Cy Twombly’s $30 Million New York City Wins at Christie’s London $178 Million Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Gerhard Richter and Paolo Scheggi also surge ahead.

View Slideshow
Lot 26, Cy Twombly, Untitled (New York City) (1970). 
Christie's Images Ltd. 2015.
Lot 8, Gerhard Richter, Vierwaldstätter See (Lake Lucerne) (1969). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2015.
Lot 8, Gerhard Richter, Vierwaldstätter See (Lake Lucerne) (1969). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2015.
Lot 34, Paolo Scheggi, Intersuperficie curva bianca (1967). 
Christie's Images Ltd. 2015.
Lot 24, Tracey Emin, Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made (1996), installation view.
Christie's Images Ltd. 2015.
Lot 3, Theaster Gates, For Race Riots and Salon Gatherings (2011).
Christie's Images Ltd. 2015.
Lot 2, Oscar Murillo, Untitled (2011) sold for $332,776. 
Christie's Images Ltd. 2015.
Lot 20, Howard Hodgkin, In the Green Room (1984–1986). 
Christie's Images Ltd. 2015.
Lot 17, Francis Bacon, Study for a Head (1955).
Christie's Images Ltd. 2015.
Lot 21, Damien Hirst, Lullaby Winter (2002). 
Christie's Images Ltd. 2015.

Christie’s London staged a really solid sale this evening that realized £117 million ($178 million) against a presale estimate of £93–132 million and achieved all but five of 62 lots selling. These figures hide what was actually a fairly see-saw event, as 25 lots went for hammer prices above their estimate, three of them for record prices. Twenty lots struggled, selling for hammer prices on or below the low estimates, including five of the top 10 lots. (Estimates do not include buyer’s premium, whereas sale prices given here do.) So, while the sale was the third highest for Christie’s contemporary in London (the previous high was £133 million in June 2012), it wasn’t entirely smooth sailing.

In a similar pattern to Sotheby’s, there was a trio of works by Bacon, Richter, and Twombly leading the pack. After Richter’s astonishing new record price set at Sotheby’s last night (see Gerhard Richter Nets $46.3 Million at Sotheby’s London Contemporary Art Evening Auction As Part of $188.2 Million Total), Christie’s was offering four more paintings. Expectations were that a 1969 photo painting of Lake Lucerne that had been bought from the artist in 1973, had not been exhibited since then, had no guarantee, and had an estimate of £10 million, might be the star this time. Sure enough three phone bidders raised the price slowly to £15.8 million ($24 million).

The other Richters did less well. While one small abstract squeezed into the estimate range and sold for £1.3 million, another that had sold for a triple estimate $6.3 million in 2011, did not reach its £3.5 million ($5.3 million) low estimate and was bought in. The fourth, a six-and-a-half-foot square abstract from 1994, Karmin (Carmine), sold just below its estimate for £9.6 million ($14.6) to art adviser Jude Hess. So the message, as at Sotheby’s, is that the Richter market is hot at the top and cool down below.

There was a similar pattern with the Twombly market. Untitled (New York City) (1970) is one of Twombly’s so-called Blackboard paintings and was being sold by Hollywood film producer Stavros Merjos, who bought it in 2012 for a record $17.4 million. Since then, another larger, perhaps more classically looped Blackboard painting sold for $69.6 million (£48 million) last November. Tonight’s painting came in with a guarantee from Christie’s and a £15 million ($22.5 million) estimate, which is where the bidding began. After the opening bidder dropped out, two bidders from different parts of Asia played cat and mouse until it sold to a Chinese speaking bidder for £19.7 million ($30 million), the top lot of the sale. The sale in London reached parts of the world that had not been reached at the previous sale in New York, said Francis Outred of Christie’s, explaining the rise in price over two and half years. However, two other Twomblys sold either on or below estimates and another was unsold. Cooler lower down, again.

The other top prices for American art were £4.4 million pounds given by Jose Mugrabi as the only bidder on a five-foot-square triple portrait, Three Delegates (1982), by Jean-Michel Basquiat that had an estimate of £5–7 million; and a 22-inch square Warhol Self-Portrait of 1966 that had sold in New York 18 months ago for $5.2 million and was back with a £2.5–3.5 million ($4–6 million) estimate to sell to dealer Amalia Dayan for £3.7 million ($5.6 million).

