Pierre Soulages Breaks $4 Million Mark at Sotheby’s

France’s most expensive living painter blasts to the top.

Lot 29
Pierre Soulages
Peinture 125 x 202 cm, 30 October 1958 Estimate £2,000,000–3,000,000

It was swings and roundabouts at the contemporary sale tonight at Sotheby’s London.

The auctioneer faced an uphill task to compete both with a record £41.4 million Italian sale that immediately preceded it, about which more in the next bulletin, and Christie’s solid £40.3 million contemporary sale last night.

In total Sotheby’s took a tame £28.2 million ($45.2 million) including the buyer’s premium against a presale estimate of £25.1 million to £35.1 million excluding the buyer’s premium. The sell-through stats looked convincing with 52 or 88.1 percent of the 59 lots offered selling with a sold-by-value percentage of 85.8 percent. And prices for second or third division Warhols and Basquiats were strong enough. But the fire power among most of the other highest estimated lots just wasn’t there. Several dealers commented that the quality on offer was generally mediocre.

Martin Kippenberger, Ohne Titel (Meine Lügen Sind Ehrlich) (1992)

Lot 15: Martin Kippenberger, Ohne Titel (Meine Lügen sind ehrlich) (1992).
Photo: Courtesy Sotheby’s.

In contrast to Christie’s, there was only one Gerhard Richter in the top 10 estimated lots, Dschungelbild (Jungle Picture) (1971), one of his less sought-after finger paintings, and it was unsold with an ambitious £1.8 million to £2.5 million estimate. Like several other top lots, it had been at auction not too long ago—in October 2006, when it cost the consignor €575,000 ($724,455).

Also at auction relatively recently was Andy Warhol’s 2-foot-square Flowers (1964), which had been acquired at Christie’s New York in May 2007 for $2.2 million. Coming back with a soft £700,000 to £1 million estimate, it sold on the high estimate for £1.2 million ($1.9 million), generating a small loss for the seller. Apparently it had been damaged a long time ago and the canvas had been relined.

Lot 1 Israel Lund Untitled Estimate £80,000–120,000

Lot 1: Israel Lund, Untitled (2013).
Photo: Courtesy Sotheby’s

Supporting the Warhol market as ever, Jose Mugrabi bought a darkly glistening Diamond Dust Shoes (1980), well above estimate, for £1.3 million ($2.1 million). But the 1962 Warhol silkscreen painting Fragile Handle with Care was unsold. Estimated at £1.5 million to £2 million ($2.5 million to $3.3 million), it was only on the market last year where it sold for $2 million—another example of how a recent salesroom outing can weaken performance.

However, previous sale comparisons can also reveal how an artist’s reputation has grown. A horizontal abstract painting from 1958 by France’s most expensive living painter, Pierre Soulages, Peinture 125 × 202cm, 30 Octobre 1958 (1958), had been bought by an Asian collector in Taipei in June 2000 for $334,951. But such has been the reassessment process for the Frenchman that this now sold for £2.7 million ($4.3 million), to another Asian collector against a £2 million to £3 million estimate, a 3287 percent increase over the 14 year period.

Lot 7: Jia Aili, Untitled (2009) Photo: Courtesy Sotheby's

Lot 7: Jia Aili, Untitled (2009).
Photo: Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Asian bidding proved an important factor tonight. The night’s cover lot, Martin Kippenberger’s 1992 Ohne Titel (Meine Lügen sind ehrlich), was guaranteed with an estimate of £2.5 million to £3.5 million. Bought in November 2001 for $247,750, the painting sold to Indonesian billionaire Budi Tek’s Yuz Museum in Shanghai—below the £2.5 million to £3.5 million estimate for £2.3 million ($3.7 million), but registering an impressive 839 percent increase over the 13 years.

Less impressive was Damien Hirst’s Togetherness (2008), a beach ball with cows’ heads in formaldehyde, that was made for his infamous “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” one-man sale at Sotheby’s in 2008, when it cost £361,250. One of the few lots in that sale to sell below estimate (which was £500,000 to £700,000), it came back tonight with a vastly reduced estimate of £250,000 to £350,000 and sold for even less at £242,500.

Lot 8: Adrian Ghenie, Duchamp's Funeral I (2009) Photo: Courtesy Sotheby's

Lot 8: Adrian Ghenie, Duchamp’s Funeral I (2009).
Photo: Courtesy Sotheby’s.

US collector Adam Sender had a handful of works on offer, all under guarantee. The highest selling lot for Sender was an On Kawara date painting, MAR. 31, 1975 (1975), that sold above estimate to Jose Mugrabi for £242,500 ($388,897)­­­­. Sender bought it in June 2006 for £170,400, so cleared his costs. For Sarah Lucas’s burned chair and cigarette-emblazoned helmet sculpture, Is Suicide Genetic? (1996), Sotheby’s expected Sender to take no profit with a £50,000 to £70,000 estimate. It cost him $100,000 back in 2001. However, bidders saw it was undervalued, and it sold for £206,500 ($331,164).

Like all the other salesrooms, Sotheby’s gave ample space in its evening sale to younger artists, in honor of Frieze week. It obtained a record £110,500 ($177,200) for an eight-part Untitled abstract painting of 2013 by Israel Lund, which it had anticipated with a £80,000 to £120,000 estimate, and then trumped the record £206,500 given at Phillips on Wednesday for a sculpture by Danh Vō with a new record £314,500 for a six-foot-plus high gold leaf painting on cigarette cases, Numbers (9) (2011). Numerous bidders, including the French buyer of his work at Phillips, and the White Cube gallery itself, lifted it over the £100,000 to £150,000 estimate.

Lot 11: Hurvin Anderson, Road (Western Name) (1965) Photo: Courtesy Sotheby's

Lot 11: Hurvin Anderson, Road (Western Maine) (2003).
Photo: Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Further bullish prices for young artists were obtained when rising Chinese art star Jia Aili, who had just chalked up a record $952,000 with a painting that sold to a European buyer at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, was on stage with a slightly smaller 2009 painting of a helmeted astronaut caught within a jagged geometry that sold to an Asian buyer for £674,500 ($1,081,696), far above a £250,000 to £350,000 estimate. Another high riser is Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie, and his Duchamp’s Funeral I (2009), surpassed a £400,000 to £600,000 estimate to sell to an Asian buyer for £1 million ($1.6 million).

Just occasionally, one of these sought after young artists failed to make the grade. A very ambitious £400,000 to £600,000 estimate hampered bidding on a landscape, Road (Western Maine), 2003 by Peter Doig protégé Hurvin Anderson, as it sold below estimate for £362,500 ($581,341), and a dark and lugubrious canvas, Cemetery (2005), by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye from the Saatchi collection was unsold (estimate £40,000 to £60,000. But then, these estimates and prices are far, far above what the paintings cost originally, not so long ago, and the artists are part of the unpredictable game of swings and roundabouts that has always characterized the contemporary art market.

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