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Contemporary auction sales report: British art makes the great leap

Bacon and Auerbach triumphed as Sotheby’s and Christie’s racked up impressive totals

“There needed to be a big leap for British art—and it happened tonight.” So proclaimed Tobias Meyer after he had briskly conducted Sotheby’s 23 June sale of contemporary art, garnering £14 million and selling 38 of the 42 works on offer.

The result was a whisker away from Sotheby’s best result in this field, which made £14.2 million, achieved in London in 1990, but for a larger catalogue of 62 works.

On the following evening, despite a sparsely-attended sale (blamed on the Portugal-England Euro 2004 football match that evening) Christie’s bettered Sotheby’s tally, making £14.1 million, its best result ever for a London contemporary art sale. It sold 45 of the 50 works on the block.

The big story, at Christie’s as at Sotheby’s, was British art, but not the schlockfests of Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas or Tracey Emin. This summer, Bacon, Auerbach, Freud and Kossoff were the big names, and their prices outshone those works made by their younger colleagues.

While some new auction records were achieved (Paula Rego and the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser at Sotheby’s; Kapoor, Vedova and Chillida at Christie’s), the contemporary art market continued to display confidence and solidity in defiance of the imminent decline many have been predicting. Bidding was spirited and broad–11 buyers fought for the Auerbach and the withdrawal of some US buyers, discouraged by the decline in the US dollar, was compensated for by the strong presence of Europeans: they constituted 60% of the buyers at Christie’s, 44% at Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s

“This was a sharp and highly edited sale”, said Mr Meyer, who noted that he had tried to balance younger artists with the more “classic” names. Among the School of London works that achieved good prices was Bacon’s Study for a Self-Portrait of 1973, which almost doubled its high estimate at £1.57 million, going to the London dealer Ivor Braka who fought off four bidders to secure it. Mr Braka also bid on Kossoff’s “Here comes the Diesel, early summer”, 1987 which finally sold to a woman in the room for £173,600, and Auerbach’s “To the studios, II” which made £252,000.

Young British artists performed solidly as well, and a telephone buyer, underbid by the Gagosian Gallery, paid an over-estimate £72,000 for Sarah Lucas’ tabloid collage “Seven up”, sold by Charles Saatchi for just £14,500 in 1998. Tracey Emin’s My Coffin, 1996-97, a casket with an appliquéd mattress on top, sold for £84,000 (est. £40/60,000). Georgina Adam

Andy Warhol,

Little Electric Chair, 1964, (est. £600/800,000), sold for £901,600 ($1.6 million)

Prices for Warhol’s disaster paintings from the “Little electric chair” series hit their highest point in June 2001 after a lavender-coloured example made over £1.6 million. The present example, in the rarer orange tint, had failed to find a buyer at Sotheby’s last year, when its $2/3 million estimate proved too high and bidding stopped at $1.4 million. This time around, the work, which was guaranteed, attracted bids from two telephones and the trader and Warhol collector Jose Mugrabi, who bought the piece. Mr Mugrabi was also the unsuccessful underbidder on a late reversal series Warhol in the same sale, Four Marilyns, which sold for £296,800 ($543,144, est. £200/280,000) to the London dealer Benjamin Brown.

Lucian Freud, A Painter, Redheaded Man No.II, 1962, (est. £1.5/2 million), sold for £1,685,600 ($3 million)

This portrait of the artist Tim Behrens from a private American collection carried a guarantee and a strong estimate, considering that the highest price paid before this sale for a Freud male portrait was under £1 million. The result fell short of high estimate but the painting nevertheless set the second highest price in the sale, going to a telephone bidder. However, two other Freud works failed to sell, one of them another male portrait, Gaz (1997), consigned by a collapsed healthcare company. Gaz had cost the company $1 million in 1999: this is the second time it has failed to sell at auction.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled 1982, est. £1.8/2.5 million, sold for £2,469,200 ($4.5 million)

The highest price in the sale was achieved by this monumental and nightmarish work showing a Voodoo-like horned mask. It was bought by the US collector Adam Lindemann, chairman of Mega Communications, although the actual paddle was waved by Amalia Dayan of the Gagosian Gallery, seated in the front row.

Frank Auerbach, Head of JYM I, 1983, (est. £60,000-80,000), sold for £352,800 ($644,150)

Sotheby’s specialists were surprised and delighted by the price fetched by this richly impastoed portrait of Juliet Yardley Mills throwing her head back, and which the artist considered “one of my best paintings”. Until now the highest price paid at auction for an Auerbach portrait was £170,000, but the secondary market has suddenly woken up and the artist’s primary agent, Marlborough Fine Art, who has had a steady stream of works to sell, has revalued its stock. Eleven telephone bidders and two buyers in the room went after this work, which was consigned by a Lebanese collector and was finally hammered down to an unidentified collector.

Christie’s

US buyers, undeterred by the unfavourable exchange rate, snaffled five of the top 10 paintings in this sale, including the top lot, Bacon’s triple portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne (below). The catalogue was heavier on classic contemporaries than Sotheby’s, reflecting its continuing inclusion of “Post-War art” in this category. The result was that prices were more predictable with less examples doubling or trebling estimate, as currently observed in the market for younger artists. So Klein’s blue sponge RE29 made £1,069,250 ($1.9 million), de Staël’s Mediterranean landscape of 1954, from a private French collection, sold for £475,650 ($862,353) to the US trade and Judd’s untitled shelf DSS made £430,850 ($781,131), all prices within estimate. However, Rothko’s untitled 1969 watercolour doubled estimate at £923,650, going to a private US collector, underbid by the trader Jose Mugrabi.

Dumas, The peeping Tom, 1994, (est. £60/80,000) sold

for £139,650 ($252,766)

Younger painters fared well at Christie’s. While not threatening her auction record of £184,340, this price confirms Dumas’ position as a very bankable art superstar. Charles Saatchi is a convert and this attractive work, harking back to Degas nudes, doubled estimate. Another Saatchi favourite is Daniel Richter and his Ein schöner Traum von Anarchie und Gewalt also almost doubled estimate at £71,700 ($129,777).

Bacon, Three studies of Isabel Rawsthorne, 1966 (est. £1.5/2 million), sold for £2,357,250 ($4.27 million)

Undeterred by the weak dollar, Acquavella Galleries was forced to high estimate to acquire this small triptych of Bacon’s only female lover.