Christie’s Jumps Back Into the London Summer Postwar Evening Auction Calendar With a Steady $57 Million Sale

The auction house is trying to find its way after dropping the sale from its calendar the past two seasons.

At $11.1 million, a work by Jean Dubuffet was the top lot of the night at Christie's London Post-War and Contemporary evening auction in June. Image courtesy of Christie's.

After a tough Impressionist and Modern art sale last week, Christie’s had to face up to the consequences of having virtually pulled out of the contemporary art auction program in London over the last two summers.

Several years ago, when the decision was made to drop the June evening sales, the auction house reasoned that, with those sales faltering, it was better to downsize and concentrate on putting on a truly stellar auction during Frieze week in October.

But while October sales strengthened, Christie’s may have given Sotheby’s a gift, allowing it to benefit from the lack of competitive business-getting in the summer.

Now Christie’s is back at the table, but picking up the pace again seems to have proven tricky. Estimates for this evening sale, £36.5 million to £52.8 million ($46.3 million to $67 million) amounted to less than half of the June 2015 estimate, and nearly one third of June 2014’s. In essence, the expected sale total for tonight was comparable to that of the auction house’s weak June 2016 evening sale, which was what led it to drop the summer evenings auctions in the first place.

Rose Wylie, <i>Black Stork</i> (2012). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Rose Wylie, Black Stork (2012). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Given this somewhat uneven background, this evening’s sale performed strongly, realizing £45.2 million ($57.3 million) with only two lots unsold and five records broken. (The final sales totals include the buyer’s premium; estimates do not.)

As is the norm, the front of the sale was stacked with works by artists—noticeably female in this case—whose prices are on the up. Included in the sale were pictures by the 29-year-old Tschabalala Self (it is the second time her work has been at auction), the 44-year-old Dana Schutz (whose work carried a record-high pre-sale estimate of £300,000 to £400,000), and the 85-year-old Rose Wylie.

Tschabalala Self, <i>Out of Body</i> (2015). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Tschabalala Self, Out of Body (2015). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

But one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and this evening’s Wylie—a rather monochromatic, 11-foot painting, Black Stork (2012)—went unsold. Even the powerful David Zwirner gallery, which now represents the British artist, did not step in to save it.

The Americans were in a different league. The Schutz work didn’t make a record, but it hit the middle of its estimate at £467,250 ($593,000), selling to what appeared to be an Asian bidder in the room (33% of registered bidders were Asian, according to Christie’s).

Dana Schutz, <i>Home Birth</i> (2016). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Dana Schutz, Home Birth (2016). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

But people went crazy for the picture by Tschabalala Self. The artist is currently showing at MoMA PS1 and is lined up with solo exhibitions at the ICA Boston and the Baltimore Museum of Art next year. Her London dealer, Pilar Corrias, says that after her first auction appearance at Phillips, collectors were lining up to sell and make profits.

Tonight, her six-foot fabric collage, Out of Body (2015), estimated at £40,000 to £60,000, attracted multiple bidders, including Corrias, who bid into six figures before it sold to the speculative collector Jose Mugrabi for £371,250 ($471,000). “Very nice to see you sir,” quipped auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen.

Mugrabi, the biggest buyer of Warhol and Basquiat until recently, had not been seen in a London auction room for a few years. But he made up for it this evening by also buying a subpar 1954 Francis Bacon, which only left his studio after he died, and for which Mugrabi was probably the guarantor, as he bought it under estimate for £5.1 million ($6.5 million). He also bought a six-foot wide KAWS painting within estimate for £1.8 million ($2.3 million), and a 14-inch Warhol Flowers work from 1964, also within estimate for £671,250 ($852,000).

Gerhard Richter, <i>Musa</i> (2013). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Gerhard Richter, Musa (2013). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Just outspending Mugrabi was dealer Daniella Luxembourg. Sitting in the front row, she paid a record £1 million ($1.3 million) for a rich, abstract tapestry by Gerhard Richter, and then bought the top lot of the sale: a tumultuous, large 1961 painting titled Ceremony by Jean Dubuffet from his “Paris Circus” series.

