Sotheby's acid-test evening sale of contemporary art passed with mild distinction on Thursday evening, clocking in at £17,809,000 ($28,020,681), with a decent buy-in rate of 23 percent by lot. The tally fell shy of the pre-sale expectations of £19-26 million, yet calmed fears that the market was finally falling prey to grim global economic conditions.
Three works sold for over a million British Pounds ($1.6 million), and five made more than one million dollars. It also ranks as the third-highest tally for an October contemporary sale in London. Two artist records were set, including School of London painter Leon Kossoff's "A Street in Willesden" from 1985, which sold to Saville Row dealer Pilar Ordovas for £690,850 ($1,086,983) against an estimate of £350,000-450,000.
"I'm very happy to have secured it," said Orvdovas, a former head of Christie's contemporary art here. "I bought it for a collector who's been looking for the right Kossoff for a long time."
But the jazzy price for the Kossoff, as well as the £517,250 ($813,841) achieved by Lucian Freud's early and extraordinary 1945 drawing in pen and ink on paper, "Interior Drawing, the Owl" (est.£300-400,000), proved to be exceptions of an otherwise muted sale. In fact, the biggest excitement was outside on New Bond Street, as a noisy band of U.S. Teamsters and fellow British trade union enthusiasts blew whistles and gave catcalls to arriving guests, protesting the ongoing, two-and-a-half-month-long lockout in New York of 43 members of Teamster Professional Art Handlers, Local 814.
It was a surreal scene as collectors in black London cabs and private cars pulled up to the curb to encounter protesters shouting "Stop war on workers" and "Tell Sotheby's don't do this to your workers." Teamster Local President Jason Ide, who flew in to London for the protest, observed that Christie's had peacefully settled its contract issues with the union, meaning that the Sotheby's rival likely won't encounter a similar scene during its sale tomorrow night. "We brought this fight here to show them we'll go wherever they are," Ide said of Sotheby's.
But there was nary an echo of dissent or sense of "Occupy Wall Street" anti-fat-cat sentiment inside as Lucian Freud's cover-lot "Boy's Head," an 8-½-by-6-¼-inch oil from 1952 featuring street urchin Charlie Lumley, sold to a telephone bidder for £3,177,250 ($4,999,085) on an estimate of £3-4 million. New York dealer Eleanor Acquavella of Acquavella Galleries was the underbidder.
Other top lots included Miquel Barcelo's violently textured 1991 mixed-media painting "Contracorrent I," which sold to a telephone bidder for £1,721,250 ($2,708,215) against a £1.4-1.8 million estimate, and Anselm Kiefer's aptly titled "Melancholia" from 2004, also in mixed media and encased in a glass polyhedron, that made £825,250 ($1,298,448) on an estimate of £700,000-900,000.
The lack of drama in the salesroom, then, somewhat disguised the very decent result of Jean-Michel Basquiat's punchy 1984 "Spike," in acrylic and oilstick on canvas, that sold to a telephone bidder for £1,217,250 ($1,915,221), toward the middle of its £1.1-1.6 million estimate. It last sold at Sotheby's New York in May 2004 day sale for $534,000.
By contrast, Richard Prince's untitled 40-by-60-inch joke painting from 2001 sold for £421,250 ($662,795) on an estimate of £350,000-450,000. It last sold at auction at Sotheby's New York in November 2007, when the art market was zooming along, for $541,000.
Bad taste was also evident as Marc Quinn's "Microcosmos (Siren)" sculpture from 2008 of supermodel Kate Moss in a contorted yoga pose, composed of ten kilos of 18-carat gold, sold to an Asian telephone bidder for a whopping £577,250 ($908,245) against a £500,000-700,000 estimate. There still is some global appetite for bling left.
Hong Kong-based Patty Wong, head of contemporary art in Asia, took the winning bid.
Still, a number of seasoned observers were struck by the low pulse rate of the auction. "The sale felt solid but not racy," said Abigail Asher of New York and Los Angeles art advisory firm Guggenheim Asher. "It had a solid feeling without the thrills," added New York dealer Nick Maclean of Eykyn Maclean.
"It could be," noted Asher, who bid on several lots during the evening, "that people are selective and can wait until November in New York to go after property. You had four auctions and two art fairs in one week here, and the sales in New York are just weeks away."
Jonathan Binstock, senior advisor at Citi Private Bank Art Advisory and Finance, had a slightly more dour take. "Good things are selling at reasonable prices," he said, but "there's certainly no heat to the market, and things that are a bit mundane are not appealing at all." Finding an opening, Binstock bought Antony Gormley's robot-like "Unform VI" in milled steel blocks from 2005 for £253,250 ($398,464) against an estimate of £150,000-200,000.
Sotheby's contemporary sale came immediately after the firm's more robust £21,647,950 ($34 million) sale of 20th-century Italian art, which included an impressive record for Alberto Burri's "Combustione legno" from 1957. Soaring to £3,177,250 ($4,999,080), it came very close to hitting the high end of its £800,000-1.2 million pre-sale expectations.
The contrast between the two categories and sharp difference in quality, with the Italian side far surpassing its contemporary bedfellow, suggests that the market is paying close attention to both price and beauty.
The contemporary evening action resumes at Christie's on Friday.