Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s walk away from their contemporary sales claiming to have bettered their rival

Sotheby’s scored a superior strike rate, but marginally lower proceeds



Both houses will claim a slender advantage in the round of contemporary art auctions held in London in the final week of the market’s June season. Sotheby’s scored a superior strike rate, but marginally lower proceeds, from the sale which it staged on the evening of 25 June, it sold 42 of the 49 lots on offer.

On the following evening, Christie’s generated slightly plumper revenue but a disappointing rate of attrition, with 16 of 47 lots failing to attract interest or find buyers (three lots were withdrawn before the sale). It did, however, obtain the most expensive price of the two sessions when an unidentified Asian telephone bidder paid £1,573,250 ($2.62 million) for Twombly’s “Bolsena” (est. £1.4/1.8 million). This achievement must be judged a qualified success since New York dealing partnership Grant Selwyn had been offering the canvas, belonging to Dallas collectors Robert and Marguerite Hoffman, for $5 million prior to its arrival in auction. In these circumstances, its new owner may have acquired one of the week’s genuine bargains.

At Sotheby’s, a particularly appealing example of Fontana’s “La Fine di Dio” series of punctured ovoid canvases (est. £650/850,000) was the most valuable lot of the evening when it was purchased by San Francisco dealer Anthony Meier for £1,377,600. In sterling terms, this figure is a whisker short of Fontana’s auction record of £1,381,650 paid for “Concetto spaziale, il cielo de Venezia” at Sotheby’s London on 26 June 2002, but, expressed into dollars, it becomes the artist’s most expensive painting at auction. Another version in the series, sprinkled with glitter, fetched £789,600 at Sotheby’s London on 6 February 2003.

The Astrup Fearnley Museet for Moderne Kunst, the private museum in the Oslo offices of shipping brothers Hans Rasmus and Halvor Astrup, consigned two paintings: Gary Hume’s seahorse (est. £50/70,000) for which a telephone bidder paid £69,600; and Peter Doig’s “Grasshopper” (est. £120/150,000) which was purchased by New York dealer Irena Hochmann, bidding on behalf of Charles Saatchi, for £229,600 against competition from Monsoon proprietor Peter Simon and the Haunch of Venison dealing partnership.

Following a six-fold increase in thirty months in the value of her stock, which culminated in an auction record of £333,750 being paid for the ex-Saatchi “Branded” at Christie’s London on 27 June 2001 (see The Art Newspaper, No.117, September 2001, pp.68-69), Jenny Saville’s market appeared to stall as two fine canvases from the Glasgow School of Art chapter of her career performed with indifference in the consecutive evening sessions. At Sotheby’s, a monumental wedding veil self-portrait (est. £300/400,000) was purchased by London collectors Ian and Mercedes Stoutzker, making a rare appearance in the auction rooms and bidding against the reserve, for £319,200, while “Nats” (est. £250/350,000), a slightly smaller portrait of the artist marooned on a bar stool, failed to attract a bid at Christie’s. But with New York dealer Gagosian finding buyers for each of the six paintings in his recent exhibition at prices straddling the auction estimates, the disappointment can be attributed to the expectations of the vendors. Quite simply, the estimates for both pictures had been pitched close to or at an unsustainable level for Saville’s student work.

Interestingly, the more expensive German material had, for once, eluded Sotheby’s which used to enjoy a virtual monopoly in the lucrative Gerhard Richter auction market, in particular, through the connections and expertise of department directors Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of contemporary art, and Cheyenne Westphal, head of contemporary art in Europe. Now Christie’s offered Richter’s handsome abstract composition “Wald (3)” (est. £700,000/1 million), which was purchased by Rachel Mauro, New York director of the dealing partnership Dickinson Roundell, for £789,250; and an untitled abstract painting (est. £300/400,000) for which American collectors Ben and Linda Frankel paid £397,250 against competition from the New York dealer Christophe van der Weghe.

Contemporary art, Sotheby’s London, 25 June

Sold by value 92%

Sold by lot 86%

Total £8,728,400 ($14,527,960)

Post-war and contemporary art Christie’s London, 26 June

Sold by value 81%

Sold by lot 66%

Total £9,319,850 ($15,545,510)

Marlene Dumas, “Feathered stola”, (est. £65/85,000),

sold for £184,450

This appealing picture, a provocative portrait of a striptease model wearing long black gloves and playing with a feather boa, caused auction room drama when it was offered (est. £65/85,000) at Christie’s on 26 June. In a stiff bidding contest, New York dealer Irena Hochmann, taking instructions by mobile telephone, resisted the challenge of London dealer Nikolai Frahm and Haunch of Venison director Harry Blain who were the underbidders on the lot. Their competition destroyed the artist’s previous auction record set at Christie’s New York on 14 November 2002 when “Candle burning” fetched $50,190. To be sure, a proper auction evaluation for Marlene Dumas was due but the winning bid eclipsed current retail prices by a wide margin. Hochmann’s client turns out to have been Charles Saatchi and, within the week, the canvas, now dropped into a heavily carved frame, had been placed on display in County Hall, the new headquarters of the Saatchi Collection. At a stroke, the collector has added a new name to his shopping list and sent out a powerful signal to the watching art market. A fresh profit centre for auction has been identified and a flurry of Dumas trading activity can be expected to follow.

Frank Auerbach, “Looking towards Mornington Crescent station–night”,

(est. £180/250,000), sold for £397,600 ($661,780)

Boosted by a substantial increase in buyer’s premium, which accounted for 13.6% of its final price, this fine and dramatic nightscape of North London, which was offered at Sotheby’s on 25 June 2003 (lot 44, est. £180/250,000), can be said to have matched the artist’s auction record set in Contemporary art Part I at Sotheby’s New York on 8 May 1990, when Marlborough Fine Art, Auerbach’s agent, paid $660,000 (including buyer’s premium of 10%) for another Mornington Crescent painting of 1966 . On this occasion the consignor was the Israel Phoenix Assurance Company whose former proprietor, Joseph Hackmey, had acquired the canvas from Charles Saatchi in 1992. The company’s new owners have been unravelling his extensive collection of international art at auction during the last 12 months and other lots were offered at both houses during the week. Although the identity of the buyer, bidding by telephone, has not been disclosed, he must have been pushed to the limit by the determined action of leading West End Old Master dealer Richard Green’s sons, Matthew and Jonathan, who took it in turns to wave their hands from the back of the standing section in a crowded saleroom. Had the picture been offered for private sale through Auerbach’s usual sources of supply, it might have been valued at £200,000 and so the competitive environment of auction performed particularly well for artist and vendor. The Green boys did, however, win the consolation prize of an earlier Auerbach landscape, “Primrose Hill Summer” (lot 18, est. £180/220,000), which was offered at Christie’s on 26 June 2003 and for which they paid £274,050.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A war with two victors?'