Sotheby's Contemporary Sale Soars to $80 Million in London, Driven by Gerhard Richter Fever

Detail of Gerhard Richter's "Kind (Child)," 1989
(Courtesy Sotheby's)

LONDON — Stoked by a half-dozen Gerhard Richter paintings chased by an international cast of hungry bidders, the contemporary art market maintained its surging pace at Sotheby’s tonight, realizing £50,688,450 ($79,672,106). 

The tally clipped pre-sale expectations of £34.5-48 million ($54.2-75.5 million), and improved on last February's £44.3-48 million ($71 million). Only six of the 63 lots offered failed to find buyers for a slim buy-in rate by lot of 9.5 percent and five percent by value. Nine lots sold for over a million pounds and 21 over one million dollars. Two artist records were set, both by German artists, Albert Oehlen and A.R. Penck.

The quick tempo sale, navigated by auctioneer Tobias Meyer, motored along at autobahn speeds as Andreas Gursky’s “James Bond Island I” (2007), from an edition of five, sold to Bona Montagu of London’s Simon Dickinson Gallery for £713,250 ($1.1 million) (est. £300-400,000). “My clients are delighted,” said Bona, who beat out five other bidders. “It’s quite an iconic piece."

European works by classic Postwar artists were in keen demand as Yves Klein’s “ANT 59” (1960), a pigment in synthetic resin on paper laid down on canvas and bearing the unmistakable imprint of a woman’s body sold to a telephone bidder for £937,250 ($1.5 million) (est. £450-650,000). It last sold at Sotheby’s London in June 2009 for £457,250 ($751,314). Doubling its value in 32 months is a sure sign of a market recovery.

Another Klein, “F130,” one of the artist’s so-called fire paintings, blow-torched in charred pasteboard on wood panel from circa 1961, sold to Zurich dealer Mathias Rastorfer of Galerie Gmurzynska for £253,250 ($398,058) (est. £250-350,000). “These were OK paintings,” said Rastorfer, who also was an underbidder for “ANT 59,” “but not outstanding ones. You’ll definitely be seeing greater Kleins coming out.”

Italian artists were also drawing intense interest as Alberto Burri’s “Nero Plastica” (1965), comprised of artfully burned jet black plastic on canvas, sold to London’s Helly Nahmad Gallery for £2 million ($3.2 million) (est. £800,000-1.2 million). At least four other bidders chased the Burri, another strong signal of a market hungry for good material.

Another Burri abstraction, lot 18, “Composizione” (1952), in oil and mixed media on fabric and canvas sold to Milan’s Galeria Tega for £481,250 ($756,429) (est. £400-500,000). “I bought it for a client,” said Giulia Tega, “and it looks like there are new buyers from all over the world. Europe is very quiet right now,” opined the dealer, “and the U.S. and the Far East are more active.”

Though Sotheby’s doesn’t provide geographic breakdowns on buyers in percentage terms, the house did reveal that buyers came from 20 different countries, but without identifying which ones. Still, the appearance of two Zao Wou-Ki abstract landscapes in London indicated the probability of strong Asian interest as “28.12.99” (1999), close in temperament to a tranquil AbEx-styled painting, sold to an anonymous telephone bidder £1.8 million ($2.9 million) (est. £500-700,000).

Zao Wou-Ki’s “10.01.91” (1991) — the system of titling is similar to On Kawara — sold to another telephone bidder for £1.6 million ($2.5 million) (est. £600-800,000). For comparison sake, a painting by the artist sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong last October for a record $8.8 million.

But the serious money tonight was largely reserved for Gerhard Richter, who one could say is the most bankable living artist on the planet right now. There were a half dozen of his paintings on offer, overwhelmingly in the abstract mode, though “Ice (Eis)” (1981), a heavily romantic and Caspar David Friedrich-like photo-based painting of icebergs sold to a telephone bidder for £4.3 million ($6.8 million) (est. £2-3 million). At least five bidders chased the compact trophy. It certainly doesn’t hurt the Richter market that his traveling retrospective that began at Tate Modern last year is still on the road (in Germany). For whatever reason, Richters of every stripe and price find a buyer.

Richter’s gray-and-white-hued “Abstraktes Bild (768-4)” (1992), resembling a vertical forest of birch trees, sold to another telephone bidder for the evening's top lot price of £4.9 million ($7.6 million) (est. £3-4 million). Altogether, the half dozen Richters brought a whopping £17.6 million ($27.7 million), compared to the high estimate of the grouping, which had the paintings topping out at £14.8 million.

“If there are two artists who are hot in my book,” ventured New York dealer Christophe van de Weghe as he strode out of the salesroom, “they are Basquiat and Richter. That’s what appeals to young collectors today.”

Van de Weghe was referring to the strong performance of a good but not great Basquiat painting, “Orange Sports Figure” (1982), an early, prime work in acrylic, oil stick and spray paint on canvas, depicting in part a grinning head and a suspended baseball. It sold to a telephone bidder for a little more than £4 million ($6.4 milliom) (est. £3-4 million). According to Sotheby’s, the artist’s signature and date are scrawled on the bottom right-hand side of the canvas in invisible ink.

Two other Basquiats were offered, including “Tuxedo” (1983), a large-scaled editioned piece of 10, executed in silkscreen on canvas and comprising a lexicon of the artist’s favorite words and anatomy classifications, sold for a jumbo priced £724,450 ($1.1 million) (est. £ 250-350,000).

Although Sotheby’s had no true blockbuster to match the luscious Francis Bacon nude that sold for $33.4 million at Christie’s Tuesday evening — the most expensive trophy so far this season — it did offer an early and quirky example. Bacon's “Figure with Monkey” (1951), a small-scaled work by the artist's standards at 26 by 22 inches, featuring a man seemingly trying to feed a rather ferocious monkey through the grill of a zoo fence, sold to a sole telephone bidder for £1.8 million ($2.9 million) (est. £1.8-2.5 million). Though the Bacon was more curiosity than masterpiece, it still did better than a small group of Lucian Freud drawings from a single, anonymous owner.

Of the six Freuds, the jowly close-up of “Lord Goodman,” the artist’s one-time solicitor, in charcoal on paper from 1985 sold to London dealer Matthew Green of the Richard Green Gallery for a toppy £735,650 ($1.2 million) (est. £400-600,000). A charcoal-and-crayon “Head of Success II” (1983), depicting a bridled racehorse, sold to Acquavella Galleries, the late artist’s dealer, for £253,250 ($398,058) (est. £100-150,000). “The Freud market remains very strong,” said Saville Row dealer Pilar Ordovas, who underbid Freud’s Lord Goodman, "but it’s selective for quality, which is a healthy sign.”

The evening finale takes place at Phillips de Pury on Thursday.

To see a selection of lots from Sotheby's London's contemporary sale, click on the slide show.