$16-Million Bacon Tops Sotheby's $117-Million Contemporary Night

Detail of Francis Bacon's "Head III" (1949), which sold for $16,788,407, around twice the estimate
(Courtesy Sotheby's)

LONDON — Powered by a pair of Francis Bacon paintings and a handful of classic post-war European works, Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening sale came in with £75,778,500 ($116,858,743), with two works selling over $15 million, and with 26 of the sale's 53 lots bringing in over $1 million. The auction beat the low end of its £65.6-93.9 ($101.2-144.9 million) presale estimate and edged past last June’s total, which, noting its slimmer buy-in rate of 13 percent by lot, had totaled at £69.3 million ($108 million). Fifteen of the sixty-eight lots failed to sell, with a  buy-in rate of 22 percent by lot and 15.5 percent by value.

The overall figures were slightly better than Christie’s £70.1-million ($108.3-million) sale on Tuesday evening; despite the low energy on the sales floor, which were likely a result of the season's end auction and art-fair fatigue. The first phase of the night churned out sales, with Glenn Ligon’s “Untitled (Negro Sunshine)” (2005), one of an edition of seven, sold to London dealer Ivor Braka for £194,500 ($299,938) (est. £100-150,000); and John Currin’s “Untitled” of a young woman, which went to a telephone bidder for £1,142,500 ($1,761,849) (est. £600-800,000). David Hockney’s “A Small Sunbather” (1967) met with a small bidding war, finally selling to another telephone bidder for £1,154,500 ($1,780,354) (est. £300-500,000); the posse of underbidders included London dealer Matthew Green. The work's last sale, at Christie’s New York in May, 2000, had brought in $270,000. Another work by Hockney, the “Double East Yorkshire,” also attracted at least three bidders and sold for £3,442,500 ($5,308,679) (est. £2-3 million). 


British art performed well, with Bridget Riley’s “Stretch” (1967) selling to a telephone bidder for £1,594,500 ($2,458,878) (est. £1-1.5 million), with London dealer James Holland Hibbert as the underbidder. An early work by Francis Bacon, “Head III” (1949) — notable for having been exhibited in Bacon’s inaugural show at at London's Hanover Gallery, where it sold for £150 — triggered a rapid-fire bidding war, eventually selling for £10,442,500 ($16,103,379) (est. £5-7 million) to London dealer Alex Corcoran of Lefevre Fine Art. “I had a lot longer to go,” Corcoran said as he exited the salesroom, adding, “It’s a very special picture, and I’m surprised and delighted, because there aren't many bargains in this market and this one of them.” Another Bacon, a formidable triptych of three small works titled “Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne” (1966), depicting a close friend and model of the Irish-born painter, sold as the top lot to an anonymous telephone bidder for £11,282,500 ($17,398,743) (est. £10-15 million). It last sold at Christie’s London in June 2004 for £2,357,250.


Back on the continental Europe front, Lucio Fontana’s pristine, white, multi-pierced abstraction “Concetto Spaziale, Attese” (1965), which arrived within it's artist-made frame, sold to a telephone bidder for £4,338,500 ($6,690,401) (est. £3.3-4.5 million). The work was last sold at Sotheby’s London in June 1997 for £155,500 ($238,000), indicating just how far the Fontana market has traveled since. Similarly, Pierre Soulages’ brawny, thickly painted abstraction, “Peinture, 21 novembre 1959” sold to another telephone bidder for a record £4,338,500 ($6,690,401) (est. £2-3 million), and Gerhard Richter’s “Abstraktes Bild,” one of his serial works from 1992 — which, notably, were not represented in the Tuesday auction at Christie’s — sold to yet another telephone bidder for £2,434,500 ($3,754,242).


German photography also made a big impression: including an unusual grouping of five Andreas Gursky stock-exchange series C-prints, which belonged to a single collection owned by former hedge fund mogul Greg Coffey, who retired from the industry in London at the age of 41. The Gursky prints led to as much bidding action as those on the floor of their subject: Of those, the large-scale “Chicago Board of Trade II” (1999-2009), which registered as number two from an edition of six, sold for £2,154,500 ($3,322,454) (est. £600-800,000). Works by Gursky’s fellow countryman and former art-school pal Thomas Struth also had a big night, with “Pantheon, Rome” (1992), from an edition of ten, which sold for a record £818,500 ($1,262,209) (est. £400-600,000), carrying a third-party guarantee. The work last sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 2008 for $892,200.


Despite the sales, the long evening also had its share of battlefield casualties, ranging from those of works by Damien Hirst and Jean-Michel Basquiat to a pair of unquestionably vintage 1960s Pop Art works by Tom Wesselmann, including his iconic, mixed-media and found-object based “Great American Nude #34” (1962), which drew a single bid from New York dealer Jose Mugrabi before expiring at £2.7 million ($4.1 million) (est. £3-4 million). Andy Warhol's “Multi-colored Retrospective” (1979) was left a buy-in. Later, Cheyenne Westphal, head of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art, Europe, explained, “Wesselmann is an artist currently undervalued by the market, and he didn’t find his audience tonight.”


There were plenty of opinions about the sale and the season floating around. “The market is doing great, apart from from Hirst and third-rate Basquiats,” said Israeli dealer Micky Tiroche, who bought Christopher Wool’s leaf-patterned, alkyd and flash-powder on aluminum “Untitled (P74)” (1988) for £1,314,500 ($2,027,090 (est. £1-1.5 million). Larry Gagosian was the underbidder.


“It’s tough to get material,” said Brussels’ dealer Paolo Vedovi, adding, “if it’s a good piece and not known to the market, it does well, but if it’s been around, people don’t want to buy it.” A prime example on the quality front was Robert Ryman's pristine Minimalist work “Reference” (1985) which sold to a telephone bidder for £1,314,500 ($2,027,090) (est. £450-650,000). New York dealer Neal Meltzer was the underbidder.


Still, in the varied mix of excellent to mediocre offerings, one player seemed quite pleased with his winning bid on Rachel Whiteread’s “Untitled (Pink)” (2002), executed in plaster, polystyrene and steel in two parts, which sold for £182,500 ($281,433) (est. £100-150,000).


“My client is very happy,” said Athens’ dealer Arsen Kalfayan of Kalfayan Galleries. “It was a reasonable price, and it also has interest for us in that it relates in part to ancient Greek temples.”


The evening action plays it last act of the season at Phillips on Thursday.


To see images, click on the slideshow.