Like Sotheby’s, Christie’s had a Francis Bacon which struggled to take off. The artist’s medium-size Study for a Head from his dark period in the 1950s was up at auction for the first time with a £9 million estimate, but there were only two bids; one in the room was representing a French collector, and then it sold to a phone bidder for £10 million ($15.3 million) including the premium. The best result for a British artist was a richly colored painting from the mid-1980s by Howard Hodgkin that was pursued by several bidders, including London dealer James Holland Hibbert, over its £550,000 low estimate before it sold to a phone bidder for a record £1.2 million ($1.8 million).

As usual at Christie’s, there was a good representation of work by the YBAs (Young British Artists) generation. The leading YBA, Damien Hirst, is being closely watched to see if his market is coming back after the downturn of 2008/2009. So the return to auction of Lullaby Winter, a nine-foot-wide cabinet full of painted pills with an estimate of £2.5–4 million ($3.8–6 million) after it sold at Christie’s in May 2007 to an Asian buyer for $7.4 million might have been a good indicator. Remember that a month later a companion piece, Lullaby Spring sold for a record £9.6 million pounds, or what is still a record in dollars, $19.2 million, reportedly to the Qatari royal family. However, it transpired that the Asian buyer of Lullaby Winter never paid for it, and so, much later, it became the property of Christie’s. This time they got it away for £3 million ($4.6 million), taking a bath in the process.

Also the property of Christie’s was Chris Ofili’s Afro Red Web (2002–2003), which had been unsold with a guarantee in 2011. Estimated then at £900,000–1.2 million (it is not known how much the guarantee was), it was reoffered with a £500,000–700,000 estimate and sold for £698,500 ($1.1 million).

Attracting slightly less attention than her bed was Tracey Emin’s installation Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made, consisting of nearly 100 paintings, drawings, and body prints that she made over a two-week period while locked in a room in a Stockholm gallery in 1996. The gallery sold the work in 2001, when Charles Saatchi outbid the Tate Gallery to buy it for £108,250. Now estimated at £600,000 to 900,000, it sold on the low estimate to a private collector for £722,500 ($1.1 million) including the premium.

The new(ish) American scene was covered with a six-part work by Theaster Gates in which the artist had framed a variety of fire hoses with found wooden moldings as a reference to the role the hoses played in subduing race riots during the ’60s. Entitled For Race Riots and Salon Gatherings (2011), it was the most significant work by this critically acclaimed artist to come to auction yet, but found only one bidder, bidding through Daniela Gareh of the White Cube gallery, who bought it below estimate for £242,500 ($369,328)—an auction record at least.

The most hotly contested lot of the evening was an intricate 1967 Intersuperficie curva bianca composed of three superimposed, recessed canvases by the recently revived Italian Spacialist artist Paolo Scheggi, who died aged only 31 in 1971. Scheggi’s prices have simply been rocketing upwards during the past two years, and this example, estimated at £250,000–350,000 attracted eight telephone bidders as well as dealers Nicolò Cardi and Ezra Nahmad in the room before it doubled the previous record for the artist, selling for £1.2 million ($1.8 million).

Italian postwar art is a major feature of the London market and is centered on the figure of Lucio Fontana. (See also New World Record for Lucio Fontana and Strong Sales in London for Italian Postwar Market.)

Four works by Fontana at this sale demonstrated the continued strength of demand for his work. A white canvas with three vertical cuts that had sold in 1996 for £78,000 sold to dealer Ezra Nahmad above estimate for £2 million ($3.1 million). A red canvas with a single cut sold to his brother, David Nahmad, above estimate for £1.8 million ($2.7 million). A fiery red and gold glazed ceramic with a £50,000–70,000 estimate attracted multiple bids from dealers Natalie Seroussi, Lock Kressler of the Dominique Lévy gallery, and others before selling to Daniella Luxembourg for £290,500 ($442,432). Meanwhile, a gold and yellow cut canvas bought by Belgian collector Pierre Salik in 2008 for £850,000 sold to Lebanese businessman Samir Traboulsi for £2.4 million ($3.6 million).

After the sale Christie’s calculated that 327 bidders from 40 countries had registered for the 62-lot sale, which is a measure of how this market is being driven, though at this sale there were moments where they might have wished the bidding to have been more evenly distributed.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
  • Access the data behind the headlines with the artnet Price Database.