On the Money at the London Auctions

The truth of the art market is that art sells better at auction than it does in the galleries. This is primarily due to the “new buyer" phenomenon, which for the time being is what rules the day. All hail the rule of the auction season! Here's my take on the recent sales in London.

Nate Lowman, Untitled Marilyn #13 (2012)

Nate Lowman's Untitled Marilyn #13 (2012), set a new record for the artist when it sold for £530,500 at Phillips London on February 10, 2014. Photo: courtesy Phillips.

At the Phillips London Evening Sale, February 10, 2014

Lot 2
Lucien Smith (b. 1989)
Feet in the Water, 2012
acrylic on unprimed canvas
Height 96.1 in.; Width 72 in. / Height 244 cm.; Width 183 cm.
Signed ‘Lucien Smith' on the overlap.
Est. £40,000–60,000

Lucien Smith's Feet in the Water, the first of his three large Rain Paintings was the second evening lot of the London Contemporary auction season. These Rain Paintings which only two years ago were selling primary for about $10,000 are among the most speculated and “flipped" in this new market of day-trading “collector speculators." Talk on the street was that the market couldn't absorb the three works at a full price level, despite the fact that this style of automatic painting and colorful abstraction is right in the crosshairs of today's fashion obsessed collector audience.

Analysis: The work made £194,500, or US$319,376. Large, good Rain Paintings were being offered privately just before the sale at around US$300,000–350,000, so this high price in fact was just right what the picture was expected to do. The then poorly kept secret that Lucien was soon to announce he would show with New York's blue chip Skarstedt Gallery (it's official now—Skarstedt's website has announced that Smith's New Paintings will be on view May 15 to June 28, 2014)  gave some confidence, because the new work looks good and also commercial. This painting was sold spot on the money.

 

Lot 6
Nate Lowman (b. 1979)
Untitled (Marilyn), 2012
oil and alkyd on canvas
Height 59.8 in.; Width 40.1 in. / Height 152 cm.; Width 101.9 cm.
Signed and dated ‘Nate Lowman 2012' on the overlap.
Est. £400,000–600,000

Ever since Lowman's breakthrough show at Michelle Maccarone's, his Marilyn paintings have remained the trophy moment of his Warhol/Lichtenstein–type screenprints that add a generous sprinkling of a trendy rock and roll sensibility. This particular work was a good sized 60- incher with a clean screen and most of the bells and whistles that today's buyer of big bucks trendy art is looking for.

Analysis: The painting made £530,500 or US$811,986, a new record for the artist. The result was strong yet not unexpected. Word on the street was that a savvy Uptown dealer had recently acquired this painting in the US$700,000 range and put it right to auction. Rumors circulated that it would make a million dollars; it fell short and netted the seller a skinny profit. The work sold spot on the money but left the audience with the feeling that this market has topped out, at least for now.

 

Lot 7
Sterling Ruby (b. 1972)
SP56, 2008
spray paint on canvas
Height 96.1 in.; Width 72 in. / Height 244 cm.; Width 183 cm.
Signed, titled, and dated “SR.08 SP56" on reverse.
Est. £500,000–700,000

One can't help but marvel at the fact that Sterling Ruby “spray paintings," dubbed “ghetto Rothkos," continue to score big numbers, whereas much of his other work fails to sell or makes a fraction of the price. I like the work and the artist is very charismatic and ambitious. Whenever a very specific body of an artist's work makes million dollar prices while the rest of it—ceramic works, cardboard pieces and all the other stuff doesn't sell or sells for very little—one has to wonder about this strange market phenomenon, and the imbalance casts a shadow of fragile if not dubious credibility.

Analysis: SP56 sold for £495,500 or about US$811,986. To say the least, this would appear to be a disappointing result when privately “sprays" have made as much as US$1.5 million. And in the Leo DiCaprio benefit sale, one lucky 96-incher (it had a lot of pink) made all of US$1,785,000. This admittedly dark, muddy one achieved less than half the price of the starry Leo painting, and yet still it was well sold. If this is indeed an obvious market bubble, it will not easily burst. Nonetheless SP56 showed that overall prices of more than a million bucks for “spray paintings" feel like an art market moment that for now is in the past.

