Basquiat, Bacon, and Klein Lead Christie's Smashing $207-Million Postwar and Contemporary Sale in London

Francis Bacon's "Study for Self-Portrait" (1964) sold for £21,545,250 ($33,567,502)
(Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012)

LONDON — The art market received a big shot of adrenaline tonight at Christie’s rousing Postwar and Contemporary art sale, delivering £132,819,400 ($207,331,083), the highest total of its kind ever achieved in Europe. That compared to the £102-139 million pre-sale estimate, though calculated without the added-on buyer’s premium.

Sixty of the 69 lots offered sold for a slim buy-in rate of 13 percent by lot and two percent by value. Five artist records were set, four lots exceeded ten million pounds, six hit over five million pounds, and 21 made over one million pounds. Converted to dollars, 30 lots made over a million, two went over 20 million, and nine exceeded five million dollars. For comparison sake, the evening throttled the £78.8 million ($125.8 million) result a year ago when 53 out of 65 lots sold.

More importantly, or so it seems, Christie’s evening crushed arch-rival Sotheby’s £69.3-million ($108-million) tally by a huge margin. Simply put, Christie’s had significantly better blue chip, market-desirable material.

That became evident early on as Marcel Broodthaers’s conceptually challenging “Surface de moules (avec sac) (Surface of mussels, with bag)” (1966-1974), comprised, just as the title describes, of mussels and resin on panel and plastic bag filled with mussels. It made a record £433,250 ($676,303) (est. £180-220,000).

“Untitled,” a beautiful Cy Twombly scrafitto drawing in gouache and wax crayon on card from 1970, sold to Bona Montagu of London’s Simon Dickinson Gallery for £713,250 ($1,113,383) (est. £350-550,000), and a juicy, 24-by-28-inch Gerhard Richter “Abstraktes Bild (829-3)” from 1995 in oil on canvas sold to another telephone bidder for £1,161,250 ($1,812,711) (est. £600-800,000).

Montagu later bid for but trailed the huge price made for Mark Grotjahn’s “Untitled Butterfly (Black + cream-cicle) #681” (2007), a work in colored pencil on paper and set in the artist’s frame, which made £836,450 ($1,305,698) (est. £200-300,000). “It was a ten,” said Montagu, referring to the quality.

But the fireworks, as it were, really started with the first of the financially guaranteed lots, Yves Klein’s extraordinary and other-worldly sponge composition, “Le Rose du bleu (RE 22)” (1960), which sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for a record £23,561, 250 ($36,779,111) (unpublished est. on request in the region of £18 million).

Zurich dealer Doris Ammann was the stubborn underbidder who dropped out at £20.5 million. “It’s a beautiful, exquisite work,” said the disappointed dealer as she exited the salesroom, “but I just thought the bidding would go on and on.” Asked if she expected to win the Klein, the seasoned Ammann said, “you always hope.”

The epic, cover lot sponge relief nosed past the previous mark set at Christie’s New York in May when “FC1 (Fire Color 1)” (1962) sold for $36,482,500. Another Klein sponge relief, smaller in scale and saturated in the artist’s patented IKB blue, “Relief eponge blue (RE 51)” (1959), sold to New York’s William Acquavella for £7,657,250 ($11,952,967) (est. £6-9 million).

While the Klein set a record and posted the highest result for any art work this week — virtually tying the mark set during last week’s Impressionist & Modern sales when Miro-885156">Miro-516">Joan Miro-885156">Miro’s “Peinture (Etoile Bleue)” (1927) made a record price at Sotheby’s — the big battle of the evening was for a Francis Bacon.

The 60-by-55-inch picture has a gritty history. At Christie's back in November 2008 Bacon’s “Study for self-portrait” (1964) was tagged with an unpublished estimate in the region of $40 million, but failed to sell in a blood bath of an auction following the global financial collapse that September. A lawsuit by the consignor ensued claiming Christie's had guarenteed the painting, and an out-of court settlement was eventually made, with the auction house retaining some degree of ownership on the painting, as evidenced by a symbol in the catalogue.

