Bacon and Basquiat Shine at Sotheby's London's $116-Million Contemporary Sale

Francis Bacon's "Three Studies For A Self-Portrait" (1980) sold for $22,081,301.
(© Sotheby's)

LONDON — Rich with paintings by Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sotheby’s started off the contemporary auction week here with a workmanlike bang, tallying £74,364,200 ($116,357,664). It blasted past last February's £50.6 million ($79.6 million) result for 57 lots sold. 

Forty-four of the 54 lots offered sold for a decent buy-in rate by lot of 18.5 percent and five percent by value. The results fell comfortably within pre-sale expectations of £61.2-84.5 million ($95.7-132.2 million). Estimates do not reflect fees, also known as the buyer’s premium.

Fourteen lots made over a million pounds, 20 exceeded one million dollars, and of those, six sold for over seven million dollars. Two artist records were set, both by living artists largely new to the evening sale catwalk.

The evening began with a short burst of fireworks from a private Swedish collection, led by a quartet of petite Alexander Calder painted metal and wire standing mobiles, including a stunning, dragon fly shaped sculpture, “Untitled” (1954), which sold to a telephone bidder for £892,450 ($1,396,417) (est. £150-200,000). International dealer David Nahmad was part of the posse of underbidders.

Another of the Swedish entries, Tom Wesselmann’s vintage Pop Art work, the 48-inch-square “Great American Nude No.5” (1961), sold to another telephone bidder for £836,450 ($1,396,417) (est. £500-700,000). Montreal collector Francois Odermatt was the underbidder. It last sold at Sotheby’s London in July 1973 for £8,500, a record for the artist at the time, according to Sotheby’s.

Odermatt had better luck with Takashi Murakami’s platinum leaf on canvas portrayal of “Daruma the Great” (2007), which fetched £529,250 ($828,117).

Gerhard Richter’s blue sky hued, photo-realist painting, “Wolke (Cloud)” (1976) was the first of the evening’s multi-million pound entries and sold to yet another telephone bidder for £7,601,250 ($11,893,676) (est. £7-9 million), despite its worn condition. It last sold at Sotheby’s London in June 1999 for £1,048,500.

A second large Richter, this one, “Abstraktes Bild (769-1)” (1992) — optically busy with vertical bands of acid yellow, red and green, and squeegeed for good measure — sold to (good guess!) a telephone bidder for £8,161,250 ($12,769,908) (est. £7.5-9.5 million). Still, like most of the top wares tonight, it didn’t exactly measure up to a masterpiece and performed as such in its mid-estimate range, at least after the premium was added.

Sotheby’s top lot also graced the glossy catalogue cover: Francis Bacon’s classically fierce “Three Studies for a Self-Portrait” (1980), a triptych oil on canvas, with each panel measuring 14 by 12 inches. It sold to German collector Jurgen Hall, from Munchen-Gladbach, for £13,761,250 ($21,532,228) (est. £10-15 million).

Though he bid anonymously over the telephone, Sotheby’s announced his name after the sale during a press briefing and noted the collector was willing to loan his new prize on an extended basis to a deserving international institution.

There wasn’t any bidding action for the Bacon in the salesroom, removing any potential for viewing drama. The triptych last sold at Christie’s London in June 2006 for £3,816,000.

But another Bacon piece, the single panel, 14-by-12-inch oil, “Study for Portrait” (1976), featuring a man’s face in profile, drew out a live bidder in the salesroom who wound up underbidding the winning telephone buyer. It made £4,521,250 ($7,074,400) (est. £1.8-2.5 million).

Button-holed at the side of the salesroom a short while later, London/Moscow-based private collector John Wallace said, “I came close but I didn’t quite make it.” Asked why he stopped bidding, Wallace set out to explain that there are two types of buyers at auction, the ones who invest in a work for a specific amount of time and view art as an asset class and the other who will “put it above the fireplace and pay any amount for the privilege.”

“I’m in the first category, the investment one,” said Wallace, looking quite youthful and decked out in a tailored blue suit and neatly knotted tie.

Another underbidder in the room unsuccessfully chased Sigmar Polke’s admired “Menschen wir Du + Ich (People like you + 1)” (1988), a kind of sociological parody of German life that sold to a telephone bidder for £1,665,250 ($2,605,617) (est. £800,000-1.2 million). It last sold at a Christie’s New York day sale in November 2004 for $477,900.

“Polke is a great artist,” said underbidder Nicolai Frahm. “I don’t think it was too pricey because to me he is more important than Gerhard Richter.”

But the sale wasn’t a slam dunk, as certain, over-estimated works failed to sell, including the racy but rather underwhelming Lucian Freud, “Drawing for Naked Figure” (1973), of a splayed woman in pen and ink on paper, which died at an imaginary £130,000 (est. £200-300,000). Big names can easily fall as well — further evidenced by the buy-in of Richter’s mini, four-part “Abstraktes Bild” (1990), which didn’t draw any bids and passed (est. £600-800,000).  

A sure winner this evening was the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, as both works offered attracted strong bidding and both wound up selling to New York-based art dealer Jose Mugrabi. The more important, “Untitled (Pech/Oreja),” a large-scale head in acrylic, oil stick and paper collage on canvas from 1982-83 sold for £6,817,250 ($10,666,951) (est. £7-9 million) and “Five Fish Species,” also from 1983 but mural-scaled and executed in acrylic and oilstick on canvas and mounted on a wood support sold for £4,969,250 ($7,775,385) (est. £4.25-6.25 million).

The larger Basquiat was one of the few entries in the evening carrying the insurance of a third-party guarantee. “The prices were high, but it was ok,” said Jose Mugrabi as he exited the salesroom. “Basquiat is the best artist in the world,” he added — an accolade he usually reserves that accolade for Andy Warhol.

Though it seemed rather ironic, given the capitalist flow of money coursing through the salesroom, Warhol’s striking late portrait of “Lenin,” made in 1987 and based on an 1897 photograph of the goateed Bolshevik leader, sold for £2,169,250 ($3,394,225) (est. £1.5-2 million).

On the more youthful front, Adrian Ghenie’s eerie portrait, “Dr. Mengele 2,” made in 2011 and debuted at his solo show that same year at London’s Haunch of Venison (the wholly owned subsidiary of Christie’s that is closing its primary market business), sold for a record £121,250 ($189,720) (est. £30-40,000.)

The evening action resumes Wednesday at arch-rival Christie’s.