LONDON—Phillips de Pury & Company held its latest theme sale, devoted to the so-called BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India and China—at the Saatchi Gallery on April 23–24. It consisted of 375 lots of modern and contemporary art, design and photography from the world’s four fastest-growing economies. There would have been more lots, but 54 works from Brazil, which the auctioneer described as “volcano lots,” never arrived because of airport closures due to the cloud of ash from Mount Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland, which blanketed much of Europe. Although there are already individual specialized auctions for Latin American, Russian, Indian and Chinese art, this was the first time that artworks from these four nations had been offered together exclusively in one sale.
In the wake of the crash in late 2008, the prices of artworks in some of these markets plummeted, dropping by as much as 50 percent. But recently the market for Chinese contemporary art has started to bounce back, as has the market for modern Indian art of the 1950s and ’60s. The BRIC sale was therefore an opportunity to compare the resilience of these key emerging markets. It was also part of Phillips’s effort to market itself as a purveyor of the new and fashionable; the house has been holding theme auctions, such as the “Music” and “Sex” sales, as a way of dressing up contemporary art to generate more sales and publicity. One way Phillips officials tried to stir up excitement for the BRIC sale was holding it at the new 70,000-square-foot Saatchi Gallery, where the lots to be offered were previewed by an average of 2,500 visitors a day in the five days leading up to the sale.
Thirty-two higher-estimated lots were selected for an evening sale, in which—most certainly because of travel restrictions due to the volcanic eruption—all the buying was done over the telephone. In the evening session 23, or 72 percent, of the lots found buyers, bringing a total of £4.1million ($6.3million) against an estimate of £3million/4.1million. (The auction was 83 percent sold by value.) Demand dropped the next day, however, when only half of the lower-estimated lots sold.
In the day session, the offerings were arranged in geographic sections staggered for the convenience of different time zones, an indication of just how important domestic demand is to these markets. Chinese art went first, at 11 a.m. London time (7 p.m. in Hong Kong and Beijing), with Brazilian art last at 5 p.m. (2 p.m. in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro). By the end of the day, Phillips had taken in an additional £3million ($4.6million) against an estimate of £3.5million/4.9million, yielding an overall total of £7.1million ($11million), within the estimate of £6.5million/9million. Chinese art brought in a total of £2.9million ($4.5million) in sales, ahead of Russian art, which accounted for £2.3million ($3.5million). Brazilian art followed with a total of £1.1million ($1.7million), and Indian art trailed in fourth place with a total of just £800,000 ($1.2million).
Chinese art was in most plentiful supply with 132 lots on offer, of which 83, or 62 percent, sold—the highest percentage of the four. Estimates here had sometimes been set attractively low. The highest-selling Chinese work, for example, was Zhang Xiaogang’s oil Amnesia and Memory, 2006. It sold for £385,250 ($591,574) over its estimate of £220,000/330,000, but that estimate had dropped considerably since the work had last been offered by Sotheby’s in Hong Kong in October 2008, where it went unsold with an estimate of HK$6million/8million (£500,000/700,000, or $772,000/1million). Still, there were no bargains, said dealer Olyvia Kwok, of Olyvia Fine Art, London, who bid on several lots. Yang Shaobin’s oil Family, 1992, for example, which sold for £133,250 ($204,613) against an estimate of £35,000/55,000, was one of several Chinese works to exceed expectations.
Russian art proved more volatile—the sale achieved some of the highest prices, but with 52 of 111 lots finding buyers, also had the lowest sold-by-lot rate, 49 percent. Soviet-era Nonconformist art brought the top prices. Erik Bulatov’s ENTRANCE–NO ENTRANCE, 1994–95, a version of a 1970s-style propaganda painting, was the top lot of the sale, fetching £713,250 ($1.1million) on an estimate of £350,000/450,000. Other historically important Russian works in the evening sale included Meeting Between Solzhenitsyn and Böll at Rostropovich’s Country House, 1972, a painting from the “Sots Art” series by Komar & Melamid (Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid), which soared to a record £657,250 ($1million) on an estimate of £100,000/150,000, and Triptych N10, 1970, an oil and acrylic on fiberboard and wood by Vladimir Yankilevsky, which doubled the artist’s previous record to sell for £133,250 ($204,672) on a £50,000/70,000 estimate.
Despite the withdrawn lots, Brazilian art kept up the pace, with 36, or a relatively healthy 65 percent, of the 55 lots being sold, some of them for record prices. These included the £367,250 ($564,096) paid for Lygia Clark’s geometric aluminum sculpture Bicho, 1960 (estimate: £180,000/220,000). A work from the same series sold for £32,000 ($65,725) at Christie’s in New York in November 2003.
The Indian sale suffered from a low number of consignments—just 69—indicating that confidence has not yet returned to the market for Indian contemporary art. Works by Indian artist Subodh Gupta and Pakistani artist Rashid Rana failed, and some of the lots consigned by Manchester collector Frank Cohen did not make their estimates. Atul Dodiya’s Fallen Leaves–A Stroll, 2006, was bought in on a £50,000/70,000 ($76,700/107,400) estimate, and T.V. Santhosh’s installation Counting Down, 2008, sold for a hammer price of £48,000 ($73,700) against a £50,000/70,000 estimate, fetching £58,850 ($90,370) with premium. The results confirmed trends that have become evident over the past 18 months—important works were recognized with record prices, but even without those, Chinese art dominated. Phillips chairman Simon de Pury told ARTnewsletter he was satisfied with the result, and resolved to repeat the performance, “perhaps with a little editing.”