Sotheby’s Confirms a ‘Bulletproof’ Art Market With $143.5 Million Contemporary Sale in London
The auction house broke five artist records, with only four lots going unsold over the course of the night.
The lights dimmed, the disco music pulsated, and dealer Ivor Braka jumped up from the third row at the Sotheby’s London evening contemporary sale in conducting mode, calling for an encore. Was this a bit of Madison Square Garden that CEO Tad Smith has brought with him to staid old London?
If the adrenalized atmosphere was heralding a prize fight of some kind, the auctioneers appeared to have the edge with the help of a little financial knowhow. Sotheby’s just clipped the high estimate for its first heavyweight-bout auction of 2017 this evening, realizing £118 million ($143.5 million) for 57 lots with just four unsold. Five artist records were broken in the market melee. The total was 70 percent up over last year’s £69.5 million, though short of the February 2015 London total of £123.5 million.
As with the Impressionist sales a week earlier, Sotheby’s had arranged a far larger proportion of guarantees than Christie’s. In this case, 16 lots with a combined low estimate of £41.3 million ($50 million)—or a little over 50 percent of the low estimate for the whole sale—were guaranteed either by Sotheby’s or a third party making an irrevocable bid. While most had been arranged prior to a consignment, there were several that were announced just before the sale, indicating a new(ish) trend for speculators to guarantee prices for works after they have been consigned.
Three of the guaranteed lots were among the five top-estimated lots, in which figurative painting dominated. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 6-foot Untitled (One Eyed Man or Xerox Face) from 1982, had been acquired from Gagosian in New York and carried a £14-18 million estimate, but seemed to be sold on a single bid from Adam Chinn of Sotheby’s, presumably on behalf of the guarantor, for only £11.97 million ($14.6 million). Before writing the lot off, just remember this painting was sold in auction in 1987 for $23,000, though not to tonight’s seller.
The other two top lots to carry guarantees were both by German artists. It seemed mildly ironic that no sooner than the auction house’s European head, Cheyenne Westphal, had left, Sotheby’s was trumpeting the strength of German artists in their sale. When New York’s Tobias Meyer and London’s Westphal were working in tandem, German art had always had a high profile at Sotheby’s, though maybe not in quite such depth.
A classic 1965 Georg Baselitz “Hero” painting, Mit Roter Fahne, was not merely guaranteed—Sotheby’s owned a part or all of it. But the market decided the estimate of £6.5-8.5 million was a bit high. None of the galleries associated with the artist—White Cube, Gagosian, Thaddaeus Ropac, or Michael Werner—lifted a finger as it sold after a single phone bid for £7.5 million ($9.1 million), yet another artist record set on a sole bid from a guarantor. Then there was Martin Kippenberger’s 8-foot portrait of Joseph Beuys’s mother, looking curiously like Kippenberger himself. It sold for a mid-estimate £4 million ($4.9 million).
But the real triumph for Germany was the top lot—a shiveringly cold 1982 photo painting of an iceberg by Gerhard Richter—for which the owner, who has had it since 1983, needed no guarantee. Several phone bidders went after it, including three from Asia, one of whom bought it for well above the £8-12 million estimate for £17.7 million ($21.5 million), eliciting the now-customary round of applause from the salesroom staff. The price was claimed as a record for a landscape by Richter. Other Richters in the sale all performed well, especially a medium-sized squeegee abstract, which sold to Belgian art advisor Alex Brotmann for a double-estimate £4 million ($4.9 million).
The most convincing record for a German artist (though I’m not sure he thinks of himself like that) was the £464,750 ($565,345) estimate-tripling record price for Wolfgang Tillmans’s photographic work Freischwimmer 119, which attracted at least seven bidders, outgunning the previous benchmark set by Christie’s only the night before.
Although there was an emphasis on German art, Americans had their moments of glory, too. A 2007 painting by Christopher Wool was guaranteed but attracted competitive bidding above the estimate from Andrew Fabricant, finally selling for £7.1 million ($8.6 million). An elegant black Alexander Calder mobile, Black Lace, sold above estimate for £5.2 million ($6.3 million) to Brett Gorvy, now of the Lévy Gorvy Gallery. (The same gallery’s Lock Kresler, meanwhile, bought a crinkly white textural painting by Alberto Burri within estimate for £1.5 million, or $1.8 million.) A posse of bidders including dealers David Nahmad, Andrew Fabricant, White Cube, and collector Dimitri Mavrommatis raced in pursuit of a classic 1963 painting-on-paper by Cy Twombly before it sold to a U.S. phone bidder for a triple-estimate £2.6 million ($3.2 million). And a record £680,750 ($828,000) was paid for a 1993 waterfall painting by Pat Steir, Four Yellow / Red Negative Waterfall, that had been estimated at £150-200,000 in line with retail prices at a recent exhibition at Lévy Gorvy in London. After being a scarce commodity at auction, this was the second time her record had been broken this month.
This was not a sale of runaway prices though. The rampant market for postwar Italian art, while continuing with a new record for Carol Rama, came under a more critical spotlight when a Paolo Scheggi three-dimensional cutaway red canvas from the ‘60s, which had sold in Milan in 2007 for £19,000 ($23,112), was estimated at £250,000 but did not attract a bid.
“It’s a bulletproof market,” commented art advisor Rory Howard, referring to the imagined threats posed by Brexit and Donald Trump. “But you can still buy at reasonable prices.” As the room emptied out before the end of the sale, he snagged a chunky, alabaster sculpture by Anish Kapoor below estimate for £548,750 ($668,400). Four years ago it had sold for twice that amount in New York. No wonder he looked pleased.
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