 

Lot 24
Chris Ofili (b. 1968)
The Saga Continues . . . The Journey from Hell, 1997
mixed media on canvas
Height 96 in.; Width 72 in. / Height 243.8 cm.; Width 182.8 cm.
Signed and dated ‘Chris Ofili 1997' on the central stretcher bar. Further initialed on the stretcher.
Est. £600,000–800,000

This attractive painting feels like part of the “Captain Shit" series. A recollection: in February of 2011, Sotheby's London sold The naked spirit of captain Shit and the legend of the black stars (2000–1). Ofili, a pedigreed YBA member, has managed to maintain an aura of charm and charisma around him despite the fact that at this point the YBA's are generally long in the tooth. Although this Hell painting isn't even from the '80s (when Ofili's work began to come to auction), it is good enough, and anybody would have expected it to do reasonably well.

Analysis: The work passed at £600,000–800,000. Clearly the reserve and the expectations were too high. This market has felt soft for a while, and this ill-timed auction attempt is not a good sign. In fact the seller would have done better to try to sell it privately at the same price with his primary gallery, with some patience, the seller would have found a buyer, so this painting should not have gone to auction.

Alberto Burri Rosso plastica 1963

Alberto Burri Rosso plastica (1963) sold on February 12, 2014, for just over its high estimate of £3.6 million, the second-highest price ever paid for a Burri. Photo: courtesy Sotheby's

At the Sotheby's London Contemporary Art Evening Auction, February 12, 2014

Lot 6
Alberto Burri (1915–1995)
Rosso plastica, 1963
Signed, dedicated per Mario Dora, variously inscribed and dated 63 on the reverse
plastic, acrylic, vinavil, and combustion on canvas
Height 31.5 in.; Width 39.4 in. / Height 80 cm.; Width 100 cm.
Est. £2,000,000–3,000,000

Burri prices have been very strong, and if Fontana is Italy's Jasper Johns, Alberto Burri was undoubtedly its Robert Rauschenberg. The plastica series is generally Burri's most popular right after the “Sacos," though the all-black “Cretto" series might arguably give plasticas a run for the money (if it were, say, a big black or white piece). Here a modest sized plastica had a healthy estimate.

Analysis: the painting sold for just over the high estimate at ££3,666,500or US$$6,077,407, the second highest price ever paid for a Burri. That record had been set the night before, at Christie's London: Feb 11, 2014, when Combustion plastica sold for £4,674,500 or $7,697,184, the highest price ever paid for a Burri. Burri works are on a roll, and everyone who collects Fontana and Piero Manzoni has got to have one. As high as the price seems, this painting sold right on the money, on the back of the big price from the night before (though for this price one might justifiably wish it were just a bit bigger). Keep in mind the auction flipper's rule of thumb: the color red always does well at auction.

 

Lot 9
Cy Twombly (1928–2011)
Untitled (Rome), 1964
oil, wax crayon and pencil on canvas
Height 81.1 in.; Width 99.6 in. / Height 206 cm.; Width 253 cm.
Est. £5,000,000–7,000,000

In the years before Twombly's death, his market had been pumped up by his powerful gallery, Gagosian, and rightly so: it had a lot of catching up to do. His peers Johns and Rauschenberg had outperformed him in the market, though many said this was not about the work and more due to his decision to leave the US and live in Italy, far from the fray. This painting was a clearly a good year and good size, if somewhat spare with the paint.

Analysis: The painting made a whopping £12,178,500 or US$20,186,474, which, except for the November 2013 sale of the large Dia set of works on paper, (Poems to the sea (in 24 parts) (1959), which brought $21,669,000) is the highest price ever paid for a Twombly. Twombly is no doubt a magical artist, but other paintings of his have struggled to sell at these levels. Though I'm far from an expert here, $20 million still buys a lot in this market. I'd prefer to buy a busier picture or a Blackboard series and one with more action and paint at this price level. This one was a bit reserved and so well sold.

