Mario Testino’s Record-Breaking Sotheby’s Sale Proves the Photographer Has an Eye for Art

Fashion-savvy bidders in the room were often outgunned by telephone-wielding counterparts in the US.

Ugo Rondinone, dreizehnterseptemberzweitausendundnull (2000). Courtesy of Sotheby's London.

On Wednesday afternoon in London, Sotheby’s commenced its sale of some 320 lots from fashion photographer Mario Testino’s vast collection—apparently, only a fraction of his total holdings. Predictably, the auction house had hosted some fashion-driven private parties to build interest in the sale, luring starry appearances by the likes of Burberry CEO Christopher Bailey, the model Erin O’Connor, and designer Charlotte Dellal. Certainly, the crowd at the auction looked more fashion-savvy than usual as well, but there was also a small core of art-market cognoscenti familiar with the prices of the various artists in Testino’s cannily assembled collection.

Driven by strong American telephone bidding, the result was a very positive £6.3 million ($8.33 million), including commission charges, that came in above the £5.8 million high estimate of the sale (and that’s without the charges after two lots were withdrawn). Just four of the evening’s 39 lots were left unsold. The auction also included a day sale of lower-priced works and an online sale, which closes on Friday.

Tomma Abts ZAARKE 2000. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Tomma Abts, Zaarke (2000). Courtesy of Sotheby’s London.

The evening got off to an electric start with Zaarke (2000), the first oil painting by the highly regarded abstract artist Tomma Abts to ever come to auction. Bought from London’s Greengrassi Gallery in 2004—before the artist was nominated for the Turner Prize, and when prices would have been under £10,000—the work saw spirited bidding far above the £35,000 high estimate from London private dealer, Dino Zevi, before selling to an online bidder for a record £118,750 ($159,130). (Final sales prices reported by the auction house include the house’s premium; presale estimates do not.)

The second lot, an abstract painting by Jacqueline Humphreys titled Pile (2004), was bought from Stuart Shave’s Modern Art in 2004. It also saw strong, above-estimate bidding in the room, this time from Morgan Long of the Fine Art Fund investment group, before hammering down for a record £193,750 ($259,633) to a phone bidder.

Jacqueline Humphries, PILE 2008. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Jacqueline Humphries, Pile, (2008). Courtesy of Sotheby’s London.

The longest bidding contest of the sale took place over Michael Borremans’s darkly enigmatic painting Two (2004), depicting what appear to be two women at prayer. Art advisor Rosario Nadal escalated the bidding with a double-high estimate bid of £600,000 before being outgunned by a telephone bidder who paid £872,750 ($1,169,524) including commission—the top price of the sale.

The loudest applause of the afternoon came when Diane Delphine de Pury, the six-year-old daughter of auction veterans Simon and Michaela de Pury, waived the paddle for a winning bid, paying a top-estimate £187,500 ($251,258) for Ugo Rondinone’s circular target painting, dreizehnterseptemberzweitausendundnull (2000). Auctioneer Oliver Barker congratulated the child, who was sitting with her mother, on her “assertive bidding,” quipping, “I wonder where you learned that from?”

Michaël Borremans, TWO 2004. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Michaël Borremans, Two 2004. Courtesy of Sotheby’s London.

Testino’s first art acquisition was in 1991, when he had made just enough money to buy a photograph of the actress Vivien Leigh by Angus McBean. The photograph wasn’t in the auction, but another photograph of the actress, Blind Vivien, was. Doctored by the contemporary artist Douglas Gordon to blank out the eyes, the work was one of several lots to sell below estimate at £8,125 ($10,887) (est. £15,000-20,000), proving that even the appeal of celebrity provenance can have its limits.

One of Testino’s landmark acquisitions was Richard Prince’s Untitled (Girlfriend), an appropriated pinup photograph from 1993. For obvious reasons, Testino has taken an interest in contemporary art photography, and was introduced to the concept of appropriation by the dealer Sadie Coles, who ran Prince’s main gallery in London. Estimated at £250,000-350,000, the work had been bought from Coles in 2000 for about $30,000 (£22,400).

Richard Prince's Untitled (Girlfriend) (1993). Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

Richard Prince’s Untitled (Girlfriend) (1993). Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

It was hotly contested by a private bidder in the room before selling over the phone for £455,000 ($609,720). If the number was a big markup for Testino, it was an even bigger boon for the MATE-Museo Mario Testino in the photographer’s home town of Lima, Peru, where the proceeds of the sale will go (minus auctioneer’s commission).

The day sale of lower-priced works saw the room attendance thin down to a trickle. Here, normal market conditions prevailed. In spite of another nine record prices—notably for German artist Lukas Duwenhogger’s screen, Slowly Please, Keelaynak (2002), which sold for £137,500 ($184,256) against a £12,000 estimate—many lots sold below estimate, and a third of the lots went unsold.

The total of £2.4 million ($3.2 million) including premium was slightly disappointing compared to the low pre-sale estimate without premium of £2.65 million. But the overall result of the two sales—£8.7 million ($11.6 million) against a £6.4/9.6 million estimate—will give Sotheby’s enough encouragement to continue the tradition of mid-September personality sales that began in 2008 with the famous Damien Hirst solo auction, “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever.”

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