Best results ever for Italian art at auction

An unnamed East European collector bought several works at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s


London. The two sales of Italian art held to coincide with “Frieze week” in London produced stunning results. The auctions, held by Christie’s and Sotheby’s on the same day, (16 October), had never made so much money, and Christie’s was almost one quarter up on the same sale last year.

A buyer, who attended both sales but was not recognised by dealers in the crowded rooms, bid on at least five lots at Sotheby’s and at least two at Christie’s, including a “single slash” Fontana, Concetto Spaziale, Attesa, 1964, for which he paid a double-estimate £814,400 ($1.68m). He also bought de Chirico’s Mobili nella Valle, 1927, from the Milanese estate of Marta Pallini, for £904,000 ($1.68m). The bidder in the room may have been the collector himself, or his agent; he has been buying for the last couple of years, is “Eastern European” and is buying for his “multiple homes” said a source who did not want to be identified.

Sotheby’s 20th-century Italian Art sale made £11.5m ($21.73m), well over the pre-sale estimate of £9.25m, beating the firm’s previous best result in this category; last October, the same sale made £9.7m. “This year we had a tightly edited sale of just 60 lots and we were very happy with the results, only three lots did not sell,” said the Milan-based specialist Claudia Dwek.

Christie’s Italian Sale, held in the evening of the same day, made £15.66m ($29m); in October 2005 the same sale made £12.8m. “Italian art has gradually become more international and this sale bears that out. This year we only had 25% of buyers [by lot] from Italy, with 30% from the UK, 18% from the US and 27% from the rest of Europe,” said Olivier Camu, co-head of impressionist and modern art in London.

Many new records were made for Italian artists, including Fontana, Boetti, Paolini, Fabro, Afro, Consagra, Moreni and Vezzoli among others: 13 new records in total at Sotheby’s, six at Christie’s.

Fontana was the star of the day. There is a show of the artist’s work currently at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (until 21 January 2007), and the auctions offered no less than 18 of his works (17 in the specialised sales and another at Christie’s in its Harlap Collection sale on 15 October).

Fontana’s “ten-slash” Concetto Spaziale, Attese, 1963, turned out to be the highlight of Christie’s sale and made an astonishing £2.14m ($3.9m), well over its pre-sale estimate of £500,000-£800,000. It had been consigned for sale by an Italian collector and had never been sold at auction before. The work is believed to have been bought by Robin Hurlstone, an art dealer who is a previous boyfriend of the actress Joan Collins, bidding in the room. In the same sale another Fontana, Concetto Spaziale, 1961, with oil and glass pebbles on a gold canvas, sold for £1.35m ($2.5m). The presale estimate was £500,000-£800,000. The work was also fresh to the market. Both works, said Mr Camu, “…ticked all the boxes: they were in very good condition, came from private collections and were very beautiful”.

Also in excellent condition was the Manzoni painting, Achrome, 1958-59 which made £960,000 ($1.8m), well over its £320,000-£400,000 estimate at Sotheby’s. “These works are very fragile but this one, from the Marinellia Pirelli collection, had been well protected behind glass and had not been on the market since 1973,” said Ms Dwek. It went to a private collector.

Fontana was not the only record-breaking Italian artist at the sales. Boetti’s Tutto, 1988-89, one of the multi-coloured canvases executed by Afghani embroiderers in the later years of the artist’s life, sold for £568,000 ($1.07m, est £400,000-£600,000) at Sotheby’s to a private buyer. And the large Mappa, 1989, which came directly from the artist’s estate, made £478,400 ($886,953, est £450,000-£550,000) at Christie’s; it went to a private European buyer.