Contemporary sales report, London: Infectious enthusiasm pulls in bidders at Sotheby's

Bacon, Kitaj, Warhol and Richter attract keen competition


Lacking an outstanding masterpiece which would have given ballast to the sale's proceeds, it seemed unlikely that Sotheby's contemporary expert Tobias Meyer could match the spectacular results which he had achieved with his first evening auction of contemporary art staged at Sotheby's at the end of June.

But such is the infectious enthusiasm which he and his department are generating that a good crowd of international dealers and collectors attended Contemporary Art Part I which took place on the evening Of 30 November and a small increase in business was registered. There were buyers for thirty-nine of fifty lots, with proceeds reaching £3.49 million net ($5.5 million) compared to £3.4 million earned five months ago. A larger sale of less valuable material, styled as Contemporary Art Part II, was held the following morning and realised £1.39 million ($2.2 million) which compares favourably with the summer total of £1.27 million.

At one point, it looked as if Francis Bacon's "Study for a Head" (lot 7, estimate £550,000-650,000), an unusual and not entirely pleasing papal portrait, might prove to be an expensive casualty as Mr Meyer lingered as he looked for interest at £450,000 before two telephone bidders sprung into competition and took the price to £610,000 ($976,000). A small and desirable self-portrait by the same artist (lot 32, estimate £200,000-250,000) engaged five bidders, with private dealer Ivor Braka withdrawing at £220,000 and Thomas Gibson continuing to £280,000, until an unidentified lady seated in the room beat off two telephone rivals with a winning bid of £330,000 ($528,000).

Fresh activity in the market for Andy Warhol was confirmed with interest in an early self-portrait (lot 4, estimate £40,000-60,000) which was acquired by a telephone bidder acting through New York department director Anthony Grant for £122,000 ($195,200), against persistent bidding from dealer Jose Mugrabi. Gerhard Richter's "Familie Ruhnau" (lot 31, est. £200,000-300,000) matched expectations and was the most expensive German work of art of the week when it was acquired by a telephone bidder for £260,000 ($416,000), with an unidentified bidder paying £130,000 ($208,000) for a striking inverted portrait by Georg Baselitz (lot 38, est. £120,000-150,000)which Mr Meyer had used as the cover lot of the sale.

That editorial decision creates an image rather different from Christie's which leans towards European abstraction of the Sixties, the favoured taste of director Hugues Joffre, rather than more glamorous work of the Eighties, but its results are not falling far short of its rival. On Thursday 1 December, an afternoon sale of contemporary art at Christie's offered fifty-eight lots, found buyers for forty-seven of them, including virtually all the more valuable works of art, and realised £3.11 million ($4.9 million), a figure which represents a small improvement upon the summer's proceeds of £2.96 million. In an unusual decision, Christie's did not offer a second sale of minor contemporary material.

Dubuffet's "Cortège" (lot 31, est. £260,000-300,000), an expressively brushed composition of four figures, was the most expensive lot of the sale, being sold to a telephone bidder for £220,000 ($352,000). An unidentified bidder paid £190,000 ($304,000) for Germaine Richier's bronze statue, "La Mante Grande" (lot 9, estimate £70,000-90,000). Gerhard Richter's "Zwei Frauen mit Torte" (lot 43, estimate £120,000- 160,000) was purchased by the Tel Aviv Museum of Art for £150,000. A telephone bidder acquired an early inverted bird painting by Georg Baselitz (lot 44, estimate £l00,000-150,000) for £125,000 ($200,000), and the same artist's "Die Berghütte-Ernst Ludwig" (lot 46, estimate £100,000-150,000), consigned by leading German collector Hartmut Ackermeier and perhaps the most memorable work of art in the catalogue, was bought by the order bid at the desk for £130,000 ($208,000). The only proper disappointment concerned "Johannisnacht", a rather untidy landscape composition by Anselm Kiefer incorporating stalks of fern (lot 47), which failed to attract any bids.