Christie’s Postwar and Contemporary Sale Fetches $130 Million But Misses Target, as a Major Bacon Bellyflops
It was up to Jean-Michel Basquiat's 'Red Skull' to save the day.
A hush fell over a packed Christie’s salesroom tonight at its evening postwar and contemporary sale as its star lot of Frieze Week, Francis Bacon’s Study of Red Pope (1962), failed to elicit a bid. It had been estimated to fetch as much as £60 million. “People were in the room who had expressed interest,” said department head Francis Outred afterwards, “but none of them wanted to break the ice.” He added, hopefully, “I am sure we can still sell it.”
The would–be bidders might have been calculating the significance of the potential sale. The highest price for a single canvas by Bacon was the £42.4 million paid in 2014 for the 1966 Portrait of George Dyer Talking. Had they bid, they would have broken new ground for a single Bacon canvas at auction. But they didn’t.
Instead, the lot of the evening was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s powerful Red Skull (1982), which sold to art advisor Abigail Asher, within estimate, for £16.5 million.
The failure of the Bacon, and of second-rate paintings and sculptures by Peter Doig, Jenny Saville, and Damien Hirst in the £1 million to £3 million range, left Christie’s well short of its £139-million pound minimum target (excluding buyer’s premium) for the evening. Still, the sale brought a nonetheless impressive £99.5 million ($130.1 million), making it Christie’s second highest total for a contemporary art sale in Europe, and the highest ever for Frieze Week.
In pulling this off, they were fortunate to have not one but two Bacon “Pope” paintings that had not been seen in public for 50 years. The smaller of these was the only painting in the recently published Bacon catalogue raisonné whose whereabouts was unknown. This painting, Head With Raised Arm (1955), was estimated at a more reasonable £7 million. It drew competition from dealers Thomas Gibson and Nick MacLean, falling to the latter for £11.5 million ($15.1 million).
British art is always a strong suit at these sales and here there was a string of records for British artists, starting with the opening lot, a 2003 decorated ceramic pot by the satirical potter Grayson Perry, otherwise known as Claire. Saint Claire 37 Wanks Across Northern Spain was pursued by London dealer Robin Katz before selling to Micky Tiroche for £200,000, double its estimate.
Staying with Britain, Antony Gormley’s 28-foot cast iron A Case for an Angel 1 (1989), a smaller variant of his massive Angel of the North sculpture in Gateshead, sold near the low estimate for £5.3 million ($6.2 million) to a telephone bid. On the other end of the line was Japanese collector and private museum owner Yusaku Maezawa, who immediately Instagrammed news of the purchase.
The rush for paintings by Turner Prize nominee Hurvin Anderson continued with the bidding around his large 2008 painting Country Club, Chicken Wire. It had been bought from Thomas Dane when prices were around £25,000, but now sold for £2.6 million ($3.5 million). Estimated at £700,000, it was bought by Kadee Robbins of the Michael Werner gallery in New York, which represents the artist there. I suspect the ultimate purchaser was young Greek shipping heir Nicholas Goulandris, who was sitting next to Robbins, and left shortly afterwards.
A ravishing small panel by Howard Hodgkin, Goodbye to the Bay of Naples (1980-82), was pursued by former Sotheby’s Impressionist ace Melanie Clore, but sold on a record phone bid of £1.7 million ($2.2 million).
Several American artists set new auction records. David Salle saw his Mingus in Mexico (1990) sell to dealer Per Skarstedt for an above-estimate £608,750. Amy Sillman’s 2005 painting New Land was chased by her London dealer, Thomas Dane, before selling for a triple-estimate £440,750.
Other buyers at the sale included dealer Ben Brown, who picked up a 1961 Antoni Tàpies relief for £137,500, and George Economou collection curator Skarlet Smatana, who bought Jenny Saville’s mid-facial-surgery portrait Cindy for £608,750. The painting was previously bought by Graham Southern for a Scandinavian collector in 2001 for $171,000.
White Cube gallery went above estimate, to £2 million, for the 2012 Anselm Kiefer Let a thousand flowers bloom, and dealer Danny Katz won a tussle for Frank Auerbach’s idiosyncratic homage After Rubens ‘Samson and Delilah’ (1993), for £3.7 million.
As at Sotheby’s the previous night, there was much less Asian bidding, particularly at the higher level, than expected. In the mid-to-lower levels there was Asian bidding for works by Baselitz, Halley, Ghenie, Oehlen, and Tàpies—but it was tentative.
Having skipped last June’s contemporary sales in the belief consignors would prefer to sell contemporary art during Frieze week, Christie’s was going for a giant-sized £203.5 million minimum for the week—more than double the amount they took this time last year (£72.5 million). Now that target looks remote.
Nevertheless, Francis Outred believes Christie’s calendar strategy is correct. “I am happy with two major sales a year in London (March and October),” he said. “With three sales, we would be struggling to get great material in.”
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