Sunday, October 18, 2009

Signs of Life in London's Art Market- Sales at Sotheby's and Christie's show which artists will win from the rebound

With the contemporary-art market slowly recovering, London auction houses held a key round of sales over the weekend that showed prices are already bouncing back for a few mid-career European artists with bright palettes and loyal followings.

After months of scaled-back spending, collectors began competing for colorful paintings by German artists such as Martin Kippenberger and elegant metal sculptures by several British artists. On the other hand, bidders largely bypassed video art and anything priced over £1 million ($1.6 million). Those preferences will likely affect price levels for work by dozens of artists and may set the tone for next month's major fall art auctions in New York.

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The Frieze Art Fair in London this past weekend dovetailed with several contemporary-art auctions, showing a resurgence in the market.

Overall, the world's chief auction houses -- Sotheby's and Christie's International PLC -- sold a combined £26.3 million worth of postwar and contemporary art. The result easily surpasses their combined presale estimate of £18.7 million but is down 51% from a larger round of sales last October. A two-part sale by boutique auction house Phillips de Pury & Co. brought in £6.7 million, down 16% from last year.

All the auction houses struggled to find enough quality material for these sales. Christie's contemporary sale on Friday evening only had 25 pieces, half the usual amount. The auctioneer compensated by following the sale with a separate offering of modern Italian art. Sotheby's, meanwhile, shifted its contemporary evening sale to the afternoon and combined it with a large set of Arab and Iranian artworks.

Still, collectors are in the mood again to bid, and the added energy at the sales was palpable. Munich collector Ingvild Goetz says she shied away from buying at auction during the "hype years" but decided to attend these sales so she could plug a few artistic holes in her collection. Specifically, she paid Sotheby's £85,250 for Peter Fischli and David Weiss's duck sculpture, "Les Repos des Canards (Ducks At Rest)," well over its £70,000 low estimate.

Auction houses offer low and high estimates for what they think each work will fetch. The estimates don't include the auction houses' fees.

Ms. Goetz also paid the auction house £73,250 for Tal R's red-and-blue collage "Melody," surpassing its £60,000 low estimate.

"I want masterpieces, just at the right price," she added.

Christie's sales total beat Sotheby's total in the latest round. The auction house brought in £14.7 million during a two-day sale of contemporary art, besting its £9.7 million presale low estimate.

At Christie's evening sale on Friday, five bidders fought over Mr. Kippenberger's pumpkin-colored view of a cafe, "Paris Bar," which was being sold by British advertising executive Charles Saatchi. A telephone bidder got it for £2.2 million, double its high estimate. Mr. Saatchi also offered the artist's 1991 view of a curved street lamp, "Kellner Des... (Waiter of...)," which New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch got for £1.1 million, above its £700,000 high estimate.

Of the 25 lots offered by Christie's, only a single work by Jitish Kallat went unsold. That work, "Universal Recipient 2," was expected to sell for at least £50,000.

Two large paintings by Neo Rauch and Li Songsong broke records. Mr. Rauch's cheery "Stellwerk (Signal Box)," sold to a telephone bidder for £892,450, nearly twice its high estimate, and Mr. Li's sweeping 2006 image of a United Nations conference, "Cuban Sugar," sold for £433,250, edging over its high estimate. Christie's sale of 20th-century Italian art brought in £5.8 million.

Earlier Friday, Sotheby's contemporary sale brought in £11.6 million, or £12.8 million including an added set of 46 modern and contemporary works by Arab and Iranian artists. Either way, the total exceeds the auction house's £10 million combined low estimate for the sales.

Phillips's sale on Saturday was highlighted by Mr. Basquiat's black-and-red triptych, "Year of the Boar," which sold for £1.1 million, just under its £1.2 million high estimate.

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