The latest auction results show a boom in figurative art (of the right kind)

Collectors of Modern art are paying fancy prices for Richter, Barceló and Doig


In the season’s final round of post-war and contemporary art auctions held in London on the consecutive evenings of Wednesday 26 and Thursday 27 June, five of the six most expensive lots were offered at Sotheby’s where an excellent set of results came within a whisker of matching the record tally of £14,201,000 earned from a 61-lot catalogue on 5 April 1990. On that occasion the valuable artists were Dubuffet, Fontana, Yves Klein and Nicholas de Staël, but now, while there was a new auction record for Fontana’s superb Concetto Spaziale painting, “Il Cielo di Venezia” (lot 14), which fetched £1.38 million, the big money was earned by Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter and Miquel Barceló.

Christie’s, however, had a disappointing evening and looks, with Brett Gorvy’s relocation to New York and the resignation of Graham Southern, to be an expert short in London. Weighting business towards the new art stars of the last 10 years was a promising gamble as long as Charles Saatchi continued to supply a regular stream of attractive consignments, but pay-back for having sponsored “Sensation” in 1997 appears to have ended just as his fabled collection has been depleted of many of its jewels.

The new dealing partnership of Mr Southern and Harry Blain captured his package of Rachel Whiteread sculptures shortly before this round of auctions took place. There remain Ron Mueck and Jenny Saville as well as the vast profit centre of Damien Hirst which is expected to come into play once the Saatchi Collection has secured new exhibition premises.

If these artists were to be sold at auction, Christie’s could not be certain of winning the contract now that Sotheby’s, which offered “Sensation” material by Michael Landy (lot 48), Langlands & Bell (lot 52) and Mark Wallinger (lots 53-56) with admittedly mixed results, is back in contention.

In the absence of Saatchi consignments, Christie’s might have hoped to find some compensation with the fashionable and lucrative field of new photography which has performed so effectively for both houses in recent seasons. But its list of images by Andreas Gursky (lots 8, 9 10), Thomas Ruff (lot 11) and Thomas Struth (lot 12) performed adequately or disappointingly rather than with conviction. The new season will tell whether this editioned material has exhausted its apparently irresistible appeal.

Was a note of caution sounded by Warhol’s lavender disaster painting, “Little Electric Chair” (lot 7), which fetched £1,106,650 at Sotheby’s? An invidious comparison with a virtually identical canvas from the same series, which sold for £1,653,500 in these same rooms exactly a year ago (see The Art Newspaper, No. 117, September 2001, pp.68-69), might fire a warning signal, but, on the previous occasion, special circumstances prevailed: there was a genuine three-cornered contest which drove the price far beyond its pre-sale estimate of £300/400,000 and created what, in retrospect, can be seen as a freak price.

Overall, the Warhol market remains in rude health, particularly for the non-vintage material where some altogether inexplicable prices have been noted during the last 12 months.

The most intriguing development in the contemporary art market is the emergence of collectors who are beginning to chase material by the few figurative artists who are considered compatible with existing orthodoxies in early 21st-century art. Among these are Gerhard Richter, Miquel Barceló and Peter Doig, and their prices have soared.

Handsome profits beckon the trader who correctly predicts which names will be added to that exclusive club in the forthcoming season.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The boom in figurative art (of the right kind)'