Art market

Bid me up before you go-go: sun goes down on George Michael’s art collection at Christie’s

Buyers have faith in Tracey Emin who leads the white glove, YBA-heavy sale, but Damien Hirst’s market continues to soften

Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen slips a careless whisper to head of sale Christian Albu, who bids on Tracey Emin's neon on behalf of a client Courtesy of Christie's

Faith, sex and charity were centre stage at Christie’s last night as George Michael’s art collection raised £7.5m (£9.3m with fees) for the late singer’s foundation, which he set up with his then partner, the Texan art dealer Kenny Goss in 2007.

That year was a particularly busy one for buying art. Michael bought almost half of the 61 lots offered in 2007, many from White Cube, whose owner Jay Jopling was an early champion of the Young British Artists including Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst and Jake and Dinos Chapman.

Attended by Goss, the night belonged to Emin, who was a close friend of Michael and introduced him to the rest of the YBA pack. Emin’s neon piece, George Loves Kenny, the ultimate love letter commissioned by the pop singer in 2007, went five times over estimate, hammering for £280,000 (£347,250 with fees) to an unidentified woman in the saleroom to whoops and cheers from fans. She had duked it out for almost ten minutes with Christian Albu, Christie’s co-head of contemporary art, who was bidding on the phone on behalf of a client.

Christie’s positioned Emin at the nucleus of Michael’s collection and, of the nine lots on the block by Emin, eight soared above high estimate. They included the gestural acrylic on canvas, Hurricane (2007), which sold for £350,000 (£421,250 with premium), a record for a painting by the artist. Her sold out exhibition of new paintings at White Cube Bermondsey will no doubt have piqued interest for this area of her practice.

Estimates are usually conservative at charity auctions, and last night was no exception. However, reduced estimates could not entice much bidding on Hirst’s works. Just before the auction got underway, the auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen announced that five of the six Hirsts on the block had been guaranteed at the last minute by a third-party backer, an indication that the auction house–and vendors–were not confident buyers would be found in the room or on the phones.

Hirst’s prices have been depreciating for the past few years, with two works going unsold and one lot withdrawn, possibly due to cold feet, in last week’s contemporary sales in London. “His market continues to be price sensitive and it was prudent of Christie’s to secure third party guarantees,” the London art adviser Nazy Vassegh said after the sale.

The two top lots by Hirst–a flying dove suspended in a vitrine full of formaldehyde and a bullock speared by arrows–a sombre and wincing work titled Saint Sebastian–both went for half their top estimates of £1.5m. They sold for £750,000 (£911,250) and £720,000 (£875,250) respectively, one on a single bid most likely to be the guarantor.

The price for the dove, an edition of three, represents a steep drop from when White Cube reportedly sold one at Art Basel in Miami Beach in 2015 for several million dollars.

All eyes were on another Hirst formaldehyde, The Immaculate Heart Sacred (2008), which Michael bought at Hirst’s Beautiful Inside My Head Forever sale at Sotheby’s in 2008 for £313,250 including premium. The work sold last night for £260,000 (£323,250 with fees), a loss in real terms.

There were artist records for Jim Lambie, whose Careless Whisper (2009) was the poster work for the sale, realising £140,000 (£175,000 with fees), and Angus Fairhurst, whose 2003 bronze gorilla fetched £95,000 (£118,750 with premium).

Paintings by the YBA godfather Michael Craig-Martin all vaulted over estimate. In typically humorous fashion, after his arrest in 1998 for performing a lewd act in a public lavatory in Beverly Hills, Michael bought two paintings by Craig-Martin: Urinal and Handcuffs. A third work, Sex, was purchased several years later to form a triptych.

Urinal (2002) sold to an online bidder in Texas for £32,000 (£40,000 with fees); Sex (2007) went for £100,000 (or £125,000); and Handcuffs fetched £90,000 (£112,500).

The “George Michael factor” certainly added a premium to the works, with Christie’s reporting 24% of registrants as new to the auction house. For some fans, the auction was the first opportunity to publicly mourn and celebrate the pop star, with 12,000 people streaming through Christie’s doors since the collection was unveiled a week ago.

As Vassegh summed up: “George Michael was an icon and a rebel with a cause, and artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin resonated with him.”