The work was perhaps not quite as effective as his other “Paris Circus” pictures (one of them sold for nearly $24 million in New York at Christie’s in 2016), and it was unsold the last time it came up for auction in 2003. But the Dubuffet market has been re-energized lately, and this one sold to Luxembourg for a mid-estimate £8.7 million ($11 million).

Jean Dubuffet, <i>Ceremonie</i> (1961). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Jean Dubuffet, Ceremonie (1961). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Another strong bidder picking up consecutive lots was London dealer Richard Nagy, who paid a mid-estimate £2 million ($2.5 million) for Diagonal Portrait (2013) by George Condo, and an above estimate £1.6 million ($2 million) for Cecily Brown’s Blonde Eating Birds (2011–12).

Two fairly neglected British pop artists were also on the block. Gerald Laing’s work broke into the big leagues in October 2016, when a ben-day dot painting by the artist of a bikini girl sold for £1.6 million ($2 million). Tonight’s offering, a 1964 painting of a skydiver, had been in the collection of the family of American publisher Harry Abrams since it was painted, and sold near the high estimate for £587,250 ($745,000).

Jonas Burgert, Suchtpuls/Addicted to Pulse (2011). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Jonas Burgert, Suchtpuls/Addicted to Pulse (2011). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

The price was unimaginable for Laing five years ago and was underbid by London dealer Hugh Gibson, whose gallery is currently hosting an exhibition of British pop art by Peter Blake, David Hockney, R. B. Kitaj, and the like.

Before tonight, Laing’s contemporary, Derek Boshier (who is still going strong in his 80s), had never seen a work of his go to an evening auction. He will no doubt welcome the news that a 1963 painting of his titled Man Versus Look, Versus Life, Versus Time, Versus Man About sold for £237,500 ($302,000) to Hugues Joffre (a director at Phillips, but bidding for a private collector). The previous auction record for a work by the artist was £12,500 ($16,000).

KAWS, <i>NYT (COMPANION CLOSE UP) Brown</i> (2013). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

KAWS, NYT (COMPANION CLOSE UP) Brown (2013). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

A record was also set for a work by Jonas Burgert, a 50 year-old German painter of apocalyptic visions. An almost 22 foot wide painting, Suchtpuls/Addicted to Pulse (2011), bought from Blain Southern’s Berlin exhibition in 2012, was his biggest yet to hit the block. Most often, size counts, and in this case it did: the painting sold to an Asian buyer for a new record, £419,250 ($532,000). (The previous record for the artist was £150,000 [$190,000] for a significantly smaller painting.)

Later in the sale, a Mona Lisa by Banksy went for £731,250 ($927,000)—within estimate, but four times the price it made in 2008. A small black-and-white work titled Seated Model IV from 1963 by Frank Auerbach also proved a strong investment. It last sold for £457,250 ($580,000) in 2012, and tonight went for £911,250 ($1.2 million).

So much for the highs. One reason for low-level consignments in London this season is lingering uncertainty about Brexit. A number of works also sold well below estimate, indicating pre-sale uncertainty and the lowering of reserve prices.

Francis Bacon, <i>Man at a Washbasin</i> (ca. 1954). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Francis Bacon, Man at a Washbasin (ca. 1954). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

A Sean Scully, despite an unprecedented number of exhibitions by the artist globally this year, sold on a £750,000 ($950,000) bid against a £1 million low estimate. Bona Montagu of the Per Skarstedt gallery, which has been working with David Salle’s secondary market, met no competition when buying a 1993 work below estimate for £225,000 ($285,000). A 1966 black painting by Pierre Soulages with a £1 million estimate was snapped up with a £850,000 bid ($1.1 million), and a shaped glitter Concetto Spaziale by Fontana struggled to find a bid at £400,000 ($507,000) when the estimate was £700,000. Pylkkanen kept tempting the Nahmad family in the front row with what seemed like a bargain, but they let an anonymous phone bidder have it.

All said though, Christie’s will be happy with this low level but fairly buoyant sale, which puts them back in the running for the June stakes in London.

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