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Christie’s Fails to Sell Bacon Painting, Frieze Week’s Star Lot, at $130 M. Contemporary Sale in London

Francis Bacon’s Study of Red Pope 1962. 2nd Version 1971 (1971), which went unsold.

Christie’s netted £99.5 million ($130 million) during its postwar and contemporary art evening auction at its King Street salesroom in London Friday night, securing a sell-through rate of 83 percent. But the sale was defined by a single lot that, once it failed to sell, made for one of the most notable pricing miscalculations in recent auction memory. That work, Francis Bacon’s Study of Red Pope 1962. 2nd version 1971, was marketed with an on-request estimate of £60 million to £80 million ($78.4 million to $104.5 million), which, if achieved, would have made it the priciest artwork ever sold at auction in Europe. But Christie’s could not find a buyer in that range, and the lot flopped.

The auction house had been spinning Bacon hagiography for a month, highlighting the fact that the painting hadn’t been seen publicly in 45 years. It was displayed in a cupola room at the house’s headquarters in London for all the people in town for the Frieze Art Fair to gawk over, and beside it wall text explained that the figure in the painting with the Pope, George Dyer, killed himself in a drug overdose two days before the work was first exhibited in Paris. In press releases, Francis Outred, Christie’s chairman and head of postwar and contemporary art, said things like “this painting is quite simply art history.”

Tonight, the culmination of all the frenetic Frieze week activity, auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen started the bidding on the Bacon, the week’s biggest and most-discussed lot. But after opening at £50 million and taking that figure up to £58 million only to find no takers in the salesroom or on the phone, he realized he was below the threshold of £60 million that the seller had agreed upon, and he resigned himself to fate, declaring it a pass.

However, another Bacon, the 24-by-20-inch Head with Raised Arm (1955), which looks like a close-up of one of the artist’s popes during a moment of contemplation (rather than torture), had no trouble finding a buyer. It went for £11.5 million (about $15 million), a bit above its high estimate of £10 million. (All sales prices include the buyer’s premium, unless otherwise noted.)

The sale at least got off to an energetic start, with Pylkkänen announcing that the room was “extremely full. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a good way to end the week and start the weekend.” He added, “It’s been an incredible week for the London art market.” And then he quickly set a world auction record for Grayson Perry, for a glazed earthenware amphora going for £200,000, naturally hammering for around its high estimate (£120,000, without premium) as is customary for opening lots in high-profile sales.

But the first pass came early, at slot five, when a somewhat out-of-character cityscape by Peter Doig from 1997–98 failed to sell. It had been estimated at £2 million to £3 million ($2.61 million–$3.92 million). Lest one worry that demand has been quenched in the Doig market, a much more on-brand painting by the artist from 1996 finished at a within-estimate £15.4 million ($20.2 million) once premium was added on.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Red Skull (1982) sold for $21.5 million.

After a hiccup last night at Sotheby’s, where a Basquiat failed to sell, a Red Skull on offer at Christie’s from perhaps the artist’s most coveted year, 1982, did not disappoint. It went for £16.5 million (about $21.5 million), squarely in the middle of its £12-to-£18 million estimate, having sparked bidding from Alex Rotter and Outred working the phones, as well as in the room. Pylkkänen nudged things with “and that is the sale price. It’s Friday night—we’ve got dinners.”

Before the Basquiat came up, Pylkkänen reminded the audience that the seller had promised that all proceeds from it would go to the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) to build schools in New Jersey and Miami.

The work has an interesting history. From Basquiat’s onetime New York dealer Annina Nosei it went to a private collection in the Netherlands, then Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont in Paris, followed by private collections in Zurich and the United Kingdom, before ending up with the gallery Haunch of Venison, which was acquired by Christie’s in 2007. Haunch brought Red Skull to the TEFAF fair in Maastricht, the Netherlands, in 2008, with a price of $8 million, according to reporting by the Financial Times at the time. But while hanging at that tony fair, it fell off the wall. “There were paint chips on the floor and a dent in the painting,” a source told the New York Post‘s “Page Six.” A reporter from Dallas’s D Magazine said, “I found myself standing next to them as they picked up the huge painting and gazed down on the floor at scattered chips of paint. Nightmare.” The work was back on view the next day, but it did not sell.

In 2009, Christie’s slotted the work, fully restored, into its June sale in London, and the catalogue entry for the lot was studded with a triangle symbol, meaning that it was partially or fully owned by Christie’s. This was a nadir for the art market in the depths of the recession, and Red Skull carried an estimate of £1.5 million to £2 million. At the time, the Luxist blog called the Basquiat a “bargain.” When the sale happened, however, the work was marked as withdrawn. Between the catalogue printing and the sale, sources told ARTnews, Haunch of Venison’s Harry Blain found a buyer for it: collector/dealer Asher Edelman. “I’m a very good dealer on behalf of my clients, and they didn’t need that picture in their inventory,” Edelman told ARTnews over the phone recently, confirming his involvement in the sale. He got it, he said, in the range of the mid-to-high estimate of £2 million. (Though Edelman declined to identify the client for whom he bought the painting, sources told ARTnews that the client in the 2009 deal was Mark Laracy, a well-known collector of American folk art and furniture.)

Asked about the painting’s mishap at TEFAF, a Christie’s rep said that the house “readily shared the two independent condition reports prepared by experts, and both indicated that the work was in very good condition. Christie’s was incredibly satisfied with the condition of the work, and with its sale.”

Peter Doig’s Camp Forestia (1996) sold for $20.2 million.

To return to the auction: Perry was not the only artist netting a new record. New marks were set for Amy Sillman, Tony Bevan, David Salle, and Antony Gormley, whose A Case for an Angel I (1989) sold for £5.30 million ($6.93 million) to Yusaku Maezawa, who was quick to post it on his Instagram. He’d been bidding on the phone with Christie’s Koji Inoue. Records were also set for Howard Hodgkin, when a bright, brushy number from 1976–80 went for £1.33 million ($1.74 million), and Hurvin Anderson, a recent Turner Prize nominee whose auction record had just been set earlier in the day at Phillips, with a £1.81 million ($2.36 million) sale; his new top mark is £2.65 million ($3.46 million). The Sillman added a bit of pizazz to the tail end of the sale, selling after an extended bidding war between the room and the phones to a phone bidder for £440,750 ($576,000).

Other high-profile lots that failed to sell—a group that numbered 12—included a 1991 Jenny Saville of a bride seen in lingerie from below, a quartet of languorous stockinged legs by Sarah Lucas from 1998, and an impressive Damien Hirst from 1999 that includes a gynecologist’s table chair inside a fish tank (with live fish) that had been prominently displayed at Christie’s London showroom. That Hirst’s title is Love Lost—feel free to make your own pun with that.

There were several Basquiats in the sale, and they performed solidly. There was an extended bidding battle between the phones of two Christie’s reps for a Basquiat drawing of a skull from the collection of Marcia May that had gone to the consignor by descent. It went for £1.87 million ($2.44 million), well above its high estimate of £700,000. Later in the sale came Both Poles, which was purchased by its consignor from Larry Gagosian in 1982, the year it was made. Estimated at £3 million to £4 million, it sold for a solid £3.78 million ($4.94 million) to a bidder on the phone with Alex Rotter.

Frieze Week is now over, but another test for the market is only about a month away: the November sales in New York.

Sarah Douglas contributed reporting.

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