In a bid-happy and ebullient saleroom here on King Street in London Thursday night, Christie’s postwar and contemporary evening sale pulled in £34.3 million ($43.5 million), a total well beyond its high estimate of £21.3 million ($26.9 million). A series of new artist records at the start of the sale put the room in a giddy mood and spurred on bidding throughout the evening. Only four lots were left on the block unsold—a sell-through rate of 90 percent.
The successful sale came during a Frieze Week rocked by apprehension regarding Brexit, with dealers at Frieze London and Frieze Masters selling some works (especially if they were being offered in pounds, which are losing value), but for the most part missing the usual fervor of the fair.
The night at Christie’s saw artist records on 6 of the 41 lots, delivering new all-time highs for Lucy McKenzie, Henry Taylor, Adrian Ghenie, Imi Knoebel, Gerald Laing, and Neo Rauch. (There was also a new record achieved for Albert Oehlen—but just in pounds, not in dollars. A work sold at Christie’s in 2014 for £1.08 million, which when converted at the time came to $1.85 million. Tonight’s Oehlen sold for £1.35 million, but these days that only gets you $1.68 million. (The pound really is down.)
The record Ghenie, Nickelodeon (2008), was also the night’s top lot, going for £7.1 million ($9 million) after a protracted bidding joust between specialists Koji Inoue and Julie Vial, a battle that emerged after several interested bidders in the room had jumped in only to be swept away. When the work hammered, it had risen to more than four times its initial high estimate.
Knoebel’s Grace Kelly (1989) was up next, and it climbed to £365,000 ($463,000)—another record, and five times its high estimate. McKenzie’s Olga Korbut (1998) beat expectations even more impressively. It sold for £317,000 ($402,000), which was almost eleven times its high estimate.
The night’s biggest buyer was the Los Angeles-based dealer and collector Stefan Simchowitz, who picked up four different works to the tune of £7.4 million ($9.3 million), after being a reliable presence at fairs and sales earlier in the week, always toting around his camera and asking people he likes if he could take their photo. (He could be seen before the sale began in the front row with members of the Nahmad family, in the press pit mingling with reporters, and beside the pulpit taking pictures of the night’s auctioneer, Christie’s global president Jussi Pylkkanen.)
Here’s the full lineup of Simchowitz’s loot: Thomas Schütte’s Bronzefrau Nr. 13 (2003) for £3.7 million ($4.7 million); Damien Hirst’s Salvation (2003) for £665,000 ($844,000); Damien Hirst’s Damnation (2004) for £485,000 ($615,000); and Jean Dubuffet’s La Vie Agreste (The Rural Life) (1949) for £2.6 million ($3.3 million).
When Simchowitz came in to bid, he bid relentlessly, nodding as soon as someone else went one notch higher, until he rope-a-doped them into quitting. At one point, Christie’s chairman of postwar and contemporary art Brett Gorvy put in a bid of £3 million on the Schütte, only to have Simchowitz pop back at £3.2 million not a second later. Gorvy dropped out.
“That didn’t work, Brett,” said Pylkkanen.
The Frieze Week sales continue in London tomorrow with the evening auction of contemporary art at Sotheby’s.