LONDON—At the Sotheby’s contemporary art sale on Feb. 9, 80 percent of the lots surpassed their estimates. Afterward auctioneer Tobias Meyer commented: “We live in a cash-rich society. The new buyers are extremely confident—they make their own values.” Added Sotheby’s London department head Cheyenne Westphal: “The estimates are no longer relevant.”
Freud Painting Commands $6.2M
As it had been at Christie’s a day earlier, British art was again to the fore. The top lot was Lucian Freud’s 1996 portrait of writer Bruce Bernard, which sold to Eykyn Maclean for £3.5 million, or $6.2 million (estimate: £2/3 million). Also among the top sellers was Francis Bacon’s early painting Two Figures at a Window, 1953, which went to a private American collector for a top- estimate £2.6 million, or $4.5 million (estimate: £1.8/2.5 million). This was last seen on the market in 1999, when it brought $1.5 million at Sotheby’s New York.
Two early Freuds also helped to boost the total: A watercolor, Daffodils and Celery, 1947-48, saw heavy bidding from collectors of modern British art before it was won by dealer Timothy Taylor, bidding against consultant Susannah Pollen, for £713,600, or $1.24 million (estimate: £150,000/ 250,000). Freud’s whimsical portrait Artist’s Daughter with Toy Dog, 1956-58, fell to Pyms Gallery near the low estimate for £456,000 ($793,440).
Records for Caro and Hamilton
The more telling figures for British art, however, were the record prices paid for works by Sir Anthony Caro and Richard Hamilton. For all his historical importance in the history of Pop art, Hamilton’s market has always been subdued. When Sweden’s Wetterling Thoreden Gallery, Gothenburg, offered one of his famous 1969 Fashion Plate paintings for £300,000 at Art Cologne in 2004, the price was considered way too high, and the work failed to sell. But at Sotheby’s the same painting—this time estimated at a more reasonable £140,000/180,000—soared to £500,800 ($871,392). Underbidding the anonymous phone buyer was consultant Rosario Saxe- Coburg.
Caro’s Sculpture Two, 1962, was a good example of his early abstract sculptures at auction. Like Hamilton, Caro has lived under the shadow of his American peers—David Smith, in particular. His previous auction record was £75,000, for a large 1966 painted-steel piece. Knowing Sculpture Two to be a more important work, Sotheby’s gave it a guesswork £250,000/350,000 estimate. At auction the price raced up to the £1 million mark, with bidding from Austin Desmond and Roundell Dickinson, among others, before Taylor won the sculpture, on behalf of a client, for £1.4 million ($2.45 million). Although an auction record by some margin, the price was not significantly higher than that of other monumental Caro works recently sold on the primary market.
Another 1960s work to fetch a record for a British artist was Bridget Riley’s Persephone 1, 1969, which went to Riley’s agent Karsten Schubert for more than twice the top estimate at £467,000 ($812,580). The big surprise for the American market was Mark Tobey’s Blue Interior, 1959, which a phone bidder bought for a record £243,200, or $423,168 (estimate: £30,000/40,000).
As at Christie’s, the Andy Warhol market was exceptionally buoyant, with most works doubling and tripling estimates. Jose Mugrabi was a major player here, underbidding on a large 1980 Diamond Dust Shoes, which fetched £612,800 ($1.1 million), and buying a large 1973 Mao for £1.46 million ($2.55 million).
Standing out among the European postwar classics was a Sigmar Polke portrait, Herr Kluncker, 1964, which sold to U.S. dealer Stefano Basilico for a double-estimate £960,000 ($1.67 million); and Joseph Beuys’ Horn, 1969, which set a sculpture record for the artist at auction when it realized £299,200 ($520,608).
More contemporary art in the sale was characterized by sales from the Saatchi Collection’s continuing “Triumph of Painting” shows, and by more records for younger British artists.
Saatchi entered seven works: Franz Ackermann’s The Secret Tunnel, 1999, sold above estimate for £198,400 ($345,216). Wilhelm Sasnal’s Arms Raised, 2001, took a double-estimate £57,600 ($100,225). Albert Oehlen’s DJ Techno, 2001, brought a double-estimate £220,800 ($384,192). Thomas Scheibitz’s Funny Game 1, 2000, pulled an above-estimate £96,000 ($167,040). And Dirk Skreber’s Tesa-Moll Seele, 2004, fell within estimate for £90,000 ($156,600).
Saatchi Profits from Two Kippenbergers
Saatchi also entered two paintings by Martin Kippenberger, coinciding with the artist’s retrospective at London’s Tate Modern through May 14. Capri by Night, 1982, won a triple-estimate £198,400 ($345,216); and Dear Painter, Paint Me, 1976-77, made a double-estimate £164,800 ($286,752).
A third Kippenberger, Falsches Zeichen der Lord Jim Loge, 1985, from another source, was taken by U.K. property investor Guy Dellal, within estimate, for £142,400 ($247,776).
There were additional records for British artists: £288,000 ($501,100) for a Rachel Whiteread bookshelf sculpture; and £187,200 ($325,380) for Antony Gormley’s spread-eagled iron sculpture Drawn, 2000. Both sold above estimates and for slightly more than previously set records. Keith Tyson’s grouping of 12 paintings in assorted sizes, Art Machine Iteration Double Totem Stack, 1997, on the other hand, nearly quadrupled his previous record when it fell to his dealer Haunch of Venison for a top-estimate £60,000 ($104,400). In Tyson’s case the salerooms have a long way to go to catch up with his primary market levels. Noting the geographical spread of the bidding, auctioneer Meyer observed, “This is a global collecting community.”