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Contemporary and Post-war art auction sales do better than expected

Gary Hume, Sam Taylor-Wood and Cecily Brown prove that it’s never too soon to be an auction star

New York

Against a backdrop of election uncertainties, a steep decline in the value of the Nasdaq, and disappointing results from the Impressionist and Modern sales of the previous week, the contemporary art market was understandably nervous as it confronted the daunting list of lots to be offered through the week commencing 13 November. Compounding the pressure were the entry of two new, or newish, events, each with a pair of catalogues: Phillips, which was staging its second auction of contemporary art since LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault took control of the business; and Christie’s, which was redefining its coverage of modern art through the creation of a new category of Post-War material allocated its own slot in the diary. In total, the three leading auction houses published eight catalogues for eight separate sales.

But in contrast to the Impressionist and Modern sales, all the Contemporary and Post-war art sales did well, generally exceeding low estimate, with 27 new records being set and buy-in rates remaining low.

London contemporary art dealer Simon Lee, director of 11 Duke Street Ltd and an active participant in the markets for Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, George Condo and Christopher Wool, for whom he is preparing an exhibition scheduled to take place in 2001, watched the action and supplied this analysis and observations of an astonishing week. All results include buyer's premium.

Phillips

Phillips returned to the rented venue of the American Craft Museum for its second set of contemporary art sales but, in all other respects, created an entirely different occasion to its inaugural event six months ago. Simon de Pury strode through the audience with a display of theatricality worthy of a legend entering the ring, and although his purse absorbed exactly one half of the buyer’s premium, Phillips will be content that he drummed up decent, occasionally exceptional, prices, good market share and favourable publicity for its endeavour to be a serious choice for contemporary art at auction.

Damien Hirst “Dead ends died out, examined”, (est. $300,000-400,000), sold for $508,5000, (£355,594)

Was this the first time that a rival auction house expert was seen bidding quite so openly on the competition’s stock? This lot, 18 rows of cigarette butts housed in a vitrine, was purchased by Christie’s Contemporary Art director, Philippe Ségalot, who, the market presumes, will have been bidding on behalf of his proprietor François Pinault, but he could, in fact, have been acting for any of his clients. His winning bid of $508,500 compares with the sum of $600,000 which Phillips is believed to have paid to Cologne dealer Rafael Jablonka for this consignment. It may have won market share in the lucrative Hirst business but Phillips paid a fairly hefty penalty, nearly $100,000, for doing so.

Damien Hirst, “In love, out of love”, (est. $400-600,000), sold for $680,000, (£475,524)

Previously the cover lot of Christie’s Contemporary Art, London, 8 December 1999 (lot 11, est. $340-500,000), but withdrawn on the morning of the auction (see The Art Newspaper 99, January 2000, pp 66-67), this attractive pair of butterfly paintings had been acquired by American collector Stavros Merjos, probably in the late spring, for a sum believed to be around $450,000. He had been offered a substantial guarantee to flip them into Phillips where they were acquired by Simon de Pury’s Zurich partner, Andrea Caratsch, for $680,000. That de Pury was the lot’s auctioneer gave an additional twist to this very strange story.

Sam Taylor-Wood, “Soliloquy VI”, (est. $45,000-65,000), sold for $110,300, (£77,133)

This grand image, one of nine Soliloquy compositions to have been published to date, was fabricated in an edition of six examples just a year ago when the consigner would have paid £20,000 for it. On the morning of the auction, White Cube, Taylor-Wood’s London dealer, was quoting £25,000 for other works from the same series. That the lot was flooded with bids and fetched $110,300, exactly three times its retail value, can only be explained by the myth of auction as the place where prices are fair, and the anxiety of customers unwilling to join a gallery’s waiting list.

Sherin Neshat, “Rapture”, (est. $10-15,000), sold for $43,700, (£30,559)

Just a year ago, when it was published in an edition of five examples, this photograph would have cost $6,000 from the artist’s primary dealer, Barbara Gladstone. On this occasion, it was purchased by a telephone bidder, with Gstaad dealer Georges Marci as the underbidder, figures which illustrate how rapidly an artist’s prices can escalate when a new art market fashion arises.

Christopher Wool, “If you”, (est. $150-200,000), sold for $305,000, (£213,286)

In collaboration with the artist’s dealer, Luhring Augustine, I was bidding for this lot against competition from Phaidon Press proprietor Richard Schlagman and Athens collector Dakis Joannou who finally bought it.

