Solid Sales But Little Drama at Sotheby's London's $108-Million Contemporary Sale, Led by Basquiat and Glenn Brown

A detail of David Hockney's "Swimming Pool," 1965, sold for 2,505,250
(Courtesy Sotheby's)

LONDON — The contemporary season kicked off solidly at Sotheby’s tonight, thanks in part to financial guarantees for the top lots. It total, the sale brought in £69,307,050 ($108,028,899), comfortably midway between pre-sale expectations of £57.5-82.5 ($89.9-128.5 million).

Only ten of the 79 lots failed to find buyers, making for a trim buy-in rate of 13 percent by lot and 7 percent by value. Twenty-one of the 69 lots that sold made over a million pounds, and of those, 26 hurdled the million dollar mark. Four sold for more than four million pounds and four exceeded five million dollars.

One artist record was set — and it was a doozy, with Glenn Brown’s large-scaled, Surrealist-inspired “The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dali (After John Martin)” (1988) soaring to £5,193,250 ($8,094,719) (est. £2.2-2.8 million). The painting was a kind of giant carbon copy of the famed John Martin work, “The Great Day of his Wrath” (1851-53), which resides at Tate Britain.

At least four telephone bidders chased the widely exhibited painting, and it finally sold to a Russian-speaking Sotheby’s client services person for a hammer price, before fees were added, of £4.6 million. Remarkably bagging the second highest price of the evening, it crushed the previous mark set at New York's Phillips de Pury in May 2011, when “Filth” (2004) made $2,546,500.

The Brown painting was one of six lots backed by so-called irrevocable bids, slightly better known as third-party guarantees. Apart from the Brown action, that type of high-end insurance policy for sellers stripped the room of any drama. “When irrevocable bids come into play,” theorized Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s senior international specialist, “sometimes the estimates are rather aggressive and you’re managing the vendor’s [seller’s] heightened expectations. It takes out the auction magic in a way.”

That seemed the case, as other guarenteed paintings, especially Francis Bacon’s cover lot — the swirly and tough “Study for Self-Portrait” (1980) — sold on a single bid below the low estimate to a telephone bidder for £4,521,250 ($7,047,272) (est. £5-7 million). It last sold at auction at Sotheby’s New York in May 2001 from the collection of Stanley Seeger for $1,765,750. The dissapointing result “was a question of a slightly over-aggressive estimate,” Barker said after the sale.

Another example was Gerhard Richter’s guaranteed, mostly black and white “Untitled  (687-4)” abstraction from 1989, which sold to the telephone for £2,841,25 ($4,428,656) (est. £2.5-3.5 million). “Kind,” another version, close in scale and identical date wise, sold at Sotheby’s London in February for £3,065,250 ($4,817,960) (est £2-3 million). Perhaps the recent Richter frenzy is toning down a bit.

A photo-realist styled Richter, “Jerusalem” (1995), based on a photograph taken by the artist in 1994, sold to another telephone bidder for £4,241,250 ($6,610,836) (est. £3-5 million).

In one of the few contested shootouts for property coming in without guarantees, Jean Dubuffet’s lively “Cherubin Oisistiti,” a gouache on paper from 1962, attracted at least four bidders and ultimately sold to A. Alfred Taubman, the former chairman and major stockholder of Sotheby’s, for £993,250 ($1,548,179) (est. £300-400,000).

Most of the slow but steady action at this sale went to anonymous telephone bidders, though Michelangelo Pistoletto’s painted tissue on polished stainless steel, “Lei E Lui Con Gli Occhiali Neri” (1970) sold to London dealer Daniela Luxembourg of Luxembourg & Dayan for £481,250 ($750,124) (est. £350-450,000). The seller acquired the work in 1971, making this example a poster child for fresh-to-market offerings.

As evidenced during last week’s series of Impressionist and Modern sales, top-quality works performed well. That was the clear case with David Hockney’s stunning, small-scaled, 24-inch square “Swimming Pool” (1965), which sold to another anonymous telephone for £2,505,250 ($3,904,933) (est. £1.5-2 million). That work was last sold at Sotheby’s London back in October 2007, for £1,196,500.

It was difficult to tell whether the long, even seemingly endless Spring/Summer marathon of art fairs and auctions had an impact on the semi-comatose room, as occasional blasts of bids stirred the air. Martin Kippenberger’s clever play on words and image “Terrorist/Touristin,” an oil on canvas in two parts from 1997, sold to a telephone bidder for a sizzling £1,015,650 ($1,583,094) (est. £500-700,000), even though the bidding increments were painfully slow at £20,000 per bid. It last sold at Phillips de Pury in New York in November 2004 for $612,800.

In the first of many Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings to be offered at auction this week, “Saxaphone,” a late 66-by-60-inch acrylic on canvas from 1986, dense in text including equations, sold to the telephone for £2,729,250 ($4,254,082) (est. £2-3 million). It last sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 1997 for $244,500, a rather impressive return for a buy-and-hold consignor.

A pricier model, Basquiat’s ferocious and convincingly animated “Warrior” (1982), another of the third-party backed works, sold on what appeared to be just two bids from the telephone, for the top lot price of £5,585,250 ($8,705,729) (est. £5-7 million). This Basquiat also has a track record at auction, last selling for £2.8 million at Sotheby’s London in June 2007, exactly five years ago.

Excitement was at a premium as a group of six Frank Auerbach portraits and a lone Lucian Freud print from the charitable estate of Ruth and Joseph Bromberg, sold to benefit the Prints and Drawings Department of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, tallied £2.5 million ($4 million) against a low estimate of £1.8 million. “Ruth Bromberg Seated” (2007-08) sold to Gilbert Lloyd of London’s Marlborough Gallery — the artist’s long-time representative — for £193,250 ($301,219) (est. £150-200,000).

“It was a pretty patchy and boring evening,” said Paris dealer Thaddaeus Ropac , who underbid Andy Warhol’s gruesome “Ambulance Disaster” screen print on paper from 1963, which ultimately made £409,250 ($637,898) (est.£300-500,000). “But it was a good result overall. I’m very happy I got my Beuys so it was worth sitting through it.”

Ropac, who is opening a Beuys show at his new, second venue Paris gallery in October, nailed Joseph Beuys’s “Tisch mit Aggregat,” a sculpture ensemble comprised of a wood table, accumulator, wire cables, and bronze from 1958-1985, from an edition of four for £601,250 ($937,168) (est. £500-700,000).

The evening action resumes Wednesday at Christie’s.

To see images of the highlights from Sotheby's London's contemporary sale, click on the slide show.