Blue-chip works find buyers at Christie's and Sotheby's
Post-war and contemporary sales in London are strong, but market jitters persist
By Gareth Harris and Javier Pes. Web only
Published online: 28 June 2012
On the eve of the post-war and contemporary art auctions in London this week, and after reportedly strong sales at Art Basel (13-17 June), art-world observers and financial experts questioned for how much longer the art market, especially at the top end, would remain unaffected by the turmoil in the global economy. Respectable sales figures for Sotheby's 79-lot contemporary art evening auction on 26 June (87.3% by lot and 93.4% by value) belie the lukewarm reception for most of the works on offer. The total sale figure of £69.3m meant that Sotheby's comfortably achieved the pre-sale estimate of £57.5m to £82.5m (these figures do not include commission), but the lacklustre performance is a far cry from the auction house's highest ever total for a contemporary art auction in London of £108.8m in June 2011.
Bidding was notably sluggish for works by blue-chip artists. Jean-Michel Basquiat's Warrior, from the most coveted period of the early 1980s, limped to £4.95m under the hammer, just short of its £5m low estimate; the work fetched £5.6m with buyer's premium, making the arresting image the top lot in the sale. Even a strong 1980 painting by Francis Bacon, Study for Self-Portrait, backed by an irrevocable bid, failed to ignite the restless crowd in the saleroom, attracting one bid on the phone via Cheyenne Westphal, Sotheby's chairman of contemporary European art; the work sold for £4.5m with buyer's fee (est £5m-£7m). There was, nonetheless, an appetite for art by the current market bellwether, the German stalwart Gerhard Richter, whose 1995 photorealist painting Jerusalem achieved an albeit anti-climactic £4.2m (est £3m-£5m).
Few works surpassed their high estimates but notable exceptions included Jean Dubuffet's Chérubin Oiuistiti, 1962 (£993,250; est £300,000-£400,000), and Damien Hirst's 1994 painting Jolly (£601,250; est £180,000-£250,000). A tense bidding war between seven international bidders for a large-scale apocalyptic canvas by Glenn Brown, The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dali (after John Martin), 1998, was a rare high point, culminating in a record sale for the artist of £5.2m (est £2.2m-£2.8m). Big-name rival dealers in the room swooped on established names: Larry Gagosian bought a 2003 c-print, Arena III, by Andreas Gursky (£265,250; est £250,000-£350,000), while Thaddaeus Ropac appeared delighted with his acquisition of Joseph Beuys's installation Tisch mit Aggregat, 1958-85 (£601,250; est £500,000-£700,000).
Such activity prompted the question of whether the material on offer, or the market itself, was flat, with mid-range works especially vulnerable. “The material was difficult and the Bacon self-portrait could have done better,” said the secondary market New York dealer Christophe Van de Weghe. “Why park your cash in one of the Basquiats on offer here when you have a better example available at Christie's tomorrow?” said a London dealer who preferred to remain anonymous.
Indeed, the Basquiat work in question, Untitled, 1981, did not disappoint at Christie's post-war and contemporary art evening auction on 27 June, setting a record for the artist at auction with the impressive price tag of £12.9m (the estimate was only available on request, though bidding began at £9m; the work carried a third-party financial guarantee). Another work in demand was Yves Klein's striking pink sponge painting Le Rose du bleu (RE 22), 1960, setting another artist record at £23.6m (the estimate was again undisclosed but bidding started at £15m; the cover lot was again guaranteed by a third-party bid). Klein's stock soared with another work, Relief éponge bleu (RE 51), 1959, reportedly bought by the dealer William Acquavella for £7.7m (est £6m-£9m). Both pieces were fought over by no more than two to three bidders, denoting an exclusive, top-end market for the late French conceptual artist's works.
These superior prices and the robust sales total of £132.8m (the pre-sale estimate without commission was £102m to £139m; 69 lots with 87% sold by lot and 98% by value) reflect the charged, upbeat mood at Christie's, which was packed with hungry buyers far keener to part with their cash, no doubt drawn out by the pedigree of the works on offer. The New York-based dealer Helly Nahmad, prominent in the front row, underbid on Cy Twombly's weighty Untitled canvas, 1962, which fetched £2.2m (est £1m-£1.5m). A ripple of applause greeted Van de Weghe's winning bid of £19.2m (£21.5m with buyer's premium; estimate undisclosed) for Francis Bacon's floor-length Study for self-portrait, 1964, which weds the artist's face with the body of Lucian Freud. The substantial sum should have calmed Christie's nerves in light of a legal tussle over the Bacon work: according to the New York Times, the painting was the subject of a lawsuit settled last July between the auction house and a family trust headed by the Connecticut collector George Weiss. De Weghe, meanwhile, says he bought the work on behalf of a client who works in finance.
“There was a lot more bidding in the room at Christie's, which was down to the quality of the work, and there were some good results, especially for Klein and Basquiat, but also for less fashionable artists such as Marcel Broodthaers [Surface of Mussels with bag, 1966-74, sold for £433,250; est £180,000-£220,000]. It is noticeable, though, that the market is levelling off to a degree,” says Alma Luxembourg of Luxembourg & Dayan whose Savile Row gallery in London is showing “Nouveau Réalisme” (until 11 August).
Christie's was not immune from market jitters. Jeff Koons’s Baroque Egg with Bow (Blue /Turquoise), 1994-2008, one of five versions, was bought for an underwhelming £2.6m (est £2.5m-£3.5m), while Warhol's technicolour silkscreen of The Queen (Reigning Queens: Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, 1985) fetched the far from majestic price of £541,250 (est £400,000-£800,000), even in the year of her Diamond Jubilee.
Warhol performed well though at the Phillips de Pury contemporary art evening sale on 28 June, dominating the top ten lots with four pieces including a topical collaborative work with Jean-Michel Basquiat (Olympics, 1984; £6.8m, est £2m-£3m). The top lot was taken by Basquiat, an auction staple and saviour at this week's sales in London with another piece from the early 1980s proving a draw: Irony of Negro Policeman, 1981, fetched £8.2m (est £6m-£8m). The Phillips de Pury sale totaled £23.4m with 97.9% sold by value and 85.6% sold by lot. With pre-sale estimates of £15.1m to £21.2m, Phillips de Pury vaulted past its high estimate on the 28 lots available, "the only auction house to do so in the present season", declared a press statement.
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