Glenn Brown, Gursky Lead Sotheby's Mild but Solid $34-Mil Night

Glenn Brown's "Ornamental Despair (Painting For Ian Curtis) Copied from the Stars Like Dust, 1986 by Chris Foss" (1994) was the top lot, selling for £3,554,500.
(Courtesy Sotheby's)

LONDON — In a packed salesroom filled with attention-deficit challenged Contemporary Art followers, Sotheby’s realized a £21,459,00 ($34,317,233) evening sale.

Nine of the 38 lots offered failed to sell for a relatively decent buy-in rate of 19 percent by lot and 24 percent by value. The tally, including the added on buyers’ premium, came close to low end of the £21.6-30.8 ($34.5-49.3) million pre-sale expectations, which do not reflect those commissions. Five works sold for over a million pounds and ten surpassed $1 million.

The evening seriously paled to last October’s huge result of £44.1 ($70.7) million, with its trimmer buy-in rate. Then again, this time around, the house didn’t have a Gerhard Richter painting bringing in $34 million. In fact, there were no big-time, blue chip lots — which isn’t unusual for these mid-season sales, which take place during Frieze Art Fair week.

Auctioneer and contemporary art specialist Oliver Barker ran the early lots at a breakneck, machine gun-like pace that evoked the pace of famed television series “Breaking Bad.” Younger artists, relatively new to the big-time salesrooms, performed extremely well, as evidenced by Alex Hubbard’s jumbo-scaled and decidedly abstract “Dead in Pompeii” (2011) acrylic, enamel paint, resin and fiberglass on canvas, which sold to a telephone bidder for a record £98,500 ($157,521). (est. £40-60,000). This crushed the previous mark set by the artist at Sotheby’s London in June 2012, when his “Night of the Pavers” made £37,250 ($57,922).

Newly minted Conceptual superstar Wade Guyton also had a strong showing, with “Untitled” (2008), an Epson ultrachrome inkjet-on-linen painting, selling to another telephone bidder for £626,500 ($1,001,899) (est. £300-400,000). Another young star, Oscar Murillo, also drew serial bids for “Champagne,” a scribbly abstract work in oilstick, spray paint, dirt and collage on canvas, which sold to the telephone for £212,500 ($339,830) (est. £40-60,000). New York dealer Jose Mugrabi was part of the posse of eight underbidders. Auction floor initiate Lynette Yiadom-Boakye fared well with a tough figurative composition of two women (reminding some of Marlene Dumas) “Politics” (2005), which sold to another telephone for £52,500 ($83,958) (est. £15-20,000).

In its post-sale spin, Sotheby’s pointed out that close to 50 percent of the evening’s participants were under 50 years old, a rather striking statistic if one readily evidenced by glancing around the unusual demographics of its room, more usually dominated by balding or gray-haired men.

There were scattered episodes of full-on bidding from determined contenders as Christopher Wool’s dynamic abstraction on paper, “Untitled” (2010), in silkscreen ink-and-enamel on paper sold to Roland Augustine of New York’s Luhring Augustine — the artist’s longtime primary market dealer — for £812,500 ($1,299,350) (est. £200-300,000). Wool’s Guggenheim Museum retrospective opens in New York in less than two weeks, and there’s an obvious surge in demand for his work. Another work by the artist, “Rip Rig Panic” (2001), sold to New York dealer Orem Tiroche for £938,500 ($1,500,849) (est. £700-900,000).

“The evening sale was good overall,” said Tiroche as he departed from the salesroom. “There were a few disappointments, but the market is very strong. There wasn’t a big, seminal piece in the sale,” he added.

The evening’s cover lot, photo medium pioneer Andreas Gursky’s seminal “Paris, Montparnasse” (1993), a large-scale C-print in the artist’s frame, sold to another telephone bidder for £1,482,500 ($2,370,814). It last sold at auction at Phillips de Pury & Company New York in November 2005 for $352,000. Deutsche Telekom, the corporate seller, will use the proceeds to fund further acquisitions for its collection, according to Sotheby’s.

Also snagged by Tiroche was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Red Joy” (1984), in acrylic, oilstick and Xerox collage on canvas, fully scaled at 86 by 68 inches, when the dealer beat out two telephone bidders for £1,426,500 ($2,281,259) (est. £1.5-2.5 million). The work last sold at Artcurial | Briest-Le Fur-Poulain-F. Tajan in Paris in December 2005 for €799,873 ($1,093,906). Again, it was nothing to write home about, as those rarer types of first-rate pictures are bound for the mega-contemporary sales in New York next month.

A London favorite, Glenn Brown’s mega-scaled “Ornamental Despair (Painting for Ian Curtis)” from 1994, resembling an outtake from Star Trek, sold after a marathon battle on the telephone for the top lot price of £3,554,500 ($5,684,356) (est. £2-3 million). It last sold at Christie’s London in February 2002 for £332,900, an appreciation of some 100-fold in a tad over a decade.

Overall, the evening had a kind of glazed effect, including the largely distracted salesroom, which continued to chat loudly even as the auctioneer was in the process of taking bids. “I think there’s so much going on,” said Philip Hoffman of London’s Fine Art Fund, referring to the dual Frieze fairs in Regent’s Park and PAD in Berkeley Square. “It’s so difficult to focus on this week and the money is dissipated. New York will be the place where the big money hits.”

Earlier in the evening, Sotheby’s staged its 20th Century Italian Art auction, which realized £15,079,500 ($24,115,136), as 39 of the 46 lots offered sold for buy-in rate of 15 percent by lot, and 12 percent by value. The top and cover lot was Lucio Fontana’s punctured canvas, “Concetto Spaziale” (1960), which sold for £1,594,500 ($2,549,924) (est. £1-1.4 million). The work last sold at Sotheby’s London in June 1990 for £352,000.

If that wasn’t enough auction activity for one day, Christie’s also staged “Thinking Big,” a single-owner collection of large-scale sculpture and installations from Charles Saatchi to benefit the Saatchi gallery’s Foundation. It was difficult to judge the success of the sale since it sold without estimates or reserves — meaning there were no minimums required for a lot to sell. Overall, however, the enormous brood made £3.1 million ($5 million) and set 23 artist records — including Tracey Emin’s, with the sale of the infamous “To Meet My Past,” of the artist’s poster bed with accessories, which sold to a gentleman seated in the front room of the salesroom for £481,875 ($770,518). He declined to give his name as he rushed out of the salesroom.

The Contemporary evening auctions resume for their finale at Christie’s on Friday.

To see images of works, click on the slideshow.