Sotheby’s Solid $100.4M Contemporary Sale

Lucian Freud's "Pregnant Girl," 1960, which sold at Sotheby's London for $23,214,243.
(Sotheby's )

Though pinched by a trio of high-value works withdrawn from the auction by nervous sellers at the 11th hour, Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Sale triggered some bidding fireworks on a few star lots and tallied £69,461,000/$100,447,552.

Twelve of the 55 lots offered failed to sell for a middling buy-in rate by lot of 22 percent. The tally hurdled the low end of pre-sale expectations pegged at £60.2-86.1/$87.1-124.5 million.

It lagged far behind last February’s strong Contemporary Art Evening Sale that made £123.5/$188.2 million and came in with a trim 12 percent buy-in rate by lot, representing a precipitous drop of 44 percent.

Seventeen lots sold for more than a million pounds and of those, four exceeded five million pounds. Twenty-one sold for more than a million dollars and of those, four also went over the five million dollar mark.

Two artist records were set.

(All prices reported include the hammer price plus the added on buyer’s premium for each lot sold calculated at 25 percent of the hammer price up to and including £100,000, 20 percent of any amount above that up to and including £1.8 million, and 12 percent for any amount in excess of that. Estimates do not include the premium.)

The sale opened on a strong note with Cheyney Thompson’s conceptual abstraction “Chronochrome XIII” from 2009, the artist’s first appearance in a European auction, which sold for £197,000/$284,882 (est. £70-90,000), followed by Mike Kelley’s organ laden self-portrait, “Visceral Egg” from 1994, in acrylic on paper, which realized £245,000/$354,294 (est. £80-120,000).

The price escalator continued as Gunther Forg’s “Untitled” minimalist abstraction from 1989, in acrylic and lead on wood, brought £389,000/$562,533 (est. £180-220,000), and Christopher Wool’s patterned abstraction “Untitled” from 1986, comprised of alkyd and gouache on rice paper, made £485,000/$701,358 (est. £400-600,000). Rudolf Stingel’s oil and enamel abstraction “Untitled” from 2012 sold to New York/London art advisor Jude Hess for £605,000/$874,890 (est. £500-700,000).

“There was a lot of uncertainty coming into the sale,” said Hess as she made a beeline for the exit, “but I think it was a good sale.”

In striking contrast to those abstraction infused works, Adrian Ghenie’s figurative styled “The Sunflowers in 1937” from 2014, a historical commentary in part on the National Socialists’ propaganda and exploitation of Entartete Kunst/Degenerate Art, including that of van Gogh, the work he reprised, sold to a telephone bidder after a ferocious bidding battle for a record £3,117,000/$4,507,494 (est. £400-600,000). It crushed the mark of £1,426,500/$2,439,712 set by “The Fake Rothko” from 2010 in June 2014 at Sotheby’s London. Among the large posse of underbidders was Paris/Salzburg dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, who bought an Anselm Kiefer work later in the sale.

Ropac was unhappy that the Ghenie found its way to auction, since the buyer had apparently promised it would go to a museum when it was acquired on the primary market at Galerie Judin, Berlin in 2014. “It’s one of his best paintings,” said Ropac, “and I’m definitely not happy it went to auction so fast.”

As the more high-valued property began to stream in, Italian Post-War star Lucio Fontana’s classic “Concetto Spaziale, Attese” from 1961, painted in lemon yellow and sporting four vertical cuts through the canvas, brought £1,325,000/$1,916,082 (est. £1.2-1.8 million), and fellow Zero Group artist Piero Manzoni’s “Achrome,” suffused in chalky white kaolin on pleated canvas, sold to the telephone manned by Amy Cappellazzo, Sotheby’s new co-chairman of its freshly created Fine Art Division, for £2,163,000/$3,778,659 (est. £2.5-3.5 million).

In that same Zero Group universe, Yves Klein’s “Untitled Anthropometry” from 1960, executed in pigment in synthetic resin on paper laid down on canvas, sold to Gagosian Gallery for £1,025,000/$1,482,252 (est. £1-1.5 million). It last sold at Sotheby’s London in February 2012 for £937,250 and is apparently a bit early to reappear on the more discerning auction market.

The evening’s most expensive Italian entry, Alberto Burri’s rough hewn though brawnily majestic “Sacco e Rosso,” comprised of acrylic and sewn burlap on canvas, sold for a record £9,109,000/$13,172,525 to a bidder in the salesroom (est. £9-12 million). It recently returned from its triumphant inclusion in Burri’s “The Trauma of Painting” exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. It last sold at Christie’s London in February 2007 for a then-record £1,924,000, and almost doubled the more recent record of £4,674,500/$7,697,184 set at Christie’s London in February 2014 for “Combustione Plastica,” from 1960-61.