 

Lot 12
Gerhard Richter (b. 1932)
Wand (Wall), 1994
signed, numbered 806 and dated 1994 on the reverse
oil on canvas
Height 94.5 in.; Width 94.5 in. / Height 240 cm.; Width 240 cm.
Estimate on request (but insiders say it was £15,000,000/$25,000,000)

Gerhard Richter's Wand (Wall) is a 94-inch painting from his Abstracts. These highly decorative works by Europe's greatest living painter have become auction house darlings and regularly sell for big prices, despite the fact that the more historic earlier paintings based on photography and memory are more historically important and are also more rare.

Analysis: This painting made £17,442,500 or US$28,911,818. While undoubtedly beautiful, this is the fourth highest price ever paid for a Richter, and though it is a beautiful painting, it's rather monochromatic; it is mostly red. As I have mentioned, though red is typically the most popular auction color, this work is substantially less interesting than several others from the series. I prefer the ones with several colors oozing through the various layers of “squeegeed" paint, say a pinkish red bubbling through some heavy layers of gray. I'd call this one very well sold.

 

Lot 23
Steven Parrino (1958–2005)
Schism's kiss (in two parts), 2002
Inscribed Mercury on the right panel; signed, titled and dated 2002 on the stretcher of the left panel; stamped with the artist's name on the left overturn edge of the left panel
enamel on canvas, in two parts
Height 84.5 in.; Width 167 in.; Depth 8.3 in. / Height 214.6 cm.; Width 424.2 cm.; Depth 21 cm.
Est. £350,000–450,000

This large-format Parrino looked perfectly good in the images. Though I wasn't able to see it in person, the work looks like a 6 or 7 out of 10. I was curious to see the result since the value of his large works on canvas have bounced wildly since his untimely death, up to almost a million dollars in June of 2011. Though there was little market interest in him when he was alive and showing in his primary gallery, the venerable Team gallery, Parrino has of late become a secondary market darling boosted by the myth of an unsung hero who died on a motorcycle at age 46.

Analysis: This lot passed with an estimate of £350,000–450,000. Certainly the Parrino bulls will now say the painting was too big and not good enough, but let's face it: the auction house experts thought the work was good enough to include in an evening sale, and they must have felt that the galleries and collector-investors would protect it. They were wrong. This work was not well bought, and now that it's been twice burned, it will be very poorly sold, if it can sell at all. Art is always an investment; that doesn't make it a good investment.

Jeff Koons, Cracked Egg (Magenta), 1994–2006

Jeff Koons, Cracked Egg (Magenta), 1994-2006.
Photo: Christie's Images Ltd. 2014

At the Christie's Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction, February 13, 2014

Lot 2
Lucien Smith (b. 1989)
Secret Lives of Men, 2012
acrylic on unprimed canvas
Height 107.9 in.; Width 83.9 in. / Height 274 cm.; Width 213 cm.
£30,000–40,000

Here was the third big Rain Painting to come up in all of three days. The auction houses shamelessly gave in to the market's most speculated stuff and each house put a large work by this 24-year-old artist in their hallowed “evening sale."This one was just as nice as the others, it seemed, though I still prefer the blue ones over the black ones.

Analysis: This painting sold for “only" £158,500 or US$263,727. With Smith's Two sides of the same coin (2012) selling for $372,120 at Sotheby's London the day before this Christie's sale, that's a whopping 29.1 percent discount relative to the prior result, so say what you want, this one was relatively well bought!

 

Lot 3
Oscar Murillo (b. 1986)
Untitled (Burrito), Executed in 2011
oil, oilstick, and dirt on canvas
Height 78.7 in.; Width 66.9 in. / Height 200 cm.; Width 170 cm.
£20,000­–£30,000
One of the hottest and most speculated names in the market. These Twombly-meets-Basquiat-in–Spanish Harlem paintings have been hot tickets for the day traders. The artist was welcomed recently into David Zwirner's respected gallery so perhaps he has now slowed production and we can expect he will find good collectors for the work.

