Women and Italians first: the surprise results of the London auctions

Market turns on its head as buyers show less interest in the usual contemporary, blue-chip names


Fittingly for art made in sunny climes, the Modern Italian sales outshone the contemporary auctions in London last month. Collectors and spectators were out in force at the Italian sale at Sotheby’s on 15 October, no doubt spurred on by the Alberto Burri retrospective at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, as well as several gallery shows on both sides of the pond. The auctioneer, Oliver Barker, described the jam-packed saleroom as being like “looking out over the Italian embassy”. The sale raised £40.4m (est £35.2m-£48.6m), with 78% sold by lot. This was £4m more than the contemporary auction the same night, which made £36.4m (est £32.9m-£46.2m), with 72% sold by lot. Post-war Italian art reached new heights at Christie’s on 16 October. Bidders from 42 countries contributed to the £43.2m total (est £23.6m-£35.1m)—the highest ever for an Italian sale. The sell-through rate was an impressive 90%. The contemporary evening sale made £7.6m less—£35.6m (est £30.7m-£42.6m)—with 85% sold by lot. It was the first time that Italian works had eclipsed contemporary art in the October sales since the Italian sale began at Christie’s in 2005 (that has happened six times at Sotheby’s since 2003)—a sign of the growing focus on post-war works in a week that has historically been reserved for contemporary art. — A.S.

Not just Fontana: a generation of artists is being rediscovered Established artists prove their staying power…

There are only 38 versions of Fontana’s punctured oval works from the Fine di Dio series (1963-64), so it came as little surprise that the cover lot at Sotheby’s, a black version from 1963, hit its target. At £15.9m (just above the lower estimate of £15m), the work set a new record for the artist and comprised 39% of the total of the auction house’s Italian sale.

Other blue-chip names fared well, too, notably Alberto Burri. Of the four works sold at Sotheby’s, two were comfortably within estimate and the other two went above, particularly his Bianco Plastica 1 (1961), which sold for £2.6m against an upper estimate of £2m. Christie’s, meanwhile, sold a fiery Rosso Plastica M1 (1961) for £3.4m against an upper estimate of £3m.

Michelangelo Pistoletto’s work proved popular at both auctions (Galleria Continua’s solo presentation of his work at Frieze Masters was another testament to market demand), while an unusually colourful, museum-quality work by Giorgio Morandi, Natura Morta (1939), at Christie’s, set an auction record for the artist at just over £2.5m, proving that it is not just the post-war names that are sought after.

…while new names set new records

We predicted in September that collectors, increasingly confident in the stability of the top Italian names, would turn their attention—and wallets—to those artists’ less established contemporaries. And that is exactly what happened. “The Italian sale is all about showing what else was going on in Italy during the entire 20th century,” says Mariolina Bassetti, the head of post-war and contemporary art, Italy, at Christie’s.

Christie’s set four auction records for artists who have rarely, if ever, been given much airtime until now: Vincenzo Agnetti, Gianni Colombo, Luciano Fabro and Giuseppe Uncini. Agnetti’s Ritratto di Abitante (1971-72) soared past its upper estimate of £60,000 to fetch £183,000, just beating the record set the night before, at Sotheby’s, for his similarly priced Ritratto d’Artista (1971), which sold for £173,000. But the star of the group, and probably the entire sale was Luciano Fabro’s boot-shaped sculpture Italia dell’Emigrante (1981), which hung from the auction room’s ceiling and sold for £2.7m, against an upper estimate of £800,000.

At Sotheby’s, a sculpture by the critically acclaimed but financially undervalued Medardo Rosso, Enfant Juif (conceived in 1893; cast in wax between 1905 and 1919), set a new record at £341,000, almost twice its upper estimate. — E.R.

Phillips on the up Phillips upped its game with a 100% sold (“white glove”) contemporary sale, which made £31.5m (est £24.1m-£36.2m)—more than double last year’s £14.9m result. Half of the auction was backed by third-party guarantees, including the 18 works from the collection of Fredric Brandt, which fetched £9.4m against a low estimate of £8.1m. Among them was Yoshitomo Nara’s Missing in Action (2000), which sold for a record £2m (est £700,000-£1m). Records were also set for Danh Vo and Mark Bradford, whose Constitution IV (2013) sold for £3.8m (est £2m-£3m) to the dealer Daniella Luxembourg. Edward Dolman, Phillips’ chairman, said that the results marked “a good and steady progression”. Hugues Joffre, Phillips’ UK and Europe chairman and worldwide head of 20th-century art, says the aim is to offer sales that are one-third contemporary, one-third post-war and one-third Modern by this time next year. — A.S.

Women on top Contrary to Georg Baselitz’s infamous statement that “women don’t paint very well” (a reference to the market value of their work), female painters took Sotheby’s and Christie’s by storm. At Christie’s, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Nicole Eisenman and Charline von Heyl all achieved auction records. Knave (2011), a six-and-a-half-foot painting by Yiadom-Boakye, soared past its high estimate of £80,000 to sell for £446,500—three times the artist’s previous record. Interest was also piqued at Sotheby’s by contemporary female artists, including Latvian-born Ella Kruglyanskaya, whose auction debut fetched £81,250 (est £40,000-£60,000) for Swordfish Picnic (2011), and Isa Genzken, whose sought-after 1990 vitrine sculpture sold for £677,000 (est £100,000-£150,000)—a record for the artist. David Zwirner gallery was an underbidder. Meanwhile, two watercolours by Baselitz that were offered in the contemporary evening sale at Christie’s both hammered below estimate. — A.S.