By Judd Tully
Published: June 28, 2010
Sotheby's Kicks Off the London Contemporary Sales with a Solid but Uninspiring Effort
LONDON— Sotheby's kicked off the week of contemporary sales with a solid performance that looked surprisingly better on paper than what it felt like in the salesroom. All in all, the house tallied £41,091,800 ($61,806,176), comfortably above the evening's £38.3 million ($58 million) low estimate though well shy of its £52.8 million ($80 million) high mark.
The average lot that sold fetched a hefty £933,904 ($1.4 million), a strong indicator of just how expensive the high end of contemporary art costs.
Impressively, all but nine of the 53 lots offered sold for a svelte buy-in rate by lot of 17 percent and 13 percent by value. But of those casualties, major million-dollar-plus works by blue-chip living artists Peter Doig, Gerhard Richter, and Brice Marden failed to find buyers.
Nine works sold for over a million pounds — or sixteen for over a million dollars — while three made over three million pounds. The house fared better in February 2010 when it made £54,074,450 ($84,761,700), with a scant four percent unsold by lot, but improved poundwise over June 2009's result when it sold £25,549,450 ($41,911,318), with a six percent unsold-lot rate.
Two artist records were set, including one for Bharti Kher, whose life-size 2006 fiberglass sculpture of a female elephant covered in the artist's signature bindi dots in fiberglass sold for £993,250 ($1,493,947) against a £700,0000-1 million ($1.1-1.5 million) estimate. Titled The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own, it is from an edition of three plus one artist's proof. The work's performance crushed the previous mark made at Phillips de Pury London in April 2008 when Kher's 2007 piece Landscape (Triptych) sold for £198,500 ($395,103).
Works by the French nouveau realiste artist Yves Klein proved bullet-proof as his stunning and reputedly rare Re 49 — a 1961 work comprised of natural sponges, pebbles, dry blue pigment, and synthetic resin on canvas laid down on panel — sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for £6,201,250 ($9,327,300) on an estimate of £4.5-6.5 million ($7-10 million).
A tiny 1960 Klein gold-leaf-on-panel abstraction, MG 42, once owned by the artist's Zero Group compatriot Lucio Fontana (with MG standing for "mono gold"), attracted five bidders and sold for £481,250 ($723,848) after being pegged in the £200-300,000 ($300-450,000) range. It last sold for £80,500 ($121,198) at Sotheby's London in June 2000.
In turn, Fontana's important and decidedly rare 1963 penetrated abstraction Concetto Spaziale, La Fine di Dio (est. £4.5-5.5 million, or $6.8-8.3 million), bearing an unappetizing and otherworldly shade of lime green, sold to another anonymous telephone bidder for £4,745,250 ($7,137,331). It last sold at Christie's London in February 2001 for £465,750 ($679,530) and clearly illustrates just how far Fontana's market has climbed in a decade.
But the appetite for top-tier lots was decidedly thin as Richter's powerfully disturbing and racistly titled 1964 cover lot Neger (Nuba), appropriating a famed 1963 black-and-white image by German photographer and Nazi film propagandist Leni Riefenstahl (Nuba Funeral), sold to a telephone bidder for £3,737,250 ($5,621,198). It last sold at auction at Sotheby's London in November 1995 for £298,500 ($460,577).
"The market's becoming discriminating, and that's perfectly okay," said Gagosian director Robin Vousden. "Whoever bought the Richter bought a masterpiece. It's a wonderful and subtle painting." Curiously, though, little action chased the painting, perhaps an indication of the fatigued state of the market.
"It felt like it did last week," Citi Group art adviser Jonathan Binstock, said moments after the sale. "Seemingly lifeless but actually producing solid numbers."
"This was a complex sale," said Amsterdam dealer Siebe Tettero, who had a busy night, snaring Zero Group artist Heinz Mack's 1958-59 aluminum-on-panel abstraction No.7 for £145,200 ($218,471) and Patrick Heron's impressive, color-charged oil-on-canvas abstraction October Horizon: October 1957 (est.£250-350,000, or $375-530,000) for £481,250 ($723,848). "I think Sotheby's had very good stuff and they did well, but there were big casualties, after the sales in New York [in May] and Art Basel, maybe we're a little weary."
Still, the failure of two Doig paintings, including the large and usually magisterial White Creep from 1995-96 (est. £1.4-1.8 million, or $2.1-2.7 million), which had spent time in the collection of Charles Saatchi, failed to elicit a single bid. Oliver Barker, a Sotheby's specialist, noted after the sale that the picture had been up three times at auction in the past six years. "It wasn't Peter Doig's night," he said, but cautioned that it was too early to say "whether there's a fatigue in his market."
Still, the double rejection will certainly taint the artist's golden auction reputation. White Creep last sold at Sotheby's London in February 2009 for £1,364,500 ($2,701,980). You might say that tonight's consignor got prematurely greedy.
There were other strong signals that the market has become more tentative, as indicated by Richard Prince's aptly titled 2002 Millionaire Nurse, an ink-jet print and acrylic on canvas (est. £2-3 million, or $3-4.5 million) that sold on one bid to the telephone for a relatively lackluster £2,169,250 ($3,262,769). It last sold at Sotheby's New York in May 2009 for $4,745,000. Short-term speculation doesn't always produce pretty results.
But the evening did produce strong earnings for School of London works, as evidenced by the Patrick Heron that sold to Tettero, one of eight works from an unnamed London collection that made £4,256,750 ($6.4 million) against a presale estimate of £3.35-4.54 million ($4.01-6.71 million). Of those, Leon Kossoff's Nude on Red Bed No. 1, a 1968 oil on panel (est. £70-90,000, or $105-136 million), sold to London dealer James Holland-Hibbert for £133,250 ($200,421) and Frank Auerbach's 1991 Mornington Crescent-Summer Morning (est. £1.5-2 million) topped the trove, selling to a telephone bidder for £2,281,250 ($3,431,228). Paris dealer Hugues Joffre was the underbidder.
Curiously, again, the last lot of the evening ignited interest as the now-split artist duo Komar and Melamid's time-warp, faux-Soviet-Realist painting Red Flag (from Nostalgic Socialist Realism Series), from pre-Glasnost 1983 (est. £100-150,000, or $150-226 million), sold for a hefty £349,250 ($525,307).
The evening action resumes Tuesday at Phillips de Pury at their Howick Place quarters.