Christie’s London Tallies $84 Million on Contemporary Art, Bolstering the Middle Market

Even a middling sale may reassure the markets.

Peter Doig, The Architect's Home in the Ravine (1991). Estimate £10,000,000-15,000,000.
Photo: Courtesy: Courtesy Christie's.

Christie’s London held a middling £58 million ($84.3 million) postwar and contemporary art sale Thursday night, with new auction records set for Joseph Beuys and Robert Mangold. The sale came after a series of London auctions which were only hitting low estimates, and on a day in which Sotheby’s share price fell by more than 17 percent.

Christie’s sought to keep things afloat with a 61-lot sale that was estimated to fetch £50 to £74 million ($72.4-$107 million), considerably less than the estimate for last February’s sale of the same material, £93 to £133 million ($134.6-$192.5 million). The results were certainly the most favorable of all the evening sales this week, with 54 lots finding buyers. Forty hammered within or above estimate. (Estimates do not include the house’s fees; sale prices do.) The sale was, however, marred by an overpriced Yves Klein body painting, estimated at £8-£14 million ($11.6-$20.3 million), which attracted no bids.

“This sale was more about the strength of the middle market,” said Lock Kresler, a director of the Dominique Lévy gallery in London, previously head of private sales for postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s London.

The sale was given a surefire start with three works by Alexander Calder from the Arthur and Anita Kahn collection. The Kahns’ collection of Calders has been soaring over attractively set estimates at auctions in New York, and these duly did the same. The highest price was achieved by a sizeable standing mobile, Crag with Yellow Boomerang and Red Eggplant (1974), which sold for £1.9 million pounds ($2.7 million), about double the high estimate, to a phone bidder who staved off competition from Ezra Nahmad, who was in the room.

Related: Early Lucian Freud Painting Leads Sotheby’s $100 Million Contemporary Art Evening Sale

A group of Minimalist works from the collection of Belgian architect Marc Corbiau and his wife Frederique, whose sellers had all been guaranteed a certain price, exceeded estimates and reached a total of £5.8 million ($8.4 million). A white Lucio Fontana canvas with five slashes, Concetto Spaziale, Attese (1964), fetched £1.8 million ($2.6 million); Corbiau had bought it for less than a tenth of that amount in 1990. A new auction record was set for the slightly overlooked American minimalist artist Robert Mangold when a 1973 shaped green canvas attracted multiple bidders before selling for £746,500 ($1 million).

British artists claimed seven of the top ten prices. Peter Doig’s The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (1991) has come to auction more than once, the last time at Christie’s London in 2013, when it sold for £7.7 million ($11.9 million). It sold Thursday night to an Asian telephone bidder for £11.3 million ($16.4 million).

Francis Bacon, Two Figures (1975). Estimate £5,000,000 - 7,000,000.<br>Photo: Courtesy: Courtesy Christie's.

Francis Bacon, Two Figures (1975).
Photo: Courtesy Christie’s.

Francis Bacon’s starkly vertical canvas Two Figures (1975), from the collection of the artist’s biographer, Michael Peppiatt, was bound to be tricky. A gift to the author and kept in secret for forty years, it was originally part of a larger painting which Bacon cut down, very precisely, and added to in order to form a more focused composition of two lovers (Bacon and George Dyer). Because of this, and the unusual format, bidders showed a certain reticence, but Christie’s found two contestants, and sold it to an Asian buyer in the room for £5.5 million ($7.9 million), just below the low estimate.

Lucian Freud, Head of Esther (1982-1983). Estimate £2,500,000-3,500,000.Photo: Courtesy: Courtesy Christie's.

Lucian Freud, Head of Esther (1982-1983). 
Photo: Courtesy: Courtesy Christie’s.

There were no such concerns over two small Lucian Freud portraits of his daughters, Esther and Ib. Both sold to the same telephone bidder, Esther fetching the higher price of £4.8 million ($6.9 million), exceeding the presale estimate.

David Hockney,Beach Umbrella (1971). Estimate £1,000,000-1,500,000.Photo: Courtesy: Courtesy Christie's.

David Hockney, Beach Umbrella (1971).
Photo: Courtesy: Courtesy Christie’s.

The surprise, though not to Christie’s Francis Outred, was the performance of David Hockney’s paintings from the Miles and Shirley Fiterman collection. A simmering Beach Umbrella, from 1971, sold to a staffer from the Gagosian Gallery, who was competing against New York dealer Nicholas Maclean, for £3.1 million ($4.5 million), double the high estimate.

“Hockney is totally underrated in the marketplace,” Outred said after the sale. “This price will look cheap before too long.”

Related: Phillips’s Encouraging $35 Million Contemporary Art Evening Sale Is Not Without Its Bumps

Maclean went on to buy an Andy Warhol portrait of Man Ray at the high estimate for £362,500 (about $526,000), and a small shiny acrylic from 1957 by Zero Group artist Heinz Mack, below estimate for £74,500 ($108,000). Also from a small number of works by Zero Group artists was a white painting bristling with nails by Günther Uecker, selling to a phone bidder at a mid-estimate £302,500 (about $439,000).

Healthy returns for underrated middle-market artists were a theme in the sale. Apart from Hockney and Mangold, there was Joseph Beuys, who stands out as one of the most influential and important but commercially neglected artists of the late 20th century. Here, a rare blackboard work (most are in museums) from a performance at Documenta 5 (1972), curated by Harald Szeemann, generated a storm of bidding. Paris and Salzburg dealer Thaddaeus Ropac got knocked out of the competition after he bid a mid-estimate £350,000 ($506,000) and a telephone bidder came back with a £500,000 ($723,000) bid. It eventually sold for a record £854,500 ($1.2 million).

A number of works were coming back to auction after having come to the block in the last five to eight years, and showed no appreciation; these included works by Gilbert & George, Damien Hirst, Neo Rauch, Enrico Castellani, and Salvatore Scarpitta. Healthier returns came for the ever-popular Yayoi Kusama, whose red polka-dotted 1967 canvas Accretions 1, which the seller bought in 1998 for $19,500, sold for £662,500 ($961,228). Dealer Neal Meltzer paid $1.1 million for Luc Tuymans’ ghostly Mrs at Christie’s New York in November 2006; it sold Thursday for £1.5 million ($2.2 million) to London dealer Harry Blain.

Risky young artists were not in evidence, unless they had a sure market. Wimbledon M, a 2013 painting of a tennis court by Jonas Wood, sold to Stefan Ratibor, representing his dealer, Gagosian, for £146,500 ($213,000), about the low estimate.

Also bidding in the room was art advisor Patricia Marshall, who claimed a 1990 abstract by Günther Förg, which sold above its estimate for £422,500 ($613,000), and White Cube’s Jay Jopling, who was outbid on a colorful Beatriz Milhazes, Sampa, which sold above estimate for £782,500 ($1.1 million), and on a tall sculpture by one of his star artists, Antony Gormley, which also sold above estimate for £458,500 ($665,000). Both artists were donating their work to support the publicly funded South London Gallery, which has helped launch many an artist’s career.

Although the sale total was comparatively small, the high sell-through rate and the depth of bidding may help to restore confidence in the market, which had looked shaky at the beginning of the week.

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