Art market

Contemporary sales report: Storm warnings prove inaccurate

Problematic Warhols hinder Christie’s but Sotheby’s sparkles with Richter Riley, Barceló and Flanaghan


Tough trading conditions were forecast for the recent round of contemporary art auctions but, not for the first time in the last 18 months, scepticism was confounded by the results.

Indeed, the week ended with a flourish on the evening of 6 February when auctioneer Tobias Meyer gave a commanding performance in the rostrum at Sotheby’s, perhaps his most accomplished achievement in London to date, and picked up competition and buyers for the good, the bad and the ugly alike. Low bids were dismissed, late bids were ignored. Here was a man brimming with confidence in his own ability and the catalogue of 50 lots which his team had compiled for him.

More than one quarter of the evening’s proceeds arose from just four pictures by Gerhard Richter (lots 3, 12, 15 and 31) who has been one of the most consistent earners for Sotheby’s in London as a consequence of the powerful German connections created by Mr Meyer himself and his department colleague Cheyenne Westphal. But the evening’s success was far more broadly spread and involved good results for Bridget Riley, whose abstract composition (lot 2) was purchased by London dealer Timothy Taylor for a new auction record of £196,000, against interest from Haunch of Venison, the new gallery partnership of Harry Blain and Graham Southern; for Warhol, whose attractive but scarcely unique “Marilyn reversal” (lot 41) engaged four bidders and fetched the extraordinary price of £296,800; for Miquel Barceló whose small and not entirely remarkable bullfight painting (lot 28) attracted a winning bid of £532,000; and for Barry Flanagan’s “Boxing hare on anvil” (lot 17) for which a telephone bidder paid another auction record of £296,800.

Would the audience have agreed with rival auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen’s assessment that his own event, a slim catalogue of 33 lots dispatched in just 32 minutes at Christie’s the night before, “has been a very successful sale”? One lot was withdrawn, six lots failed to attract buyers, and 13 lots sold for a hammer price on or below the low estimate, usually to a single bidder. There were good results, however, for Damien Hirst’s butterfly painting (lot 9) which was purchased by a telephone bidder for £248,650; and for a lightbulb string by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (lot 12) for which another telephone bidder paid £188,150.

On balance, then, Christie’s will be seen to have performed satisfactorily with the rather ordinary material which it had accumulated. Might Mr Pylkkänen have squeezed some additional bids if the lots had been presented in the room? To be sure, the contemporary art material was displayed imaginatively in the house’s South Kensington branch which was being used for the preview of a major King Street auction for the first time. But offsite exhibitions and the subsequent conduct of a sale through television images cancel the impulsive bid which a clever auctioneer such as Mr Meyer can exploit to advantage if the material is sitting in front of the rostrum.

Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art

Francis Bacon, “Study for a Portrait”, (est. £400,000-500,000), sold for £556,650

The rarity of Bacon’s small portraits, one of the most desirable commodities in the contemporary art market, explains the highly satisfactory price paid by a telephone bidder for this unexceptional example (lot 3) which Christie’s attempted to explain as a fusion between the artist’s image and a portrait of John Edwards, the favoured model in the later years of his career.

Andy Warhol, “Six Skulls”, (est. £1.2-1.6 million), sold for £1,216,650

The short journey from the home of San Francisco collectors Norman and Norah Stone to auction via the opportunistic intervention of leading Warhol investor Peter Brant is a morality tale of our times. Brant acquired these six small canvases (lot 8), originally part of a loose configuration of 10 skull paintings, in a recent negotiation believed to be worth $1.8 million and promptly finessed his acquisition into the welcoming arms of Christie’s which may, in fact, have financed the deal. In a thin catalogue of consignments, they were valued more highly than any other lot and became, indeed, the most expensive deal of the evening when a single telephone bid secured them at the reserve price. But the gamble had fizzled and neither the vendor nor the auction house will have turned the big profit for which they were hoping.

