Christie’s London Contemporary Art Sale Soars Over Estimates to $42.5 Million Thanks to Ghenie, Schütte
The sale set auction records for six artists.
After the success of its Wednesday night sale of the collection of dealer Leslie Waddington, Christie’s London headed into its postwar and contemporary art sale Thursday evening with a £21.8 million ($27.1 million) high estimate for 41 lots, the lowest estimate for an equivalent Frieze week sale since 2009. But any sense of foreboding was swept away as all but four lots sold for a total of £34.3 million ($42.5 million). (The same sale last year totaled £35.6 million, or $55 million, against a high estimate of £42.6 million.) Records were set over the course of the evening for Adrian Ghenie, Imi Knoebel, Gerald Laing, Lucy McKenzie, Albert Oehlen, and Henry Taylor.
In spite of the low estimate, some big prices were expected. Ghenie’s large, somewhat lugubrious 2008 painting Nickelodeon carried the highest estimate yet for the Romanian artist at £1-1.5 million ($1.2-$1.9 million), after his canvas Sunflowers soared above a £400,000 estimate (about $500,000) to fetch a record £3.1 million ($3.9 million) from an Asian buyer at Sotheby’s London in February. The Christie’s painting was also one of only two guaranteed lots, and the third party guarantor will be partying tonight after fistfuls of bidders from four continents went for it, raising the artist’s record to £7.1 million ($9 million) before the canvas went to an anonymous European phone bidder.
The other guaranteed lot was Gerald Laing’s larger-than-life bikini-clad girl, Beach Wear (1964), painted when the artist was working in America and part of the new Pop art movement. The painting was shown by Richard Feigen in New York that year and sold for $750 to a US collector who has owned it, though never publicly exhibited it, ever since. It was to be shown at the current Laing retrospective at the Fine Art Society, but Christie’s came up with a guarantor.
Having been something of a sidelined artist during his lifetime, Laing’s Pop art of the ‘60s has taken off since he died in 2011. Last year, a 1965 painting of another bikini-clad girl, Commemoration, sold for a record £1.2 million ($1.5 million) against a £450,000 estimate, and Beach Wear carried an even higher estimate of up to £1.5 million. In the event, bidding was tepid and it sold for £1.6 million (just shy of $2 million) to a US phone bidder, which was all the same enough to edge by the artist’s previous auction record for a new high.
The highest estimate of the sale was for Thomas Schütte’s sensuous bronze, Bronzefrau Nr.13, at up to £1.8 million ($2.2 million) after a similar work from the 2003 series sold last year for £1.3 million ($1.6 million). Tonight’s example left that far behind as it sold to Los Angeles dealer Stefan Simchowitz for £3.7 million ($4.8 million).
Also selling to Simchowitz was another of the top lots, Jean Dubuffet’s classic Art Brut painting The Rural Life (1949). Acquired by a New York collector in 2001 for £531,500 (about $659,000) and with the Dubuffet market back on a roll now, it was estimated to fetch £1 million ($1.2 million). Several bidders went for it, including the Nahmad family, driving it to more than twice that amount, £2.6 million ($3.3 million).
Another top estimate was for a Cy Twombly calligraphic work on paper, Untitled (1972), which had sold at Christie’s in 2014 to a Chinese phone buyer for £2.3 million ($2.8 million). Apparently the drawing was never paid for, as the painting returned to the market Thursday; the sale catalogue indicated that Christie’s now owned the painting. Facing a potential loss with a reduced estimate of up to £1.5 million ($1.9 million), Christie’s made a profit as the drawing sold for £2.6 million ($3.3 million).
The sale started with two works from the collection of advertising magnate Charles Saatchi that made record prices. Olga Korbut, Lucy McKenzie’s dynamic 1998 painting of the Russian gymnast, bore a high estimate of £30,000 (about $37,000), based on her having seen only a handful of previous auction sales. But the image was so powerful that it attracted at least six bidders before it sold for an astonishing £317,000 ($402,273). This was followed by a double-estimate £137,000 ($173,853) for a large, colorful painting, Walking with Vito (2008), by American artist Henry Taylor, currently showing with Los Angeles and New York gallery Blum & Poe.
The sale included a group of paintings from the Cranford Collection, a private collection in London belonging to troubled property magnate Freddy Salem and his wife Muriel, who were advised by the art critic Andrew Renton (until he went to run Marlborough Contemporary). Of these, two triangular Damien Hirst butterfly and dead fly paintings sold to Simchowitz, both above estimate, for £665,000 (about $845,000) and £445,000 (about $615,000) respectively, while Glenn Brown’s The Creeping Flesh, based on a painting by Frank Auerbach, bought from the Saatchi collection in 2001 for £22,350, sold to an Asian buyer below estimate for £269,000 ($341,361).
Asian buyers were a significant force Thursday, also accounting for sales of works by Oscar Murillo and David Hockney, among others.
It was also notable that strong prices were recorded for German artists at the sale. Apart from the Schütte, a Günther Förg painting that been unsold 12 years ago with a £10,000 estimate sold for £341,000 ($432,729), and records were set for Imi Knoebel (£365,000, or $463,185) and Albert Oehlen (£1.3 million, or $1.7 million).
As Brett Gorvy of Christie’s said after the sale, “There may have been a shortage of material, but demand is outstripping supply. Prices are not coming down.”
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