This is a decent price but falls well short of Wool’s auction record set at Christie’s New York in May 1999 when “Foot” (lot 30) fetched $420,000. Which is the aberration?

Andy Warhol, “Self portrait”, (est. $400-600,000), sold for $453,500 ($317,133)

This lot, a fine self-portrait dating from 1967, proved a relative disappointment when it was purchased by New York secondary market dealer Stellan Holm for $453,500. That figure may be just one half of the sum, believed to be around $900,000, which Phillips paid to dealer Jose Mugrabi in order to win the consignment. Surprisingly, Sotheby’s obtained the higher price of $500,750 for an identical self-portrait (lot 41, est. $250-350,000) in what was considered to be a darker and less appealing colour way the following evening. On this occasion, the purchaser was German collector Udo Brandhorst who also acquired Warhol’s gold Marilyn tondo (lot 33) and a canvas by Frank Stella (lot 24) at Sotheby’s.

Contemporary Art Part I, Phillips New York, 13 November

sold by value 95%

sold by lot 96%

Sale total $10,638,700 (£7,439,650)

Sotheby’s

Buoyed by the achievement of Phillips the night before, Sotheby’s posted a strong set of results and auction records for eight artists including Alexander Calder, Isamu Noguchi, Brice Marden and Gary Hume.

Cecily Brown, “Twenty million sweethearts”, (est. $30-40,000), sold for $87,000, (£60,839)

This artist may be a new name for auction but, in a career of just three years, has earned a hot reputation through the interest of New York dealers Jeffrey Deitch and Larry Gagosian. To jump the waiting list for her works, a telephone bidder was willing to pay twice estimate for a canvas which would have retailed for $30,000 a year ago.

Gary Hume, “Pauline”, (est. $90-120,000), sold for $159,750, (£110,227)

London dealer Eric Franck was the consignor of this fine portrait of Pauline Daly which comfortably moved the painter into the expensive bracket for younger British art. Only Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread command higher prices at auction.

Robert Gober, “Deep basin sink”, (est. $500-700,000), sold for $830,750, (£580,944)

The scarcity of available material by Robert Gober, and the fresh impetus coming from his involvement in next summer’s Biennale in Venice, when he will be creating new work for the American pavilion, ensured that this sculpture would attract plenty of interest. It was acquired by New York consultant Thea Westreich whose list of clients include several prominent collectors in San Francisco. Christie’s contemporary art director Philippe Ségalot was the lot’s underbidder. A related drawing (lot 6, est. $35,000-45,000) was purchased by former Anthony d’Offay director James Cohan for $55,950.

Thomas Struth, “Pantheon, Rome”, (est. $150-200,000), sold for $236,750, (£165,559)

What will be an artist’s iconic image is decided fairly quickly by the market and this superb portrait of the interior of the Pantheon in Rome has come to be seen as a key work by popular German photographer Thomas Struth. Consequently, it fetched $236,750 while other works from the same series may be worth around $50,000. Another example from the same edition of 10 images fetched $270,000 at Christie’s, New York, on 16 May 2000 (lot 20).

Contemporary Art Part I, Sotheby’s New York, 14 November

sold by value 83.79 %

sold by lot 80.65 %

Sale total $43,140,900 (£29,974,297)

Christie’s Post-War

The most remarkable feature of this inaugural auction of post-war material was not the absence of a single bid for Mark Rothko’s large abstract canvas, to which Christie’s had dedicated a single picture catalogue and attached by far the highest estimate of the week, but the style in which the market ignored its failure and maintained the momentum of an evening that saw new auction records for Yves Klein, Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter.

Mark Rothko, “White, yellow, red on yellow” unsold, (est. $15-20 million)

Billed as the star lot of the week, Christie’s will, in retrospect, admit that this picture carried far too optimistic an estimate and an empty response had been widely predicted before the auction took place. To no avail was the unidentified vendor forced to cut his reserve to a slightly more credible $11.5 million on the day of the sale. As recently as 1999, Basel dealer Ernst Beyeler is believed to have been asking $2.5 million for the canvas which used to belong to the Seibu department store and had cost $1.98 million at Sotheby’s, New York, on 10 November 1988 (lot 40). The night before, Sotheby’s had offered a very beautiful canvas with a darker complexion (cover lot 31, est. $8-10 million) which was purchased by C&M director, Robert Mnuchin, for $11 million, the highest price of the week.