Sotheby’s Contemporary Art

Vija Celmins, “Untitled (Sea No 10)”, (est. £60,000-80,000), sold for £296,800

Eleven telephone bidders were locked in a tussle for this small and delicate Pacific Ocean pencil drawing which was featured in the artist’s first European exhibition at Felicity Samuel’s London gallery 25 years ago when the consignor is believed to have acquired it for under £5,000. The sheet was expected to be one of the evening’s leading performers but the final bid was an extraordinary price which would compare favourably with a watercolour seascape by Turner. But who was the buyer, standing at the far end of the telephone bank and using one of house land lines to relay information and take instructions? His identity has eluded the market’s usual beauty parade and yet he made a valuable contribution to the evening by also purchasing a fine Rothko oil on paper (lot 6) for £1,069,600.

Andy Warhol, “Elvis 2 times”, (est. £1.4-1.8 million), unsold at Christie’s

This canvas (lot 21), believed to have been consigned by a Korean source, puzzled the art market which appreciates the rarity of Elvis material but was concerned by the poor quality of the silkscreens. One of the two figures is particularly insubstantial and the visually disturbing creases mar the legibility of the composition. Estate stamps, and the provenance of Fred Hughes, Warhol’s business manager, place it in the Factory but undermine rather than enhance its value since they confirm, as the catalogue raisonné suggests, that it will have been a trial or studio version of the famous Elvis project delivered to Los Angeles dealer Irving Blum for exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in 1963. The trial canvases, 11 of which have survived, were never exhibited in Warhol’s lifetime and were rediscovered in storage after his death in 1987. In the circumstances, to have ignored this lot in auction at the price which Christie’s was seeking for the vendor was the sensible decision. Had it been a Ferus diptych, however, it would have been worth at least $5 million and attracted an altogether different level of competition. Another awkward Warhol consignment, Peter Brant’s “Four Jackies” (lot 14) in which Christie’s had taken a financial position, was withdrawn before the auction, for reasons that were not disclosed. Presumably the market had signalled its lack of interest on account of the dull configuration of the four canvases and the unsatisfactory quality of one of its components.

Gerhard Richter, “Tote”, (est. £600,000-800,000), sold for £565,600

Although a large cloud painting (cover lot 12) turned out to be the most expensive lot of the evening, and indeed of the week, when it was purchased by Chicago dealer Richard Gray’s New York representative, Andrew Fabricant, for £1,461,600, this photo-painting (lot 31), a cropped image of a man crushed by a block of masonry and dating from the beginning of the artist’s career, was the more interesting work. But, in spite of the clever connection which the catalogue had made with Warhol’s “129 Die in Jet”, it did not match expectations, no doubt because the gruesome image has uncomfortable associations for our times. Nevertheless, it will prove to be a shrewd acquisition for its new owner bidding through Rachel Mauro, Dickinson Roundell’s New York gallery director. That an established Impressionist dealer such as James Roundell is leading his clientèle in this direction is one of the supports underpinning the current strength of the Richter market.

Noble & Webster, “One of Us”, (est. £25,000-35,000), sold for £78,000

When values escalate and work gathers a wider circulation, familiarity is the inevitable consequence but it was still surprising to hear auctioneer Tobias Meyer refer to Noble & Webster by their first names alone as he introduced this engaging shadow double self-portrait (lot 43). Tim & Sue, as the experts appear to prefer it, now join Damien and Tracey as popular personalities in the firmament of current British art. And how the market has embraced them ever since the deliciously vulgar “Forever” fetched $145,500 at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg on 13 May 2002 (lot 53). On this occasion, a telephone bidder rewarded the consignor with a handsome profit for a speculative investment which will have cost less than £5,000 when Modern Art Inc, the artists’ gallery, offered it for sale in 1999. At Christie’s the night before, “Excessive, Sensual Indulgence” (lot 11), an editioned fountain of flashing lights, was purchased by another telephone bidder for £71,700. These prices, driven by the current interest of American collectors and institutions, have turned Noble & Webster into an expensive British act surpassed only by Hirst, Whiteread, Jenny Savile and, on occasions, Gary Hume and Chris Ofili. For how much longer will the Turner Prize jury be looking in the wrong direction?

Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening, Christie’s London, 5 February 2003

Sold by value 77%

Sold by lot 81%

Total £6,141,410 ($10,151,750)

Contemporary Art Evening, Sotheby’s London, 6 February 2003

Sold by value 92%

Sold by lot 88%

Total £10,992,640 ($18,032,545)