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Contemporary sale report: School of London resilient in contemporary art auctions

Francis Bacon’s “Pope” fetches top price at Sotheby’s

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In two painfully slow auctions of Contemporary Art on 5 December, auctioneers Hugues Joffre at Sotheby’s and Guy Jennings at Christie’s crept through their catalogues but managed to extract just enough bids to prevent either sale from being a disaster. Compounding the tedium of the two sessions, many of the lots were sold to unidentified telephone bidders who may not have realised that they were bidding against themselves and a reserve. Sotheby’s found buyers for forty of sixty-three lots totalling £4.73 million ($8.38 million) against a low conservative estimate of £5.4 million, while Christie’s, with the weaker group of works, sold thirty-five of fifty-three lots, and totalled £1.95 million ($3.45 million) against its low estimate of £3.2 million. These figures compare to the contemporary art sales in June when Sotheby’s reached £7.08 million and Christie’s £1.98 million.

The strong suit at Sotheby’s was a group of British paintings, the most expensive of which was Francis Bacon’s “Study for Portrait VIII” (Lot 8). But it was a small collection of important paintings being sold by the estate of Sebastian Walker, the publisher of children’s books, which attracted most attention. R.B. Kitaj’s “Value, Price and Profit” (Lot 25, est. £100-120,000), an enigmatic composition dating from 1963 and never properly explained by the artist, established a new auction record for the artist when it sold to a telephone bidder for £210,000 ($372,000). Frank Auerbach’s “Mornington Crescent” (Lot 56, est. £70-90,000), a recent but marvellous cityscape, was pursued by private dealer, Ivor Braka, before he gave way to a telephone bid of £160,000 ($283,000), a price which compares fairly with what the artist’s agents, Marlborough, would charge for a comparable work; and Auerbach’s “JYM Seated II” (Lot 55, est. £35-45,000), a fine example from a series which dates from 1987, sold to a bidder in the room for a respectable £62,000 ($110,000).

Richard Salmon, a private dealer with strong interest in Auerbach’s work, paid £23,000 ($41,000) for “Julia” (Lot 52, est. £20-25,000), a rare early drawing twice dated 1960. Auerbach made only about a dozen comparable sheets and Salmon’s bid compares to prices of £60,000 at which they have occasionally changed hands.

Charles Saatchi was a forced seller of several paintings from the School of London. Considerable re-sale interest had been generated by Auerbach’s “EOW III” (Lot 37, est. £60-80,000), a powerful portrait sculpted in paint, which a telephone bidder bought for £50,000 ($88,500). Howard Hodgkin’s slightly disappointing “After Dinner at Smith Square” (Lot 53, est. £100-150,000) reflected recent weakness in his market but sold for £42,000 ($74,000) while Leon Kossoff’s grand “School Building, Willesden, May 1983” (Lot 54, est. £60-80,000) sold for £45,000 ($80,000). A picture of this size and importance might have cost £120,000 at Anthony d’Offay’s three years ago, but Kossoff’s market has been undermined by sales from Saatchi’s collection, this work being the third major cityscape to have appeared at auction from that source in less than six months. In June, a private collector in St John’s Wood paid £80,000 for a virtually identical picture of the same subject. Malcolm Morley’s “School of Athens” (Lot 34, est. £150-200,000), another disposal from Saatchi, was sold to a telephone bidder for £190,000 ($336,000), with James Mayor the underbidder. Among the European paintings, generally a weak market with works by Dubuffet, Fontana, Fautrier and Nicolas de Staël failing to sell, there were two exceptional prices. Martial Raysse’s “Conversation Printanière” (Lot 27, est. £60-80,000), one of the artist’s most important compositions, was bought by a telephone bidder for a record £108,000 ($191,000), while “Hirsch II” (Lot 35, est. £120-150,000), a photographic portrait of a stag by Gerhard Richter, confirmed the artist’s recent strength in the sales rooms when it sold to a private German collector for £220,000 ($389,000).

At Christie’s, there was disappointment when Bacon’s small “Self-Portrait” (Lot 31, est. £340-380,000) failed to attract a single bid and was bought in at £180,000 ($319,000). The estimate, based upon the price which a finer “Self-Portrait” had made at Sotheby’s in June, was too high, and there were rumours that the canvas might have changed hands several times in recent months. But there was relief when Twombly’s “Apollo” (Lot 18, wrongly catalogued as “Rome”, est. £350-550,000) sold to a telephone bidder for £300,000 ($531,000).

Twombly was a poor market in the New York auctions in May and this picture was the most expensive lot in the sale. Calder’s standing mobile “Nantes” (Lot 35, est. £150-200,000) sold to a telephone bidder for £120,000 ($212,000), but his two larger ceiling mobiles (Lots 23 and 30) did not attract bids. “Helping Hands” (Lot 47, est. £25-35,000), a coloured photo-piece by Gilbert & George, sold to a bidder believed to be acting for an Italian collector for £32,000 ($57,000).

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