Art market

Post-war and contemporary auction report: cautious but confident

Some good prices were made, but top quality works were relatively thin on the ground



If the auction calendar is anything to go by, then some confidence is back in the market. This year, London’s three main auction houses put together evening sales of contemporary art to capitalise on the influx of collectors to the capital during Frieze. Last year, Sotheby’s decided not to host an evening event because “the mood wasn’t strong enough,” said Cheyenne Westphal, chairman of contemporary art. This year, however, she said, “it all came together.”

Combined with their day sales, the auction houses made nearly £60m (est £48.1m-£67.8m) from their dedicated contemporary art auctions. “For mid-season sales, a substantial amount of money was exchanged in only a week,” said dealer Daniella Luxembourg, referring to both the contemporary and Italian sales (see below).

But the sales were pared down events, with (almost) enough good material to last an hour and with estimates that mostly didn’t test the market too hard.

“The general feeling in the market is that A-star works can still command 2007 prices—and in some cases more,” said dealer Nicholas Maclean, of Eykyn Maclean. “But the next tier down cannot be overpriced,” he cautioned.

Phillips de Pury

As has been the trend recently, Phillips de Pury—which opened the evening events on 13 October—had the smallest and most patchy sale. The auction house sold 51 works for £6.6m, at the low end of expectations. Five lots were inexplicably withdrawn, including a Terence Koh black chandelier, These Decades That We Never Sleep, Black Light, 2004, which was estimated at £40,000 to £60,000, and another 16 works went unsold. However, bidding was strong for the more prized works, including David Hockney’s Autumn Pool (Paper Pool 29), 1978. This was guaranteed and sold for £1.3m (est £700,000-£1m) to a telephone bidder. Andy Warhol’s 10-piece screen print, Mao, 1978, proved popular, selling over the phone for £469,250 (est £250,000-£350,000).


Damien Hirst’s large-scale, apocalyptic butterfly painting, I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds, 2006, generated much of the pre-auction chatter—the work was the first major Hirst piece to come to auction since the artist’s landmark sale at Sotheby’s in 2008. Those hoping to gauge the market’s temperature through this sale may have been disappointed when it went, with little fanfare, for a below estimate £2.2m (est £2.5m-£3.5m) over the telephone on 14 October.

Other works generated more excitement, in particular Takashi Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki, 2005, an edition of which is now showing in Versailles. Another version (left) sold to Daniella Luxembourg bidding in the auction room, for £1.9m, far ahead of its £400,000 to £600,000 estimate. Luxembourg said she was buying for a client who already collects Murakami’s work.


In terms of meeting its own pre-sale estimates, Sotheby’s evening auction on 15 October proved the most successful of the week, raising £13.3m (est £10m-£13.6m). The sale opened briskly with works by auction neophytes Ged Quinn (see artist interview, p53) and Ahmed Alsoudani selling far ahead of their estimates for £187,250 (est £20,000-£30,000) and £289,250 (est £70,000-£90,000) respectively. Two works sold for over £1m (hammer price): a Warhol silkscreen Diamond Dust Shoes, 1980, which sold in the room for £1.6m (see box) and Gursky’s well-publicised Pyongyang IV, 2007, which carried an irrevocable bid and sold for £1.3m (est £500,000- £700,000).

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Post-war and contemporary: cautious but confident'