Contemporary art sales raise $635m in just three days
Art trade shows surprising strength compared to global financial markets
By Georgina Adam and Charlotte Burns. Web only
Published online: 10 November 2011
new york. Any fears that a yo-yoing stock market, turmoil in the eurozone and gloomy global outlook could drag down the market for contemporary art were comprehensively swept away in New York this week.
In three evening sales Phillips de Pury, Christie’s and Sotheby’s racked up well over half a billion dollars, turning in high sell-through rates and establishing a raft of new records for both living and dead artists. The climax was reached on Wednesday night at Sotheby’s when a rare 1949 abstract by Clyfford Still made an astonishing $61.7m (est $25m-$35m). Afterwards, some trade sources thought the buyer could be the billionaire hedge fund manager Israel Englander. Bidding through Sotheby’s executive Lisa Dennison, Englander also scooped up Still’s 1974 PH-1033 for $19.7m (est $10m-$15m) and set a new record for Joan Mitchell, buying her Untitled vivid abstract, from around 1960, for $9.3m (est $4m-$6m).
The city of Denver, Colorado had consigned four Stills to help fund a museum dedicated to the artist, which opens next week. Representatives watched excitedly from a lightbox above the room as the works raised $114m (est $51m-$74m). Afterwards, auctioneer Tobias Meyer said it was a “magic moment”.
In the same sale, the other big total was the $74.3m spent on eight works by the German artist Gerhard Richter, currently on show in London’s Tate Modern. His 1997 wine-red abstract sold for $20.8m (est $9m-$12m) to a commission bid. This beat the $16.5m record set only last month in London for a candle piece from 1982 at Christie’s.
The eight Richters were consigned from “a private collection” rumoured by the trade to be that of the Sursock Lebanese trading family, who also sent for sale two Bacons, a Polke and a Lee Krasner. However the two Bacons were withdrawn at the last minute at the request of the UK government to give them more time to consider whether they should be exported and sold abroad.
Overall, Sotheby’s made $315.8m, the third highest total since May 2007. “It was an astonishing sale,” said dealer Thaddaeus Ropac at the end.
The previous night, Christie’s had also produced strong results, raising a total of $247.6m and a sell-through rate of 90%, despite a bloated catalogue of 91 lots. Its highlight was a group of 26 lots consigned by anti-virus software mogul Peter Norton and which were expected to make $11.4m-$16.1m but raised $26.8m with 100% sold by lot. Bidding was brisk and appetites strong for the provocative offerings including Paul McCarthy’s installation Tomato Head (Green), 1994, which sold for a triple-estimate $4.5m to the artist’s dealer Iwan Wirth, setting a new record for the artist. Robert Gober’s Prison Window, 1992, was chased by Robert Mnuchin of L&M Arts and Jay Joplin’s protégé Inigo Philbrick of London’s Modern Collections, but finally fell to dealer Harry Blain for $3.4m (est $800,000-$1.2m).
The confidence generated by this successful start carried over into the rest of Christie’s sale, with the highest price set for Lichtenstein’s I see the whole room!...and there’s nobody in it!, 1961, which went to private dealer Guy Bennett for $43.2m (est $35m-$45m), besting the previous high of $42.6m set at Christie’s last year for Ohhhh... Alright, 1964. Spider, a 1996 bronze sculpture of an arachnid by Louise Bourgeois, was also record-setting, making $10.7m (est $4m-$6m).
Phillips de Pury on Monday night turned in a total of $71.3m with 85% sold by lot. This total was no doubt buoyed by the high number of guarantees. The top lot was Cy Twombly’s Untitled, 2006, a series of red loops on white canvas, which made just over $9m (est $8m-$12m).
As she left Sotheby’s sale on Wednesday night, art advisor Linda Silverman was one of many astonished at the strength of the market in contrast to the rest of the world. “I think we’ve reached the top of the market, and you can quote me on that,” she said.
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