Analysis: The painting, which is only 70 inches tall and has the word “Burrito" scrawled across it, was estimated at only £20,000–30,000, yet that didn't stop it from making a whopping £194,500, all of US$323,627 Looks like anything that sells for 10 times the low estimate has to be called well sold. Shout-out to all the burrito eating day traders, this one made your day!

 

Lot 8
Damien Hirst (b. 1965)
Where Will it End? Executed in 1993
glass, painted MDF, beech, acrylic, fish and formaldehyde solution
Height 48 in.; Width 72 in.; Depth 4.8 in. / Height 121.9 cm.; Width 182.9 cm.; Depth 12.1 cm.
£800,000–£1,200,000

These pickled fish in formaldehyde have always been some of my personal favorites, and add that they're from way back in 1993; an early and seminal year. Though we don't know how many of these Hirst made, still we do know he made too many. And yet Where Will it End? remains a powerful piece from the unchallenged biggest artist of the YBA moment. It's not the most “commercial" piece but the naysayers can quibble all they want, this is an undoubtedly good early work.

Analysis: The piece made £962,500 or US$1,601,497 million. Let's face it, the Hirst market has been a zombie since his famous Sotheby's sale in '08 when he dumped on a bunch of newbies and flooded his market. That year was the one when he sold 50 works at more than a $1 million each; since then he has only sold only 29 works sat over $1 million each. Early supporters of the work suffered the consequences. Well, word on the street is that there are whispers of a Damien comeback. This result, though it was well below his peak results, shows that there is serious interest in early work of quality at today's more realistic prices. Though the buyer better be ready to hold on for a while, I'll agree with his contrarian view and say well bought. Let's hope that Damien doesn't read this and then decide to make 10 more before my ink dries!

 

Lot 23
Jeff Koons (b. 1955)
Cracked Egg (Magenta) (in two parts), 1994–2006
mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating
Height 65 in.; Width 62.6 in.; Depth 62.6 in. / Height 165.1 cm.; Width 159.1 cm.; Depth 159.1 cm.
This work is one of five unique versions
Est. £10,000–15,000,000

The Celebration series has always been a market darling, and the road to riches was broken open by Sotheby's historic sale of Koons's Hanging Heart for a whopping US$23,561,000 million way back in November of '07. Jury's still out on which of the works is best, but nonetheless the cracked egg is a legitimate and good piece from the beginning of the series.

Analysis: the sculpture made a whopping £14,082,500 million or over US$23,431,780 million. While pink is always a hot color, and this work fits relatively easily in a large home, it's not one of the top icons of the series. That position is reserved for Balloon Dog and perhaps one or two others like the Heart or the Tulips. Twenty-three million dollars is a lot of money for this, considering that only a season ago Sotheby's failed to sell a handful of early and important works (Wall relief with Birds (1991) and New Hoover Celebrity IV, New Hoover Convertible, New Shelton 5 Gallon Wet/Dry, New Shelton 10 Gallon Wet/Dry Doubledecker (4 works) (1981–86) including the historic Hoover vacuum cleaner works. The Koons market today makes little sense because early important pieces sell for a fraction of what Celebration pieces collect. Consider that the artist is very much alive and making more Celebration works every year and my head begins to spin . . . isn't that a disturbing thought! Koons's long overdue New York museum retrospective is coming up at the Whitney in June, and we can chalk a bit of this price to some anticipatory hype. Nonetheless, I'll call this egg very well sold. Let's remember that Balloon Dog sold with quite some difficulty at Christie's only last season and for only double this amount, though it's three times' more iconic. The rumor then was that it would make up to US$100 million, but it “only" sold for $58,405,000. The Koons market is upside down and demonstrates absolutely no desire to right itself. Early historic works are less than half as much as the late works. Go figure! Sure, I've heard it all, like when they tell me that new buyers only like what's “shiny and new." Is Coke Zero better than the original formula? . . . not for me.

In London, all that glitters was still gold.