Sotheby’s London’s $69 Million Contemporary Sale Passes Brexit Test With Flying Colors

China's Long Museum shatters record for Jenny Saville

Keith Haring, The Last Rainforest (1989) Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Sotheby’s presented a slightly sterner test for the post-Brexit art market than Phillips the night before with a 47-lot sale that totaled $69.4 million (£52.2 million) with a very healthy 40 of 46 lots sold. The top lot, and a big surprise of the night, was the record $9 million (£6.8 million) for Jenny Saville’s large, square painting, Shift (1996-7), which featured naked women squashed together like sardines, that was shown at Charles Saatchi’s landmark exhibition, “Sensation” show in 1997.

The sale surpassed its presale estimate of $47–67 million (£35.5–50.2 million) with flying colors. (Sold prices include buyer’s premium commission, estimates do not.) And although Sotheby’s was without any eight-figure lots this time around, they secured 18 works with estimates in excess of $1.5 million (£1 million).

Last year Sotheby’s had a much weightier sale with 57 lots that realized $205 million (£130.4 million), though that was below the estimate. This year, the estimate was the lowest for a June sale since 2009.

“It was not easy to put the sale together,” said Alex Branczik, head of contemporary art Europe. But the total of $69.4 million (£52.2 million) not only hit the high estimate, it exceeded the June 2010 total as well. In other words, it looks like we are back to the beginning of the most recent boom.

Jenny Saville, Shift (1996-97) Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Jenny Saville, Shift (1996-97). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Of the 40 lots sold, 26 sold at hammer prices within or above the estimates. From that standpoint, it was business as usual, albeit with less lots.

The top price of the night was widely expected to be for Sigmar Polke’s large colourful fabric painting, Red Fish (1992), once owned by Frieder Burda, but the $5.5 million (£3.5 million) estimate was high for a late work by the artist and it sold below estimate for $4.9 million (£3.1 million), including commission, to an Asian collector.

Considering the economic climate and the sale at Phillips yesterday, it was to be expected that owners were prepared to reduce their reserve prices, but there were surprisingly few examples—just eight—selling below estimates.

Another was Cy Twombly’s small Untitled (Roma) (1961), which sold to Michael McGinnis of the Mnuchin Gallery for $1.1 million (£701,000).

The $2–3 million (£1.5–2 million) estimate intimated that the previous $3.3 million (£2.1 million) record could be broken, but even Sotheby’s staff were surprised when three telephone bidders, and Saville’s dealer, Larry Gagosian, on his cell phone, took the bidding into unknown territory. Finally Gagosian succumbed to the greater ambitions of Wang Wei, the Chinese collector buying for her Long Museum in Shangahi, which is about to stage an exhibition devoted to female artists of the West.
Asian bidders were a powerful force tonight, buying two other works in the sale’s top  lots. A 1955 mobile by Alexander Calder sold above estimate for $3 million (£1.9 million), and Adrian Ghenie’s large interior, The Hunted,  sold for a multiple estimate $2.5 million (£1.9 million).

This was one of several works by Ghenie coming up for sale this week that were acquired in 2011 through the Haunch of Venison gallery, which helped to launch the artist’s career in the west—at the time selling such paintings for around $40,000 (£20,000).

Keith Haring, The Last Rainforest (1989) Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Keith Haring, The Last Rainforest (1989). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The second major record was for a work billed as Keith Haring’s “last great masterpiece,” his eight-foot, intricately and fantastically illustrated tarpaulin painting, The Last Rainforest, 1989, from the collection of star photograper David La Chapelle who is reportedly selling it because he doesn’t have the right space for it in his new home in the Hawaian rainforest.

The painting carried an estimate of $2.7—4 million (£2—3 million), so was in range of the record $4.9 million paid for an equally large tarpaulin work in 2014, but sold for $5.5 million (£4.2 million) to an American collector.

Two of the higher estimated lots had come from a private European collection which had acquired them at auction. As usual, this allows for insightful price comparisons.

Warhol’s Four Marilyns from the “Reversal” series, 1986, had been acquired in 1999 for $299,500. We hardly need reminding how that market has moved since then, but this example, estimated at $800,000 to $1 million (£600–800,000), sold to an anonymous phone bidder, who outbid US collector David Rogath, for a final price of $3.8 million (£2.9 million).

Zeng Fanzhi, Jenny Saville, Self Portrait (1996) Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Zeng Fanzhi, Self Portrait (1996). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Also from a private European collection, but telling a different story, was a Zeng Fanzhi self-portrait which US collectors Howard and Patricia Farber sold extremely advantageously in Hong Kong in 2011 for HK$37.6 million (£2.9 million). Tonight it took a loss selling for $2.7 million (£2 million).

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Nets (2006). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Nets (2006). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Also experiencing high returns was a 2006 version of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Nets series of paintings, including one bought by a Swedish collector in 2010 for $85,000 (£63,650). Now estimated at $266—400,000 (£200—300,000) it sold for a double estimate $901,000 (£677,000).

A towering and evocative Gunther Forg abstract from 1987 was bought by the dealer Max Hetzler in New York in 2012, the year before Forg died, for $34,375. Hetzler sold it on, but today it sold again at auction for $437,000 (£329,000).
It was an unproductive night for Gagosian. Apart from his client losing out on the Saville, he also emerged as the unsuccessful underbidder for a colourful abstract by another of his artists, Howard Hodgkin, which sold near the high estimate for $870,000 (£653,000).

Jean Dubuffet Barbe de lumiere dwa aveugles (1959). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Jean Dubuffet Barbe de lumiere des aveugles (1959). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The postwar sector was led by Jean Dubuffet, for whom demand is clearly on the rise. After a rare ‘beard’ painting by the artist sold at Phillips in May for $3.1 million, Sotheby’s found another slightly larger one, and sold it for an even better $4.2 million (£3.2 million) which was double the estimate.
If there were any visible weaknesses tonight, it was in the market for Italian artist, Enrico Castellani, whose prices have been spiralling upwards recently. But tonight, two shaped canvases went unsold with estimates between $465,000 to $2.4 million (£350,000 to 1.8 million).

They did not, however, dent the euphoria that had engulfed the saleroom, partly in relief that the art market had shown total resilience to the political and economic mayhem which the Brexit vote has set in motion. Maybe buyers were encouraged by the rallying stock market, and even the low pound. But one senses Branczik was right when he stated that this was “beyond currency”.


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