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A surprise show of strength at Frieze week post-war and contemporary auctions

Houses keep their heads above water with wider international selection

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London

The post-war and contemporary auctions held in London on 16 and 17 October during Frieze week showed unexpected strength, largely beating presale estimates, but at severely reduced price levels.

Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury sold a combined £47.41m worth of art, having bolstered thin offerings of post-war and contemporary works by broadening the spread of their sales to include Italian, Arab and Iranian art. Despite the presence of a number of works in the sale that had recently been bought in, the sell-through rates were surprisingly buoyant and the mood was upbeat. “It’s incredible, there’s great energy here. The auction house did a very good job in keeping estimates down, that’s key in today’s market,” commented the New York secondary market dealer Christophe van de Weghe at Christie’s evening sale.

Sotheby’s combined its habitual evening and day sales into a single afternoon session on 16 October comprising contemporary and Arab and Iranian art, estimated at £10m-£14m. It totalled £12.76m for 172 lots and was 73.3% sold by volume. A separate 33-lot sale of modern Italian art made £7.39m and was 90.9% sold by lot.

Christie’s were able to hold both day and evening sales, having pulled in stronger consignments on the back of two major Kippenbergers belonging to Charles Saatchi. While the post-war and contemporary art evening segment only included 25 lots, it fetched an above-estimate £11.21m (presale estimate £6.78m-£9.49m) with just one work remaining unsold. The day sale made £3.51m while the modern Italian art sale made £5.8m.

One surprise was that Saatchi had chosen to sell through Christie’s, given Phillips de Pury funds free entry to the Saatchi Gallery in London. Asked about this, Thierry Nataf, the newly appointed senior vice president of the firm, said: “We do not work on an exclusivity basis and from time to time Saatchi buys and sells elsewhere—it’s not a problem for us.”

Martin Kippenberger, Self Portrait (above), 1981, est £18,000-£22,000, sold for £139,250 at Christie’s

Martin Kippenberger, Big Until Great Hunger, 1984, est £400,000-£600,000, sold for £433,250 at Phillips de Pury

German artist Martin Kippenberger continues to be a saleroom favourite, for the right works. Charles Saatchi consigned two works to Christie’s evening sale which had figured in his 2005 show “The Triumph of Painting”. First up was Paris Bar, 1991, a huge painting of the artist’s favourite Berlin haunt. It triggered a fierce bidding war between the German collector Ingvild Goetz, New York dealers Jeffrey Deitch and Tony Shafrazi and three telephones. It made £2.28m, going to an unidentified phone bidder. (At the time of going to press, Die Welt reported that an assistant of Kippenberger, Goetz Valien, claims he, in fact, painted the work at the artist’s request. Christie’s said that the buyer was aware of the work’s provenance.) Deitch was successful in bagging the next lot, Kippenberger’s Kellner Des… (Waiter of…), 1991, paying £1.1m, more than double low estimate. In Christie’s day sale, a self-portrait went to seven times estimate, but at Phillips, while Big Until Great Hunger, 1984, did find a buyer at £433,250 (est £400,000-£600,000), four other Kippen­bergers failed to sell. “Kippenberger made some absolute masterpieces, and he made some not-so-great works,” said Iwan Wirth, director of Hauser & Wirth. “It’s all about the quality of the work. It is a sign of an intelligent and healthy market where collectors are buying with their eyes, not with their ears.”

Chris Ofili, Afro Apparition, 2002-03, est £280,000-£350,000, sold for £577,250 at Sotheby’s

The highlight at Sotheby’s sale was Ofili’s glittering black-and-red Afro Apparition, 2002-03, shown in the Venice Biennale in 2003. After a bidding battle between six buyers including Victoria Miro, Ofili’s London dealer, the work went to the Iranian collector Fatima Maleki at over double low estimate.

Peter Doig, Pine House (Rooms for Rent), 1994, est £1.5m-£2m, sold for £1.38m at Christie’s

Peter Doig is another consistent favourite, but this attractive work had been bought in just a year ago (est $4.5m-$6.5m) at Christie’s, New York. Belonging wholly or partly to the firm, its new estimate represented half that price and only attracted a single bid, which succeeded at well below the low estimate.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Year of the Boar, 1983, est £900,000-£1.2m, sold for £1.1m at Phillips de Pury

Lacking the movement and gestural detail of the best Basquiats, this unusually sparse image of a teeth-baring beast had previously been sold at Christie’s, London in 1999 for just £155,000. It was the top lot in Phillips evening sale on 17 October, which raised £4.1m, short of £5m presale expectations with 72% sold by lot. “Basquiat prices have come down 40% in the last 18 months,” said Thaddaeus Ropac, director of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. “It is quite an important painting because it is Chinese New Year—the Chinese are buying lots more art and New Year is important to them. The painting has a minimalist presence and sold for the right price—it sold for exactly its worth.”

Damien Hirst, I Miss You, 1998, est £200,000-£300,000, sold for £337,250 at Christie’s

The fortunes of this Hirst work provide an interesting insight into how prices have recently deflated. This lime green butterfly painting has now been at auction four times in the past five years. It was first sold at Sotheby’s 2004 Pharmacy sale for £263,200. It was unsuccessfully reoffered in London twice last year—in February at a massive estimate of £700,000-£900,000, then in October at a lowered (but still optimistic) £500,000-£700,000. Last month two telephone bidders fought for the work. While it sold for more than the 2004 price, the “investment” doesn’t look so healthy given that the vendor would only have received hammer price for the sale (£280,000), and paid for the costs of the failed attempts to sell the work.

Damien Hirst, Two Skulls, 2006, est £220,000-£280,000, sold for £397,250 at Christie’s

Illustrated on the back cover of Sotheby’s catalogue, this stark image of two leering skulls belonged to Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s worldwide head of contemporary art, according to trade sources. He refused to confirm or deny this. The work sold well over estimate to a telephone bidder who also bought John Baldessari’s Vertical Series: Miracle, 2003, for £82,250 and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Hall of Thirty Three Bays, 1995, which made £11,000.