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Contemporary auction sales report: Boom continues, leading to some inexplicable results

One buyer pays against the odds for Sean Scully, while new records are set for Chilida, Hockney and Baselitz, among others

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Both houses will find reason to be cheerful with the results of the consecutive evening auctions of contemporary art which took place in London on 22 and 23 June.

Launching the two sessions, Sotheby’s reported total proceeds of £19,325,200 ($35.3 million). These figures represent a substantial improvement from the tally of £15,327,200 ($28.5 million) earned in its previous evening event in February this year.

Christie’s maintained its advantage by matching, within a whisker, the outstanding results which it had achieved on 9 February 2005 when its catalogue earned £24,461,600 ($45.8 million), by far the highest sum reported for a contemporary art auction in London. On 23 June it earned £24,459,600 ($44.5 million).

Sotheby’s

With Lucio Fontana’s slashed silver orb rising behind him like a punctured halo, auctioneer Tobias Meyer delivered a commanding performance from the rostrum of the rooms where he learned his craft before relocating to Manhattan as worldwide head of the house’s contemporary art department. In contrast to the unforgiving space of East 72nd Street’s headquarters, the intimate scale of London suits his style and he took advantage of a good order book to slap down colleagues asking to trim his bid increments and to overrule late bids arriving with the hammer.

The most remarkable result of the evening concerned Sean Scully’s Wall of light, Temozon for which London dealer Alan Hobart, who specialises in the Irish art market, paid £377,600 ($690,744). The picture would have cost $140,000 from Timothy Taylor, the artist’s London agent, in 2002, the year of its execution; and comparable works are currently priced at $300,000, well less than one half of tonight’s bill. The anomaly of auction? A bidder who was unfamiliar with the artist’s market and its availability? Or a special situation which will have brought unexpected profit to the consignor who is understood to be a Mexican collector? Even Mr Meyer appeared to be genuinely puzzled as the bids continued well beyond any logical explanation.

Glenn Brown, The pornography of death (painting for Ian Curtis) after Chris Foss, 1995, sold for £220,800 ($397,400, est. £150/200,000)

This major science fiction picture, for copyright reasons the most contentious feature of the artist’s work, had been offered by its previous owner, Charles Saatchi, at Christie’s London on 8 December 1998 when it fetched £10,350. In retrospect, it will be seen as a rare example of this legendary collector misreading the potential of a young painter who has come to be seen as one of the most significant artists of our times. Brown’s reputation has been secured by a recent survey at the Serpentine Gallery and North American representation by the international dealer Gagosian. Tonight the picture was purchased by leading London private dealer Ivor Braka who has been making an active secondary market business in Brown’s art.

Paula Rego, Target, 1995, sold for £344,000 ($619,200, est. £200/300,000)

The existing auction record for Rego’s work, established at Sotheby’s London on 10 February 2005 when The drawing lesson, an acrylic painting from an earlier chapter in her career, fetched £114,000, was comprehensively demolished by London private dealer Ivor Braka who purchased this superb example of her more recent work in pastel. Astonishingly, in a market generally characterised by opportunist trade and speedy profit, Rego’s attractive pastel pictures have never previously featured at auction, credit to the careful placement of her work by her agent Marlborough Fine Art which, with London private dealer Desmond Page, the lot’s underbidder, set the competition. On the evidence of tonight’s action, Rego’s market is looking for a long run and, as the prices climb, one looming shadow enters the equation. At what point will Charles Saatchi, the artist’s leading sponsor over many seasons, decide to release his significant investment in her work?

Lucian Freud, Man with a Feather (Self-Portrait), 1943, sold for £3,704,000 ($6.67 million, est. £2,/3 million)

It is difficult to remember when an auction house’s public relations machinery created as much advance publicity as this striking picture, the earliest self-portrait of the artist’s career, gathered. Consigned by the artist’s former agent, James Kirkman, and embellished with a superb catalogue entry which, for once, drew legitimate comparisons with Jan Van Eyck, Dürer and Giorgio de Chirico, the lot was the subject of an extended bidding competition between two unidentified telephone clients, once Old Bond Street sculpture specialist, Daniel Katz, seeking to augment his own collection of modern British art with a rare treasure, had withdrawn with a final bid of £2.4 million. Unexpectedly, other Freud material performed erratically. The were no bids for the portrait of Freud’s son Ali, offered in the same catalogue, nor for Girl holding a towel, a portrait of Penny Cuthbertson offered at Christie’s the following evening while Bella (est. £1.8/2.2 million), a good nude portrait of his daughter reclining on the famous buttoned leather sofa, was purchased by Portland Gallery proprietor Tom Hewlett seated in the front row of the room, at the low estimate. Freud’s auction record was set at Christie’s London on 9 February 2005 when Red haired man on chair fetched £4,152,000.

David Hockney, Seated woman being served tea by standing companion, 1963, sold for £1,800,000 ($3.2 million, est. £1.2/1.8 million)

This fine example of Hockney’s figurative work from the beginning of his career was the most significant consignment supplied to both London houses by Colorado collectors Kent and Vicki Logan. Tobias Meyer’s order book supplied the winning bid. At Christie’s on the following evening, their consignments included Partisan, a good hero painting by George Baselitz which they had purchased from Anthony d’Offay for $950,000 at the Basel Art Fair in 1998 and for which Alicia Bona now paid a new auction record of £904,000; and Sigmar Polke’s Monopoli which attracted a single lowly bid of £164,800. Hockney’s auction record was set at Christie's New York on 13 November 2002 when Portrait of Nick Wilder fetched $2,869,500.

Christie’s

The vignette of the week was supplied at this auction when, to the astonishment of the room, senior London dealer Thomas Gibson, a commanding presence in his impeccably tailored pin-stripe suit and inextricably linked with the markets of Giacometti, Henry Moore and Francis Bacon, entered the competition for, and in due course secured, Martin Kippenberger’s Untitled (woman and money) for which he paid £198,400. To be sure, the subject of the picture, a winking girl embellished by a dowry of silver coins, would appeal to any West End taste, but how this intentionally superficial image can be accommodated by one of the most discerning palettes in the business is destined to become a legend of speculation on the dinner party circuit.

Alighiero Boetti, Tavole pitagoriche (detail), 1988-89, sold for £377,600 ($679,680, £100/150,000)

On two consecutive evenings, new auction records were established for the embroidery work of this fascinating and mysterious artist. At Sotheby’s, Tutto, a gorgeous tapestry mosaic of concealed images drawn from a wide variety of cultural sources, fetched £310,400 and stood as the prevailing record for just 24 hours when this remarkable package of 20 small embroidered panels comfortably eclipsed it. At both houses, telephone bidders supplied the action. Cork Street dealer Benjamin Brown paid £164,800 for a fine 12-part ball-point on paper work by the same artist. In addition to the Boetti material offered at Christie’s, the same consignor, identified as “A European Foundation”, supplied Bruce Nauman’s pair of wax Hanging heads which aroused a fierce bidding competition between the London-based Cranford Collection, bidding through its advisor Andrew Renton, and London dealers White Cube and Hauser & Wirth before one of two telephone bidders captured the sculpture for the remarkable price of £680,000. But who was “A European Foundation”? For behind this bland description lies a story which has intrigued the art market. With funds supplied by a German business, Jean Christophe Amman, then the director of Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt, purchased a collection of contemporary art works on the understanding that they would be gifted, or placed on long-term loan, to his institution. That the collection should be appearing in auction has caused surprise in circles close to the museum.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Boom continues—and leads to some inexplicable results'

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