In a Market Lacking Overall Confidence, Christie’s London Puts Together a Solid $79.6 Million Contemporary Sale

The biggest successes of the night came from works by rising talents.

Thomas Bayrle, Tassenfrau (Milchkaffee) (Cup Woman (Milk Coffee)) (1967). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Christie’s brought up the rear of London’s Frieze week auctions this evening with a lengthy, two-and-a-half hour evening sale of 47 lots of postwar and contemporary art estimated at £52.6 million to £74.1 million ($64.9 million to $91.4 million), immediately followed by 31 lots of Modern and contemporary Italian art estimated at £18.5 million to £27.3 million ($22.8 million to $33.7 million).

The pre-sale estimates reflected the problems Christie’s had with consignments this year: Combined estimates for Post-war and Italian evening sales were down 46 percent from October 2018. The Italian consignments were worst hit, with the estimated value of that sale down by 61 percent.

Remember: this is the value of the total consignments, not of individual works of art, so is an overall confidence issue.

Attending the sales, though, you would think such concerns did not exist. The postwar sale realized £64.5 million ($79.6 million), comfortably within estimate, and achieved eight world-record prices for artists, with only six lots unsold; the Italian sale realized £24.6 million ($30.4 million), again within estimate with only two lots unsold.

The evening began with classic Minimalism from the collection of Belgian couple Roger Matthys and Hilda Colle, bought in the early 1970s when the works were fresh out of studios. Like a lot of European collectors, this couple bought American—Robert Mangold, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin. The choice piece in the auction was a vintage, six-and-a-half-foot square copper and steel floor sculpture from 1969 by Andre that sold above estimate for a record £2.4 million ($2.97 million) to a US phone bidder.

This group was followed by a rare appearance at auction by the British Minimalist Bob Law, who burned himself out on alcohol and was not really rediscovered until after his death in 2004. A five-foot square, meditative pink-shaded monochrome from 1974 (somewhat misleadingly titled Watercolour V, when gesso is the actual medium) carried the highest estimate yet for the artist at £30,000 to £60,000 ($37,000 to $74,000). It sold for a record £81,250 ($100,200) to a German phone bidder, signaling that the market is beginning to catch on to this undervalued artist.

Bob Law, <i>Watercolour V</i> (1979). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Bob Law, Watercolour V (1979). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

The other historical rediscovery of the sale was the German artist Thomas Bayrle, now in his 80s, whose work, though celebrated at the New Museum in New York last year, has hardly ever been auctioned either in London or New York. Two years ago, his original Pop-art-meets-computer-technology work from the ’60s and ’70s suddenly leapt into six figures in Amsterdam, and Christie’s had another example sent to raise funds for the Museum Haus Konstruktiv Zurich. Cup Woman (Milk Coffee) (1967) consists of hundreds of tiny colored cups that make up a pixelated head-and-shoulders image of a woman. Carrying the highest estimate yet for Bayrle at £80,000 to £100,000 ($99,000 to $123,000), it sold to a Christie’s Cologne representative on the phone for a record £237,500 ($293,000).

The financial meat of this sale, though, revolved around three long-time market front-runners—though few, tellingly, made their estimated prices. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Four Big from 1982 was picked up by Acquavella Galleries for just under the estimate at £8.6 million ($10.6 million). A pale polka dotted ’60s painting of flowers by Sigmar Polke sold below estimate for £5.6 million ($6.9 million), and a large abstract picture by Gerhard Richter from the collection of the Unicredit Group, which is raising money to support social-impact banking, also went below estimate at £7 million ($8.6 million).

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (1984). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (1984). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

For a moment, things looked a little glum for the Richter market when a photo painting of a meadow also sold below estimate at £3.4 million ($4.2 million). But two other Richter paintings did manage to exceed estimates: a small abstract on paper from the Unicredit group sold to British art advisor Hugo Nathan for £1.1 million ($1.4 million), and US dealer Anthony Grant outgunned another ex-Sotheby’s staffer, Gaby Palmieri, to buy a blue photo painting of a bride and groom for £3.1 million ($3.8 million). Like the sale as a whole, a healthy balance eventually prevailed.

As usual in these sales, evidence of upward price movements was apparent. The sellers of a swirling action painting by Gutai group artist Kazuo Shiraga were looking for a three-fold increase on the work’s last auction price (€625,000 in Paris 10 years ago, or $686,200) and more than realized their ambitions when a telephone bidder sawed off competition from Aquavella Galleries to buy it for £2.5 million ($3.8 million).

A work by France’s most expensive living artist, Pierre Soulages, also demonstrated the healthy long-term prospects of his market. A buyer, now dead, bought a 1987 work by the artist for €50,000 ($54,900) in 1996; his heirs tonight saw that price increase to £2.8 million ($3.5 million). The top Soulages of the sale, a moody black and red abstract picture from 1960, saw competition between Belgium’s Vedovi Gallery and an Asian phone bidder before it sold at a mid-estimate £5.5 million ($6.8 million).

Tschabalala Self, Sapphire (2015). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

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

The real action of the sale came in the middle, when works by up-and-coming artists such as Tschabalala Self, Nathaniel Mary Quinn, and the self-taught outsider artist, Thornton Dial (who died in 2016) saw record estimates.

In a real purple patch for the auctioneer, Self’s Sapphire doubled its estimate to sell to a middle-aged couple in the room for a record £395,000 ($487,000). Quinn’s collage, Hosie Lady, didn’t quit hit the price he made at Phillips on Wednesday, but sold above estimate for £125,000 ($154,000) to a Christie’s client advisor in Asia, Wei-Ting Jud.

Meanwhile, Dial’s dense relief of barbie tolls and plastic toys, Trophies (Doll Factory) from 2000, which was being sold by the actress Jane Fonda (and was estimated at £160,000, or $197,300), sold for a record £225,000 ($278,000). (As the title suggests, it is a work about the exploitation of women. Fonda liked it because it reminded her of the female-empowering role she played in the film Barbarella.) Dial’s previous record was $106,250, set last November.

Loie Hollowell, Lady in Green (2014). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Loie Hollowell, Lady in Green (2014). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Wei-Ting was back in action buying Lady in Green, a graphic painting by Pace Gallery’s much-in-demand artist Loie Hollowell, for  £359,250 ($443,000)—doubling the record for the artist, set in New York in March. Christie’s said later that 37 percent of their bidders this evening were from Asia.

Also looking for a new high was British potter Grayson Perry. Diane and Marc Grainer, the American ceramics collectors, were selling a pair of three-foot pots called The Guardians (1998), which Perry describes as “the most literally autobiographical work I made at a time of personal psychological crisis,” six years after his daughter was born and as his cross-dressing female alter ego, Claire, was beginning to hatch. However, the pair was snapped up below estimate for £443,250 ($547,000), making it only the second top price for the artist. The buyer was the Soviet ceramics and photography collector Alex Lachmann.

The unexpected flop of the evening—and there weren’t too many of those—was a work by the 50-year-old photo Surrealist Tomoo Gokita. After a low-profile start at the auctions in Hong Kong 10 years ago, the Japanese artist’s prices have crept up to a quadruple estimate $1.1 million at Phillips New York in May.

At Christie’s this evening, Los Lobos (2018), an impressive eight-and-a-half foot painting of a muscular Mexican wrestling duo, painted in black and white, carried the artist’s highest yet estimate of £350,000 to £450,000 ($432,000 to $555,000), but no one took the bait and it failed to sell.

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