The results weren’t so pretty on the American side, as Andy Warhol’s eerie Death & Disaster series painting “Little Electric Chair” from 1964-65, executed (ha!) in silver paint and silkscreen ink on canvas, and at one time in the collection of Philip Johnson, bought in at a chandelier bid of £3.4 million (est. £3.5-5.5 million). The same fate greeted Warhol’s two-foot square “Flowers” from 1964, when it wilted at £1 million (est. £1.3-1.8 million).

A third ’60s Warhol, “Large Campbell’s Soup Can” from 1965, in acrylic, silkscreen ink, and silver paint on canvas and inscribed by the artist to the first owners on the reverse, sold to a telephone bidder for £5,133,000/$7,422,831 (est. £4.5 -6.5 million). It last sold at Sotheby’s London in July 2008 for £3,513,250.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ferocious and aptly titled “Untitled (Head of a Madman)” from 1982, in oil stick on paper laid down on canvas, sold to international dealer David Nahmad for £6,197,000/$8,961,482 (est. £4.5-6.5 million). The widely exhibited work, painted when Basquiat was 22 years old, last sold to the seller for a whopping $12,037,000 at Christie’s New York in November 2013.

Similar to the top lot Pablo Picasso “Tete de Femme” that sold last week at Sotheby’s London Impressionist and Modern Sale, it took a steep price beating from what it fetched just two years ago.

Two other Basquiats were withdrawn by their owners from the sale in what one might surmise as a lack of confidence in the outcome.

In another test of the current market, Richard Prince’s Nurse Painting “Heartbreak Nurse” from 2002, scaled at 54 by 64 inches, sold to a telephone bidder for £1,985,000/$2,870,508 (est. £2-3 million). It was first exhibited at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York in 2003, Prince’s breakout show of the series appropriated from cover art pulp novels of the 1970s.

In a similar appropriation vein, Wade Guyton’s “Untitled” Epson UltraChrome inkjet on canvas work from 2005, with the lower portion of the printed canvas illusionistically engulfed in flames, made £1,325,000/$1,916,082 (est. £1.3-1.8 million).

Not unexpectedly, the pre-sale buzz around the stunning Lucian Freud painting “Pregnant Girl” from 1960-61, depicting his teenage lover, Bernadine Coverley, sleeping with her head in profile, triggered a marathon bidding battle eventually won by a telephone bidder at the top lot price of £16,053,000/$23,214,243 (est. £7-10 million). Among the crowd of at least nine bidders, both in the room and on the telephone banks, was London dealer Pilar Ordovas.

Though it sounds like a pittance today and has zero bearing on its current high net worth, the Freud last sold at Sotheby’s London in May 1983 for £44,000.

A second Freud, “Francis Bacon” from 1951, in charcoal and pencil on paper and depicting his then-close friend suggestively posed with an open shirt and trousers, realized £545,000/$788,124 (est. £350-450,000). It last sold at Christie’s London in February 2008 from the collection of artist R.B. Kitai for more than double its high estimate at £468,500.

Another School of London star, Frank Auerbach’s glowing and richly impastoed cityscape “Primrose Hill” from 1978 sold to London dealer Ivor Braka for £2,105,000/$3,044,040 (est. £1.8-2.5 million).

Former YBA star Damien Hirst’s sleek and stainless steel clad “In Search of Nirvana,” a 2007 iteration of an open medicine cabinet and comprised in part of colored plaster and painted pills meticulously arranged on an altar-like high-rise of shelves, sold shy of the low estimate for £1,205,000/$1,742,550 (est. £1.3-1.8 million).

What was expected to be the highlight of the evening came to naught as Gerhard Richter’s large-scale “Abstraktes Bild (725-4)” cover lot from 1990 was withdrawn from the sale by the seller. Never before at auction and acquired from the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York in 1996, no one could argue against its fresh-to-market status or authenticity, recorded by Dieter Elger in volume four of the Richter catalogue raisonne. It also stayed with Richter from the time it was painted to when it came to market, adding further allure. Unencumbered by any financial guarantee, the masterfully squeegeed, 88 ½ by 78 ¾ inch painting would have come “naked” to the salesroom but, alas, that didn’t happen (est. £14-20 million).

In one of only four financial guarantees in place for the evening, Kazuo Shiraga’s Ab-Ex inspired abstraction “Koujouka” from 1990, imploded with thick brushstrokes in burning shades of yellow and red, sold for £1,565,000/$2,263,146 (est. £1.2-1.8 million). It was acquired by the seller at Shiraga’s exhibition held last February at the Mnuchin Gallery in New York, a rather quick turnaround.

While portions of the sale tonight appeared flat, there’s plenty of money at hand when desired, as evidenced by Ai Weiwei’s storied, large-scale editioned photograph in three parts, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” from 1995-2004, which sold for £755,000/$1,091,806.

“Overall, we sold very solidly,” said Cheyenne Westphal, Sotheby’s co-head of worldwide contemporary art.  The evening action resumes with the third act on Thursday at Christie’s.