Andy Warhol, “Liz”, (est. $2.5-3.5 million), sold for $4.4 million, (£3.081 million)

Had she been Marilyn, this beautiful painting with an Edie Sedgwick provenance would have fetched $20 million, but at this price it was still a strong result for Warhol’s iconic image of Elizabeth Taylor.

Francis Bacon, “Portrait of George Dyer talking”, sold for $6.6 million (est. $3.5-4.5 million), (£4.6 m)

This superb portrait of George Dyer looked to be one of the finest paintings of the week and may, indeed, be one of Bacon’s greatest pictures. It was purchased by a telephone bidder for a new auction record. Until a year ago, the artist’s best works were handled more or less exclusively by a small nest of galleries and private dealers, but this price will bring more works of top calibre into auction.

Gerhard Richter, “Der Kongress”, (est. $3-4 million), sold for $4.96 million (£3.46 m)

The extraordinary story of this painting’s recent art market history proves the lengths to which the auction houses will go for market share. Just six months ago, London dealer Richard Nagy is believed to have sold this portrait on behalf of Professor Zander, who had commissioned it from the artist in 1965, to Christie’s proprietor François Pinault for $1.8 million. Now it turns up in auction and is purchased by Chicago dealer Richard Gray’s New York representative, Andrew Fabricant, acting for an unidentified mid-west collector.

Yves Klein, “RE 1”, (est. $4-5 million), sold for $6.72 million, (£4.7 m)

Competition for this magnificent sponge painting, the property of German publisher Frieder Burda, was expected to be fierce, given the price of $907,750 achieved by Sotheby’s for a much smaller sponge composition consigned by Jose Mugrabi the night before (lot 34, est. $600-800,000), but it was still a shock when the bidding started above the previous world record of $2.1 million set at Sotheby’s, New York, on 17 May 2000 (lot 34). That figure was comfortably eclipsed by an unidentified European telephone bidder who paid $6.72 million for a masterpiece by an artist still waiting, I believe, to be properly understood by the American market.

Post-War Part I, Chrisitie’s

New York, 15 November

sold by value 83.5%

sold by lot 85.2%

Sale total $59,757,000 (£41,788,112)

Christie’s Contemporary Art

The week ended where it had started, with new auction records for Charles Ray, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Maurizio Cattelan and Andreas Gursky. But behind those headline figures is the stark realisation that the currently popular artists and their galleries simply cannot meet the demands of a swollen contemporary art market. Auction stands to be the continuing beneficiary of disappointed collectors who have lost patience by waiting in line.

Charles Ray, “Male Mannequin”, (est.$700-900,000), sold for $2,206,000, (£1.5 m)

Auction houses tend to position their star lot in the front half of a catalogue but not quite as far forwards as Christie’s pushed Ray’s sculpture, which fetched an incredible price even taking account of the good reviews generated by his exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1998. It was acquired by New York dealers Luhring Augustine receiving bidding instructions from a client on their telephone.

Maurizio Cattelan, Untitled (ostrich), (est. $100-150,000), sold for $270,000, (£188,811)

It has been an amazing week in auction for Maurizio Cattelan, with this lot,the stuffed ostrich, attracting the strongest interest. It was purchased by a telephone bidder for another remarkable price. Earlier in the week, Philips had obtained $68,000 for a stuffed terrier (lot 4, est. $40-50,000); and a wall installation of rubber mask portraits (lot 10, est. $100-150,000) fetched $159,750 at Sotheby’s.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled (Blood)”, (est. $400-600,000), sold for $1,656,000, (£1.15 m)

Consigned by French collector Marcel Brient, who supplied a long and personal essay for the catalogue, this beautiful curtain of glass beads provoked lengthy competition between two telephone bidders before reaching this extraordinary price, by a long margin a fresh auction record for his work. Until this week, important material by Gonzalez-Torres had appeared only infrequently in auction, with resales being handled by the estate’s appointed dealer, Andrea Rosen. Now that situation has changed irrevocably. At Sotheby’s on Tuesday night, a telephone bidder had paid $456,750, briefly the artist’s auction record, for a corner candy spill (lot 13, est. $300-400,000).

Contemporary Art Part I,

Christie’s New York, 16 November

sold by value 87%

sold by lot 85%

Sale total $12,789,200 (£8,943,496)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A hot market getting hotter'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 109 December 2000