soared past expectations selling for a record £1.3 million ($2.1 million) on 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 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.

At Christie’s Italian art sale, a record was set for Arnaldo Pomodoro’s large bronze Disco, 1986, which sold to a phone bidder against London-based dealer Daniele Pescali, for £505,250 ($797,000) on an estimate of £350,000/550,000.

London dealer Benjamin Brown was successful in securing Lucio Fontana’s painted terracotta, Concetto Spaziale, 1951–52, for £91,250 ($143,800) on an estimate of £80,000/120,000. However, three other Fontana pieces, with estimates ranging from £400,000/2 million, failed to sell.

At Sotheby’s £21.6 million ($34 million) 20th-century Italian art sale on Oct. 13 buyers in the room included Brown, who bought Afro’s L’Approdo, 1963, for £193,250 ($303,400) on an estimate of £150,000/200,000, Laetitia Catoir of the Blain/Southern Gallery, who bought Giulio Paolini’s Equivalenza, 1975, for £109,250 ($171,500) compared with an estimate of £90,000/120,000, and London-based dealer Helly Nahmad, who snapped up Giorgio Morandi’s Natura Morta, 1963, for £397,250 ($623,680) compared with an estimate of £380,000/450,000.

At Sotheby’s main evening contemporary sale, Leon Kossoff’s A Street in Willesden, 1985, sold to London dealer Pilar Ordovas, bidding for a private European collector, for a record £690,850 ($1.1 million) compared with an estimate of £350,000/450,000.

The price places Kossoff closer to his fellow School of London painter, Frank Auerbach and indeed, outshone three Auerbach paintings at the auction. One, Head of Ruth Bromberg, 2001–2, sold to Marlborough Fine Art for £193,250 ($318,631) on an estimate of £180,000/250,000.

Jacob Kassay’s silver deposit painting, Untitled, 2009, sold for £145,250 ($239,488), compared with an estimate of £50,000/70,000, and Antony Gormley’s small steel block figure, Unform VI, 2005, sold to Jonathan Binstock, a senior advisor at Citibank’s private bank, for £253,250 ($417,559) against an estimate of £150,000/200,000.

At Bonhams’ sale on Oct. 13, Glenn Brown’s relatively early piece, Little Death, 2000, had been guaranteed and sold to U.S. collector Adam Lindemann far below the £700,000/900,000 estimate at £601,250 ($943,960).

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