Signs of a Recovery at London Postwar Auctions
Signs of a Recovery at London Postwar Auctions
Piggy-backed to the gangbuster week of the Frieze art fair, the contemporary art sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury & Co. were satisfyingly peppy, indicating the art market is recovering from last year’s free-fall. Although volume and overall results are still at a sobering fraction of what they were before the property tap was turned off, healthy percentage-sold rates at all three houses spurred confidence that better times are not just a pipe dream.
Sotheby’s kicked things off on October 16 with a 217-lot afternoon sale (the auction house chose not to stage an evening event this time around) that included, for the first time, Arab and Iranian art, and totaled £12,765,250 ($20,779,274). The buy-in rate of 27 percent by lot and 12 percent by value was decent but not a single lot fetched a million pounds and only three exceeded the million-dollar mark, illustrating how difficult it is to harvest top-class consignments.
Of the top performers, Jean-Michel Basquiats Fuego Flores (1983) in acrylic and oil stick on canvas (est. £800,000–1,200,000), sold for £959,650 ($1,562,118) to a telephone bidder identified by Sotheby’s as a private Asian buyer. (The work was once the subject of an authenticity dispute that was eventually resolved in court.) The New York dealer Jose Mugrabi led the posse of underbidders. Not far behind the Basquiat was Anish Kapoors (1997) untitled mirror-like wall sculpture in polished stainless steel (est. £600–800,000) that sold to another telephone bidder for £825,250 ($1,343,342). With a wildly popular show of his work at the Royal Academy and pieces on view at the Lisson gallery and at Frieze, Kapoor is having a moment. The cover lot, Chris Ofilis exotic mixed-media Afro Apparition (2002-03) (est. £280–350,000), with the artist’s signature supporting clumps of elephant dung, sold to the London collector Fatima Malaki for a rousing £577,250 ($939,648).
Despite a spate of bad reviews for his new paintings on view at the Wallace Collection, Damien Hirst did not seem to be suffering in the salesroom. His Retribution (2006) (est. £450–650,000), an 80-inch diameter composition in household gloss paint on canvas and a mass of preserved butterflies sold to Mugrabi for £541,250 ($881,047). Mugrabi also competed for Hirst’s ominous still life Two Skulls (2006) (est. £220–280,000), which ultimately went to a telephone bidder for £433,250 ($705,244).
Of less tested artists, the London-based painter Hurvin Anderson hit a home run with Untitled (Beach Scene) (2003) (est. £20–30,000), a lush composition in oil on canvas that sold to the New York private dealer Irena Hochman for £97,250 ($158,304). And in the Iranian section of the sale, Farhad Moshiris two-part Cowboy and Indian (2007) in acrylic and glitter on canvas (est. £150–200,000) sold for a buoyant £397,250 ($548,976).
It’s notable that estimates at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s appeared substantially reduced from levels seen a year ago, indicating a new kind of realism for a change. In its sale on the evening of October 16, Christie’s also offered a tightly edited selection of postwar and contemporary works and combined them with the Italian art-sale lots into a single catalogue. The non-Italian entries accounted for £11,200,000 ($18,093,712 million) of the overall tally of £17,009,000 ($27,690,652), with only four percent of that trove unsold by lot and one percent by value. Collectors from the U.S.—even with their currency at a disadvantage against the British pound and the euro—accounted for 50 percent of the buyers of those works, followed by Europeans at 42 percent and Asians at 8 percent.
Christie’s had the most exciting cover lot of the season: Martin Kippenbergers brilliant and large-scale oil on canvas Paris Bar (1991) (est. £800,000–1.2 million), which sold for £2,281,250 ($3,713,875) to a telephone bidder after a fierce battle. The New York dealers Jeffrey Deitch and Tony Shafrazi were among the underbidders. The painting just missed the record for Kippenberger set last May at Sotheby’s New York when Self Portrait from the Dakis Joannou collection made $4.1 million. Another Kippenberger, Kellner des…(Waiter of…) (1991) (est. £500–700,000), also performed above its high estimate, selling to Deitch for £1,105,250 ($1,799,347). The German collector Ingrid Goetz was the underbidder.Both Kippenbergers were consigned by Charles Saatchi.
Other top works from the 1990s included Peter Doigs Pine House (Rooms for Rent) (1994) (est. £1.5–2 million), which sold on a single bid over the telephone for £1,385,250 ($2,255,187). It was owned by Christie’s, which had guaranteed it last November in New York at a much higher estimate of $4–6 million and it failed to sell. A new record was set for Neo Rauch and his particular brand of figure painting when Stellwere (Signal Box) (1999) (est. £350–450,000) brought £892,450 ($1,452,909), toppling the £456,000 ($845,000) realized by Losung (Password) (1998) at Sotheby’s London in June 2006. Li Songsong also hit a new high with Cuban Sugar (2006) (est. £300–400,000), which sold to a telephone bidder for £433,250 ($705,331)—a shot in the arm for the flagging Chinese contemporary market.
“There’s a renewed confidence in the market,” says Francis Outred, the director of Christie’s postwar and contemporary department. “It was a good mixture of bargain hunters and big game hunters all together.”
Wrapping up the week on October 17 was Phillips de Pury and Company’s sale, which realized £4,104,950 ($6,704,163) with 31 of the 43 lots selling for a buy-in rate of 28 percent by lot and 26 percent by value. Given the excitement over the Kippenbergers at Christie’s, the batch at Phillips from the Bleich-Rossi collection had bumpier results. The 1984 canvas Big Until Great Hunger (est. £400–600,000), set in the artist’s frame, sold to the New York gallery Pablo’s Birthday for £433,250 ($707,580).
It was one of only 11 works that sold for more than £100,000 ($163,319), again indicating the difficulty of bringing major property into a market still jangled by the recent drop in prices. But the house made reassuring results, despite a surprisingly lackluster performance by auctioneer and chairman Simon de Pury, who was recently chosen to star in a new reality TV show about the art world. Steven Parrinos creased and gathered canvas in enamel and gesso, Sin City Sag. Fuckhead Bubble-Gum (1992) (est. £300–400,000), sold for £313,250 ($511,597), and a kneeling figure by auction newcomer Margherita Manzelli, Verifica del funzionamento-spazio vuoto (1997), in oil on canvas (est. £80–120,000) sold for a surprisingly sizzling £151,250 ($247,020). Top lot honors went to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s uncharacteristically sedate triptych Year of the Board (1983) (est. £900,000–1.2 million) that attracted at least five bidders and sold for £1,105,250 ($1,805,083). The underbidder was the London/Milan financier Moz Fabris, new on the evening auction scene. Fabris explained that he came to the preview with a friend “for a quick glass of champagne,” and then saw the Basquiat. “I never went to this level before,” Fabris said moments after battle for the picture. Fabris did nab the cover lot, Lucio Fontanas ovoid Concetto Spaziale (1958-60) (est. £250–350,000), for £241,250 ($394,007). “It was my backup,” he explained.
Competition was also fierce for Dan Colens painting Untitled (Bird Shit) (2007) (est. £25–35,000), and won by a telephone bidder for £49,250 ($80,434). The Los Angeles and Berlin dealer Javier Peres was the underbidder.
After the sale, Phillips’ contemporary head Michael McGinnis acknowledged: “It’s a huge adjustment in volume from two years ago” when the house had 96 works to offer, “but I believe there’s a new confidence in the market. People are happy.”
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