When the smoke cleared on a two-part sale that inched closer and closer to the three-hour mark, Sotheby’s had pulled in a total of £76.8 million ($118.8 million) during its evening sales for postwar Italian and contemporary art. The paddle-wielders present at the year-old Berkeley Square headquarters failed to bid up some of the biggest-ticket lots to their high estimates, and neither sale earned the white-glove status that Phillips achieved at its auction yesterday, but the haul was big enough to put off any fears of a market downturn getting started during Frieze Week.
The first part of the evening, the Italian Sale, leaned heavily on the works of Lucio Fontana, who, as it happens, was born in Argentina, and routinely represented Argentina at the Venice Biennale, but no matter. Fontana’s sidekick at the sale was Alberto Burri, who currently has a retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York.
A slitted Fontana, Concetto Spaziale, Attese (1963–64) came up as the second lot, and went for £989,000 ($1.5 million), which was nearly three times its high estimate, and in the next ten lots three more Fontanas were bid up close to or beyond their top-end estimates. Then, a slit-laden Fontana with a £2 million low estimate failed to attract a buyer. Not a good sign, especially when the sale’s centerpiece happened to be a Fontana as well: La Fine di Dio (1963), an egg-shaped painting that, according to the Sotheby’s press release, “shatters the very definition of oil on canvas.” The estimate for a definition-shattering oil painting? A cool £20 million ($30.1 million). The total price came to £15.9 million ($24.7 million), a far cry from the high estimate. But, still, it’s a record price paid at auction for postwar Italian art, so there’s plenty reason to break out the Aperol spritzes in the West End.
Now, on to the Contemporary Evening Sales—starting a very fashionable 45 minutes late! Things got rolling by the third lot, when a work by Cory Arcangel with a very long code-based title hit the block and went for £137,000 ($212,000), which was enough over its high estimate for a giddy Sotheby’s to refer to the sale as a “digital revolution” in an oddly hashtagged tweet. (Don’t bother clicking on #arcangel unless you’re looking for Bible quotes in Spanish).
One thread from the first few lots: while the male big shots barely met the low estimates or, in the case of Mark Grotjahn and Christopher Wool, just straight up didn’t sell, a few female artists saw their prices rocket skyward. Louise Bourgeois’ Mother and Child (2001) soared to a remarkable £1.2 million ($1.8 million), essentially taunting the high estimate of £450,000 ($697,000). And then Iza Genken’s Fenster (1990), which was supposed to top out at £150,000 ($232,000) saw its price get driven up by ten different bidders until it reached £560,000, or £677,000 ($1.05 million) with the premium.
The star lot, Basquiat’s Untitled (The Black Athlete) (1982), sold for a respectable £4.1 million ($6.3 million) and from then on was denouement, the chance of making the start of dinner getting slimmer and slimmer.
Attendees passed on eight of the last ten lots, leaving works by Warhol, Twombly, and Gursky without new homes. But, hey, the contemporary sale netted a not-too-shabby £36.5 million ($56 million). The sales continue tomorrow.