Feb. 29, 2008

Big spenders ruled at the evening sale of contemporary art at Sotheby’s London on Feb. 27, 2008, with 56 of 70 lots selling, or 80 percent, for a total of £95,030,000 ($189,423,299). Four lots sold for over £5 million, seven lots for over $5 million, 18 lots for over £1 million and 40 lots for over $1 million. The total is the highest ever for any contemporary art sale in Europe, according to Sotheby’s expert Francis Outred, and demonstrates "the continued strength of the market."

(By contrast, the evening sale of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s London three weeks ago on Feb. 6 totaled £72,930,500 ($143,089,641), with 37 of 54 lots finding buyers, or a fairly modest 69 percent -- which made it something of a disappointment to some auction punters.)

New auction records were set at Sotheby’s London for six artists, including Lucio Fontana (£10,324,500), Gerhard Richter (£7,972,500), Gilbert & George (£636,500), Paula Rego (£558,100), Malcolm Morley (£502,100) and Juan Muñoz (£356,500).

The top lot was Francis Bacon’s Study of Nude with Figure in a Mirror (1969), an eminently Baconian version of the artist and his model -- she has a Demoiselles d’Avignon-type mask for a face, and is set against a bright lavender background -- which sold for £19,956,500 to a private European collector bidding on the telephone. The much-illustrated work was included in the artist’s 1985 Tate retrospective as well as his U.S. retrospective in 1999. The work was consigned by Hong Kong lawyer Sir Po Shing, according to the Baer Faxt.

Another top lot, Andy Warhol’s Three Self-Portraits (1986), sold for £11,444,500, a huge price that matched the £10 million presale estimate. "You have to hand it to Sotheby’s for its brilliant marketing, playing up the patriotic red-white-and-blue theme of the painting, even though that had nothing to do with Warhol’s intentions," said California art dealer Richard Polsky. He noted as well that Warhol trades so much on the auction market that the sense of urgency is absent with lots that are from a series, though exceptional works like Three Self-Portraits can draw impressive prices.

The record-setting Fontana, a golden, glittery, egg-shaped Concetto Spaziale from 1963, was bought by Philippe Segalot, according to auction reports, spurring speculation that it might be destined for François Pinault’s new museum at Punta della Dogana in Venice.

The record-setting Richter was a Candle painting from 1983, whose £7,972,500 sale price was triple the presale high estimate of £2,500,000. Insiders weren’t surprised at the spectacular result, since paintings from this series have always been among the artist’s most sought-after, by museums as well as private collectors.

Other works in the top ten were by Jeff Koons, Joan Mitchell and Zhang Xiaogang, whose Big Family No. 1 (2001), measuring ca. 79 x 118 in. and called "the culmination of the artist’s ‘Bloodlines’ series," sold for £1,700,500.

Unsold lots included works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Glenn Brown, Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, Yves Klein, Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, Albert Oehlen, Liu Ye, and Andy Warhol’s portrait of Miguel Berrocal.

Sotheby’s London day sale of contemporary art on Feb. 28 added another £24,858,225 to the total, above its presale high estimate and bringing the cumulative result to £119,888,225. Among the notable lots was Banksy’s Simple Intelligence Testing (2000), a "joke" painting showing a monkey using the boxes of its intelligence test to escape from the picture through a trapdoor, which sold for £646,500, more than quadruple the presale high estimate of £150,000. The buyer was an American private collector.

Phillips de Pury & Co.’s evening auction of contemporary art at its glossy new headquarters in Victoria in London on Feb. 28 was a monster, with 150 lots, an unprecedented number for an evening sale, even in today’s avid market. After more than three hours, auctioneer Simon de Pury had hammered down artworks for a total of £27,921,400 (with premium), with 122 lots finding buyers, or more than 81 percent.

Phillips launched its sale with a group of 39 lots of contemporary Russian art, which was being sold by an unnamed European foundation in order to raise funds to help children with AIDS. The group sold above its presale estimate for a total of £6,503,100, with Ilya Kabakov’s 1982 photorealistic painting of a Beetle going for £2,932,500, about £1,000,000 above its presale high estimate and a new record for a work of Russian contemporary art.

Records in the Russian section of the sale were also set for Eric Bulatov (£1,084,500), Oleg Vassiliev (£356,500), Ivan Chuikov (£90,500) and several additional artists.

The two-part evening sale of contemporary art totaled £21,418,300, with 88 of 111 lots finding buyers, or just over 79 percent. The top lot of the sale was Richard Prince’s Surfing Nurse, which sold for £2,148,500. A Damien Hirst "spot" painting sold for £1,756,500, a new record for a work from the series. Still another top lot was Jeff Koons’ Violet Ice (Kama Sutra) (1991), a smallish (13 x 27 x 17 in.) murano-glass sculptural version of one of the artist’s scandalous sexual self-portraits with his then-wife Cicciolina, which went for £1,252,500

According to London auction ace Roger Bevan, writing in the Baer Faxt, about 16 of the lots were consigned by Charles Saatchi. Phillips is underwriting free admission to the Saatchi Collection when it reopens in its new facility later this year.

The evening sale marks a significant triumph for Phillips, since its total from the February 2007 sale a year ago was £5,286,000, rather modest in comparison to the £27,921,400 total for this week.

Additionally, the evening sale set new auction records for Matthias Weischer (£114,500), Terence Koh (£72,500), John Armleder (£94,100) and Jeppe Hein (£48,500), among others.

The day sale pushed the overall total up to £32,331,025 and saw set new auction records for Kendell Geers (£66,500), Ernesto Neto (£26,900), Andres Serrano (£114,500), Sylvie Fleury (£58,100), Ana Mendieta (£102,500) and several other artists.

Sotheby’s had a record 2007, according to Sotheby’s CEO Bill Ruprecht, who noted that revenues for the year were up 38 percent to $917.7 million on total auction sales of $5.4 billion, an increase of 44 percent over last year and the firm’s best ever.

Sales of contemporary art rose 107 percent to $1.32 billion, while Impressionist and modern art rose 24 percent to $1.16 billion. Sales in Asia were $400.7 million, an increase of 47 percent, while sales of Russian art were $190.9 million, an increase of 25 percent.

Perhaps most interesting, considering the continuing success of the priciest art auctions in the face of an overall economic slowdown, is Ruprecht’s remark that "Over the past five years, the number of clients buying at the top end of our business has increased by more than 200 percent and their geographical diversity has expanded by over 60 percent." He also noted that top buyers -- purchases of lots for $500,000 or more -- came from 58 countries, making it a global market indeed.

Earlier this month, Christie’s announced that its 2007 art sales totaled $6.3 billion, an increase over 2006 figures of 36 percent.
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