Is Bacon in more demand than Picasso?

AS Sotheby’s and Christie’s gear up for their famously extravagant summer contemporary art sales, the mood is mixed.
Last October’s evening sales at Christie’s saw earnings of £34.87m for the auction house and the art world was paddling about in a Frieze-Week sea of champagne; last June the credit crunch was a distant rumour and the sales at Sotheby’s made £72.43m.
Now, despite the credit crunch, experts at the two auction houses maintain that the market is stronger than ever — indeed, the February 2008 Contemporary Evening sale made Sotheby’s a whopping £95m. The sales are strongly blue-chip (roughly 90 per cent), with work by Britons Gilbert & George, Tracey Emin and Anthony Gormley, and Americans Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol, among others.
Both houses have got their hands on paintings by Francis Bacon, the most sought-after artist on the market at the moment. Christie’s has Three Studies For A Self-Portrait, the first time the work has been seen at auction. Sotheby’s has been trumpeting its Study For Head Of George Dyer for weeks — so hot is this haunting, enigmatic portrait set against a solid green background, that the catalogue says the price estimate is only available on request. Figure Turning from 1962 should go for between £10m and £15m at Sotheby’s.
Of the Baconian frenzy, Oliver Barker, head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, says: “In many people’s minds, Bacon is now surpassing Picasso. A Bacon is a very strong blue chip.”
Other dynamite lots are Jeff Koons’s Balloon Flower (Magenta), at Christie’s, an enormous sculpture based on a balloon twisted into the shape of a purple-pink wide open bloom which has been on view in St James’s Square.It’s estimated to go for in the region of £12m.
At Sotheby’s is Richard Prince’s Overseas Nurse, from his sexy, grimy Nurses series (estimated at £4m to 6m And Chant 2, the first pure colour painting by British artist Bridget Riley to come to market, is estimated at £2m to £3m.
German post-war artists are well represented. Frank Auerbach, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and sculptor Bruce Nauman are all for sale at high prices — estimates for Richter go up to £3m at Christie’s for his sombre, abstract Kleine Strasse. But despite the dizzying figures, it’s worth remembering that, as yet, nobody has paid them.
The positive spin churned out by the big houses at sales time should be taken with a very large pinch of salt; for example, results from the recent Russian sales were mixed at best, despite glowing tributes from Sotheby’s and Christie’s. As the record-breaking February figures show, it does seem that contemporary art operates independently of economic cycles.
It may seem contrary to the spirit of the times, but collectors are seizing the opportunity to sell to a keen market. Barker adds: “The mood is very good. Yes, there’s a credit crunch, but there’s also a lot of wealth in the world.”
And he says supply has never been better in contemporary art: “There is a steady flow of fresh works coming to the market and great opportunities for collectors putting together superb portfolios.”
One reason is the increasing globalisation of the art world — artists from hitherto less-known areas are being noticed, too. “Indian and Iranian art has become more collectible,” Barker says. “This is the first time we’re selling it so prominently — there’s a growing demand in terms of interest and collectors.”
The highlight at Christie’s is La Terre, 1973, by Syed Haider Raza (estimate: £1m-£1.5m), one of India’s leading modern artists and a member of the revolutionary Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group.
Sotheby’s has an untitled paining of kettles and drums with Pop Art pinks and black-edged greys by Subodh Gupta. Although it doesn’t immediately betray Gupta’s origins, he has portrayed the shining steel objects traditionally found in the trousseaux of newly married Indian women. It is expected to sell for between £200,000 and £300,000.
Unlike recent contemporary sales, there are scant Chinese works for sale — the run on the market for 1990s Chinese art has drastically diminished supply. Sotheby’s has just one; a Zhang Xiaogang portrait called Brother And Sister (£400,000-£600,000).
Christie’s has a similar but more expensive Zhang: Father And Daughter, estimated at £900,000 to £1,500,000. For now, it looks like the contemporary art market has evaded the economic storms.
But there is a hint of uncertainty: “We’re not leaving any stones unturned in looking for potential buyers,” Barker admits. “Even if we get to our low estimate, we’ll be happy; these are very high low estimates.”
Whatever happens, the contemporary art circus is coming to town next week, and it’s bound to be colourful.
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