Eric Clapton's Richter Rocks Sotheby's London, Scoring a Record $34.2 Million

Eric Clapton's Richter Rocks Sotheby's London, Scoring a Record $34.2 Million
Gerhard Richter's "Abstraktes Bild (804-9)" sold for $34,190,756, establishing a new auction record for the artist
(Courtesy Sotheby's )

LONDON — Powered by a record-shattering Gerhard Richter abstract painting owned by rock legend Eric Clapton, Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale rocked to the tune of £44,146,350 ($70,793,087).

The tally hurdled pre-sale expectations of £28.5-39.4 million ($44.6-61.8 million) and erased memories of the tentative performances of Phillips de Pury and Christie’s earlier in this fair- and exhibition-packed week.

Only six of the 53 lots offered failed to sell for a taut buy-in rate of 11 percent by lot and five percent by value. Five works sold for over one million pounds and nine exceeded the million-dollar mark. Three artist records were set — but none anywhere near the stratospheric heights of the magisterial 1994 Richter.

The evening results also represented the highest tally ever for a Sotheby’s October sale. It certainly destroyed last October’s mark of £17.8 million ($28 million), delivered at a sale that was 23 percent unsold by lot.

Auctioneer and contemporary specialist Oliver Barker seemed to be in a great hurry to get going with the sale, owing to the unusual Friday evening setting and overall aura of fatigue left by the long week’s marathon of art events. The packed salesroom was mostly appreciative of the brisk pace — though at times the audience veered into distraction, with neighborly chatting escalating to the point of muffling the auctioneer’s syncopated patter.

But early on, Isa Genzken’s “MLR,” a large-scale, lacquer-on-canvas abstraction from 1992, hit a record £265,350 ($425,355) (est. £100-150,000), and Beatriz Milhazes’s color-charged and patterned “Danca do Reis” (1998) raced to £847,650 ($1,359,292) (est. £400-600,000).

Sotheby’s was also lucky being last in a week of lackluster auctions since it had that window to pressure consignors to lower their reserves on weaker lots or ones that were too toppy for this particular moment of careful market scrutiny for non-trophy works.

For example, Mark Bradford’s mural-scaled, paper-collage-on-synthetic-mesh “Double-Stretch” (2004) hammered at £170,000 — well shy of the £200-300,000 estimate, though it  cleared the mark after the chunky buyer’s premium was added, making the final price £205,250 ($329,139).

The same applied for the double-exposure Andy Warhol “Self-Portrait” (1978), which sold for £481,250 ($771,732) (est. £500-700,000). Another Warhol, from an edgier series featuring transvestites, “Ladies and Gentlemen” (1975), barely drew notice as it sold to Paris dealer John Sayegh-Belchatowski for £397,250 ($637,030) (est. £400-600,000).

Just before the jumbo Richter came up, Alexander Calder’s blue chip hanging mobile, “Untitled” (1962), nimbly executed in painted metal, sold to the telephone for £1,553,250 ($2,490,792) (est. £700,000-1 million). The same Calder last sold at Christie’s London in June 1996 for £139,000.

The “Clapton Richter” was the top draw of the sale and indeed the entire week, with brawny pre-sale expectations of £9-12 million. Almost square and trophy-sized (measuring 88½ by 78¾ inches), the deftly squeegeed and firey hued painting has a volcanic aura. It captivated the two telephone bidders, who slugged it out for long minutes, driving the price to £19 million pounds, a total that at last bulged to £21,321,250 ($34,190,756), with the premium.

Thunderous applause greeted the hammer price, which set a record for a work by a living artist.

Sotheby’s private client services specialist Natasha Mendelsohn took the winning bid on the back cover lot and though it couldn’t quite be confirmed that she was putting her Russian language skills to use from where this reporter stood on the opposite side of the room, it is fairly certain that her anonymous client is fluent in that language. (Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of contemporary art, handled the telephone bids of the Richter underbidder.)

For Clapton the sale was better than any number of gold records since he acquired the painting at Sotheby’s New York in November 2001 — just two months after 9/11 — for $3,415,750. Perhaps more remarkable than that appreciation is the fact that the previous record it shattered, set just last May at Christie’s New York for “Abstraktes Bild (798-3)” (1993), was $21,810,500 (est. $14-18 million). Basic math tells you that’s a 40 percent appreciation in five months. (Ironically, and perhaps outrageously, the original Richter was made and sold as a triptych, this being one of the panels. Apparently Clapton has kept the two remaining panels. What would Mr. Richter think?)

“That’s a massive jump,” said San Francisco dealer Anthony Meier, a Richter specialist, moments after the sale, “but two people thought it was worth the chase.”  

Another less heralded Richter, smaller and missing the celebrity provenance, “Abstraktes Bild (840-2)” (1997), also drew competing telephone bids, ultimately selling for £1,945,250 ($3,119,403) (est. £1-1.5 million). It last sold at Sotheby’s London in July 2008 for £959,650.

If there was any surprise during the evening, apart from the rocketing Richter, it most likely came in the form of the buy-in of Lucian Freud’s formidable pastel-and-conte-crayon-on-paper “Chicken on a Bamboo Table” (1944), owned by the same Welsh family since it was purchased at Sotheby’s London in 1965 for £75,000. It flopped at an imaginary bid of £350,000 (est. £400-600,000) despite its recent inclusion in the Freud drawing retrospective mounted by Blain/Southern and Acquavella Galleries earlier this year.

Though trailing the top lot by millions, Yves Klein’s striking cover lot, “RE 9-1” (1961), won the abstract beauty contest, selling to Greek collector and frequent auction buyer Dimitri Mavromatis for £3,737,250 ($5,993,054) (est. £2-3 million).

Finally, though he couldn't be identified apart from his American accent, a middle-aged gentleman in a dark suit seated in the third row of the salesroom coolly bought Louise Bourgeois’s bronze “Nature Study” (1984), number one from an edition of six (plus one artist’s proof), for £529,250 ($848,705) (est. £350-450,000). Hustling out of the salesroom, the buyer said he had flown in that morning and characterized the evening as a “strong sale.”

Sotheby’s performance put an exclamation mark at the end of a long week of non-stop art commerce.


Like its arch-rival Christie's last night, Sotheby’s also staged a stand-alone 20th-century “Italian Art” auction on the same evening, reeling in £15,5699,650 ($24,967,491), on pre-sale expectations of £14.6-19.5 million ($23.4-31.9 million).

Top lot honors went to Piero Manzoni's ethereal abstraction, “Achrome” (1959), which sold to Gagosian Gallery's Stefan Ratibor for £4,017,250 ($6,442,062) (est. £2.2-2.6 million). It had last sold at auction at Sotheby's London in October 2007 for £2,260,500.

Prime works from the Arte Povera era animated the 33-lot sale, led by Luciano Fabro's "Nazione Italica" (1969), a sculpture in the shape of Italy that fetched a record £668,450 ($1,071,926) (est. £320-400,000).

To see highlights from Sotheby's contemporary art sale, click on the slideshow.