Further research into the origins of the painting by Christie’s London head Francis Outred, based on rediscovered black-and-white photos by John Deakin, a close associate of Bacon, revealed that the portrait was actually a combined one of Lucian Freud’s body with Francis Bacon’s head, all of it convulsed in Bacon’s exquisitely expressionist style. This time it was an unpublished estimate on request in the region of £15-20 million and was also backed by a third-party financial guarantee.

Bidding opened at £13 million and zoomed skyward, quickly coming down to a shooting match between New York dealers William Acquavella and Christophe van de Weghe. Van de Weghe made the winning bid of £19.2 million, before the added on buyer’s premium. “That’s the highest price I’ve ever bid at auction,” said van de Weghe moments after the marathon evening, “and this time my client really wanted it. We think it’s a very good painting and it’s exactly what he wanted.”

The dealer wouldn’t identify the ‘he’ other than “he works in finance and spends a lot of time in his private jet.”

As for underbidder William Acquavella, who dropped out at £19.1 million, he was philosophical: “You win some and lose some and that was a good picture.”

Another big price was achieved for Jean-Michel Basquiat's ferocious figurative work, “Untitled” (1981), another work with an unpublished estimate, this one in the region of £11 million and carrying a third-party financial guarantee. The brawny, 78-½-by-72-inch acrylic, oil stick, and spray paint on canvas, featuring a male figure with outstretched arms, sold for a record £12, 921,250 ($20,170,071).

Montreal collector Francois Odermatt was the underbidder to the anonymous telephone. “I love that Basquiat,” said Odermatt after the auction, “but you have to stop [bidding] at a certain moment. It would have been my first Basquiat and it’s the most amazing one I’ve seen.” The painting last sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 2007 for a then-record $14.6 million and tonight’s $20-million price beat “Untitled” (1981) that sold for $16.3 million at Phillips de Pury in New York in May (2012).

Odermatt felt better winning fellow Canadian’s David Altmejd’s giant figure, “The New North” (2007) in wood, foam, resin, paint, magic-sculpt, epoxy, glue, mirror, quartz crystal, horse hair, and other stuff for a record £217,250 ($339,127). It last sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2009 for a then record $254,500.

Returning to blue chip territory, Gerhard Richter’s majesterial “Struktur (2),” a huge squeegeed canvas from 1989, rich in white and gun metal gray shades, sold to anonymous telephone bidder for £12,696,250 ($19,820,407) (est. £9-12 million).  

Figurative painting remains in strong demand, especially if executed by the late British master Lucian Freud, as evidenced by “Naked Portrait II” (ca. 1974), a reclining female nude from 1974 that sold for £4,297,250 ($6,708,007) (est. £3.8-4.5 million) (it also carried a third-party guarentee), and the earlier and remarkable portrait, “Head of Greek Man” (1946), when Freud was all of 24 years old, which sold for £3,401,250 ($5,309,351) (est. £1.5-2 million). The portrait hailed from the estate of fellow artist and one-time close Freud friend, John Craxton, who acquired it in 1947.

Though Christie’s big evening was dominated by painting, sculpture made some noise as Alexander Calder’s “Rouge triumphant (Triumphant Red)” (1959-63), a huge mobile that hung menacingly over the center of the packed salesroom on King Street, sold for £6,201,250 ($9,680,151) (est. £6-8 million). Like the big Richter, it also carried a too-big-to-fail third-party guarantee.

Less impressive was the result for Jeff Koons’s frothy “Baroque Egg with Bow (Blue /TUrqoise)” (1994-2008), one of five versions, each uniquely colored, that sold to London dealer Ivor Braka for £2,617,250 ($4,085,527) (est. £2.5-3.5 million). Caught on the way out of the salesroom, Braka said, “I’ve been buying Koons for many years and I was expecting to pay substantially more tonight.”

The evening action plays the finale at Phillips de Pury on Thursday.

To see some of the highlights of Christie's Postwar and Contemporary sale, click on the slide show.