In London contemporary sales, who dares, wins
Christie’s more adventurous sale encourages bidding but market remains vulnerable
By Melanie Gerlis. Web only
Published online: 05 July 2010
london. On paper, Sotheby’s and Christie’s end-of-season evening contemporary sales (28 and 30 June) look broadly similar. Both sales’ totals came in at a similar level and at the low end of expectations—£41.1m at Sotheby’s against an estimate of £38.3m-£52.8m; £45.6m at Christie’s against an estimate of £39.9m-£56.6m—and with 83% and 84% of works sold respectively. But perhaps the most telling statistic is that while Sotheby’s sale showed a healthy 60% improvement on the previous year’s equivalent sale, Christie’s managed to beat the nervous 2009 market by a whopping 139%.
While the bidding levels couldn’t match the excitement of New York’s contemporary sales in May and are still nowhere near the contemporary market’s boom days, there was a buzz in Christie’s saleroom that had failed to materialise at Sotheby’s earlier in the week.
“They had a more curated, cohesive and stronger sale which was reflected in the bidding,” said New York art adviser Kim Heirston straight after the Christie’s auction. Perhaps the bidding went too high for her: she didn’t purchase at Christie’s but picked up Jeff Koons' Bear (Gold), 1999 (lot 43) at Sotheby’s earlier in the week for £385,250, a hammer price below it’s low estimate (£350,000, hammer price £320,000) as well as Anselm Reyle’s Untitled, 2006, from Phillips de Pury for £99,650 (est £70,000-£90,000, see notable lots below).
At Phillips de Pury’s sale, squeezed between the two major auction houses (29 June), a buy-in rate of nearly 50% and sale total less than 5% of the £90.7m sold over the three evenings, suggest that the auction house is struggling to compete effectively in the major contemporary sales arena.
After the previous week’s shaky Impressionist sales, all three auction houses seemed to have wisely persuaded buyers to keep their reserves relatively low, reflecting the limits of a still-fragile market, vulnerable to continuing wider economic unknowns. “Vendors have been excessively zealous about some of the high prices achieved,” said London-dealer Ivor Braka, “no markets go up steadily and exponentially.”
Sotheby’s, 28 June
Sotheby’s offering was the most conservative of the week with only 10 works of its 53 lots made after 2000—a relatively low number nowadays for a contemporary sale. The auction house’s successful sale of the Lenz collection in February had demonstrated a taste for blue-chip, post-war European abstraction and works by Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana and their contemporaries seemed to dominate again. Perhaps of greatest appeal to a post-war collector, the first lot—Yves Klein’s MG 42, 1960 which sold to a telephone bidder for £481,250 (est £200,000-£300,000)—had initially been owned by Fontana.
In general, however, dealers felt much of the sale couldn’t match this in terms of quality and that the auction house would have benefited by selling fewer, more prized lots. For most of the sale the room was muted, with a handful of seats unfilled and most of the bidding done by telephone.
“People seem a bit tired, these sales are very close [in time] to Art Basel,” said Dutch art adviser, Siebe Tettero, sporting this season’s latest accessory, the iPad. Dealer Josh Lilley agreed, “It can be a very whimsical market and sometimes it could just be that people are a bit too tired after Basel or it’s too hot to buy!”
A collection of British art “from a distinguished private collection” encouraged more bidding and sold within estimate (total of £4.3m against a collective estimate of £3.4m-£4.5m, see ‘Notable Lots’ below). Of these, Annely Juda gallery bought Leon Kossoff’s King’s Cross, March Afternoon, 1998, for its stock for £457,250 (est £250,000-£350,000, lot 29) and Tettero bought Patrick Heron’s October Horizon: October 1957, 1957, for £481,250 (est £250,000-£350,000, lot 31). He had also earlier acquired Heinz Mack’s No.7, 1958-59, for £145,250 (est £60,000-£80,000, lot 16), both on behalf of private clients.
But there were also, in Tettero’s words, some “sad casualties”. Richter’s Abstraktes Bild, 1988 (est £1.8m-£2.5m) had no bids, which Sotheby’s Cheyenne Westphal later attributed to the fact that it was “perhaps a little academic for the market.” Two works by Peter Doig, Stealth House, 1993 (est £300,000-£400,000, lot 36) and White Creep, 1995-96 (est £1.4m-£1.8m, lot 39) attracted little or no bidding and were bought in (see below).
Lilley sees the results as “encouraging compared to a year ago,” but Sotheby’s shareholders continued to demonstrate their concerns: its shares fell from $31.7 prior to the Impressionist sales to $22.8 after the London contemporary auction season.
Phillips de Pury, 29 June
Phillips de Pury’s sale was disappointing by all accounts with 47% of works unsold and a total sale figure of £4m well below expectations (£6.1m-£8.6m) and down on its 2009 total of £5.1m. Atypical, lesser-quality works by well-known artists such as Warhol’s Hamburger Michel, c.1980-83 (lot 10, est £200,000-£300,000) and Roy Lichtenstein’s Prop for a Film, 1969 (lot 18, est £500,000-700,000) received no visible bids and only one lot sold for a hammer price above its estimate (Hermann Nitsch’s Schüttbild (Splatter Painting), 1983, which was hammered down to a telephone bid at £44,000 against an estimate of £25,000-£35,000.
The saleroom was even quieter than at Sotheby’s the previous evening with seemingly more staff and journalists than buyers. The Mugrabi family were the only heavy-weight buyers in evidence and they left straight after purchasing Tom Wesselmann’s Study for Pat nude, 1979, for £159,650 (est £150,000-£200,000).
“It’s difficult to be selling at the third-largest auction house, especially given your competitors,” said dealer Anthony McNerney of Ben Brown Fine Art, making the point that in order to compete, Phillips needs to offer higher estimates to potential buyers, a more risky strategy in fragile times.
Where the quality was better, works sold. Thomas Schütte’s Doppelkopf (Double Head), 1994 (lot 8), was sold over the telephone at the low end of a punchy £400,000-£600,000 estimate (£481,250); Salvatore Scarpitta’s Trapped Canvas, 1958 (lot 23), also sold over the phone, for £409,250 (est £250,000-£350,000), a world record for the artist at auction; and the auction house set another record for Ugo Rondinone who’s aluminium tree—air/ gets/ into/ everything/ even/ nothing, 2006 (lot 4)—graced the saleroom and sold for £361,250 (est £200,000-£300,000).
Auctioneer chairman Simon de Pury said he was “clearly pleased” with the records, but acknowledged that “we are disappointed with some other results most probably due to a summer fatigue.”
Christie’s, 30 June
It was a more lively affair at Christie’s where a fresher, better-quality sale was well received, with stronger bidding on key lots.
“That’s given a bit of a bounce to the end of the sales,” said auctioneer and president of Christie’s Middle East and Europe, Jussi Pylkkänen, showing palpable relief straight after the auction. His colleague Francis Outred, European head of post-war and contemporary art, admitted that Christie’s had been concerned prior to the sale, given the subdued activity earlier in the week.
The auction opened briskly, with seven good quality, recently-made works. Jules de Balincourt’s US World Studies II, 2005, opened the sale and soared over its £40,000-£60,000 estimate to sell over the phone for £277,250. Dealers saw this as a brave opening shot (de Balincourt has historically not sold strongly at auction) that paid off, a strategy that underpinned the sale. Later in the auction, Roy Lichtenstein’s Collage for nude with red shirt, 1995 (lot 15), also surpassed expectations, selling over the telephone for £2.7m against an estimate of £600,000-£800,000.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen Christie’s really working on its buyers,” said McNerney, who previously worked at the auction house. “The way that the sale was put together and the type of art on offer made it an ebullient affair.”
Bidding in the room was lively with the Nahmad family acquiring Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale, Attese, 1965, for £1.2m (lot 13, est. £600,000-£800,000) and two works by Alexander Calder (lot 21 and 24, Two Fish Tails, 1975, and Black and Yellow Dots in the Air, 1960, both for £1.4m) and Larry Gagosian buying Jeff Koons’ Loopy, for £3.4m (see notable lots, below). And a telephone bidder showed an appetite for works by the Young British Artists, acquiring Glenn Brown’s Dali-Christ, (after Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War 1936 by Salvador Dalí) By kind permission of the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation, Spain, 1992, for £1.4m (lot 39, est £700,000-£1m); Chris Ofili’s Orgena, 1998, for £1.9m (lot 41, est £700,000-£1m) and Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Ubermench, 1995, for £241,250 (lot 44, est £250,000-£350,000).
Mid-sale the momentum slowed and some of the market fatigue that had been apparent earlier in the week saw Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled, 1982, go unsold (est £2.5m-£3.5m), most likely a response to an overkill of his work on the market at this year’s Art Basel.
Andy Warhol’s Silver Liz, the highest estimated lot of the week (lot 16, £6m-£8m), found a buyer at the lower end of expectations and sold for £6.8m.
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