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Record-breaking Giacometti at Sotheby's evidence of extravagant spending to match soaring prices at sales

'10 auction report observes revived market in London

There were fireworks in London last month in a high-octane fortnight of auctions. Prices sky-rocketed and a raft of new world records were set in the impressionist and modern and post-war and contemporary sales, signalling a serious upswing in the market.

“What is often seen at auction is clarification of the state of the private market. The strength of these sales added to the sense of the continued growth of collectors’ confidence in the public and private arenas,” said art dealer Nicholas Maclean. The combination of higher-volume sales, top-quality works and low-ball estimates proved potent, with deep bidding evident across all of the sales.

Impressionist and modern Sotheby’s

Expectations were high ahead of Sotheby’s evening sale on 3 February, where three works, Cézanne’s Pichet et Fruits sur une Table, 1893-94, Giacometti’s L’Homme qui Marche I, 1961 and Klimt’s Kirche in Cassone, 1913, were expected to fetch over £10m each—an impressive indication of market improvement, given that the company only sold three works for £10m-plus across all departments in 2009.

The expectant saleroom fell silent during an eight-minute battle between ten bidders for Giacometti’s Walking Man I (see box). It went to an anonymous phone-bidder for £65m to become the most expensive work at auction ever. This was the highlight of the fast-paced 39-lot sale that totalled a record £146.8m—the highest ever amount in a London auction, against pre-sale estimates of £69m-£102m, with 79.5% sold by lot and 96.5% by value.

“[There] was a pent-up damning of the waters,” said the dealer Peter Nagy after the sale. He bought Schiele’s Seated Woman in Violet Stockings, 1917, for £4.9m (est £3m-£5m). “There was just nothing available before—the money was there but the pieces weren’t,” he said.

Other records included the Klimt, which more than doubled the £12m low estimate to fetch £26.9m—the most expensive landscape by the artist at auction.

Christie’s

Christie’s, while falling behind the headline-hitting Sotheby’s, held a tight and solid sale on 2 February that came in just over the £66.1m pre-sale high estimate to make £66.7m, with 87% sold by lot and 95% sold by value. The first record of the sale was Otto Mueller’s Bathers, chased by seven bidders all hoping to bag the painting of two female nudes in a sun-lit lake. Painted in 1927, after German expressionism’s heyday, the work vaulted past its £500,000-£700,000 estimate to fetch £2.1m from a Russian buyer on the phone.

Russian avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova set a record price for a painting by a female artist at auction with Espagnole, around 1916, at £6.4m (est £4m-£6m).

Post-war and contemporary

“In Hollywood terms, it was a feel-good moment,” said Cheim & Read’s Adam Sheffer following the contemporary auctions. Following on the heels of the impressionist and modern sales’ success, London was energised with a confidence that bled over into the contemporary auctions.

Auction houses kept estimates attractive throughout. “Estimates are the biggest battle right now,” said Christie’s international co-head of post-war and contemporary art, Brett Gorvy, in a post-sale conference, adding: “We haven’t really seen a normal market—we’ve seen a boom market, and a market recovering—and we want to be restrained.”

While Europeans dominated the spending, the market now looks Stateside ahead of the art fairs in New York this month, and May’s auctions. “America went down faster, but it always comes back stronger,” said European gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac.

Sotheby’s

The Sotheby’s evening sale on

10 February fetched £54m over pre-sale estimates of £32.2m-£44.98m, achieving the second highest February total for a London auction, with an extraordinary 96.1% sold by lot. The two-part sale began with “Zero Art: Property from the Sammlung Lenz Schönberg”, followed by a 30-lot various-owner sale.

There was a palpable shift in taste, as the market stepped up for unique work by artists like Lucio Fontana—who proved extremely popular with four works in Sotheby’s top ten—in place of factory-scale productions by bling-era poster children such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. “The last decade’s confusion over price and quality, where people assumed a big price meant great art, is over. People are appreciating art history—you saw that profoundness in the bidding over the Lenz Collection,” said dealer Iwan Wirth.

Pegged at £11.1m-£15m, the 47-lot Zero auction catapulted to £23.2m in a nimble sale that saw Sotheby’s race to pole position, with only one lot bought in. The works were taken from Anna and Gerhard Lenz’s 600-strong collection, which they have been building since the 1960s. They were selling the works in order to “tighten up the collection, and make ready for it to be passed on”. The cerebral, minimalist offerings were fresh to market and consisted of largely unknown European artists, as well as auction favourites such as Fontana and Yves Klein. Nineteen artist records were set, and the market—appetite now whet—waits with bated breath to see whether more Lenz works will now come to auction.

The mixed-owner sale felt slightly lethargic after the frenetic activity of the Zero collection, but, nevertheless, there were moments of excitement including the sale of Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XIV, 1983, which went for £3.96m (est £2m-£3m). The surprise of the sale was Frank Auerbach’s 1956 drawing, Head of Leon Kossoff, which swooped to a stunning £1m—leagues beyond £60,000-£80,000 estimate—to London dealer Offer Waterman. The much-vaunted group of five Lucian Freud works didn’t quite fly—Sotheby’s Oliver Barker said estimates were “on the strong side”, and dealers said the works had previously been offered on the private market. Freud’s tiny Self-portrait with Black Eye, 1978, made a respectable £2.8m nonetheless, (est £3m-£4m).

Christie’s

Christie’s 52-lot sale on

11 February totalled £39.1m (est £26.2m-£38.3m), with 90% sold by lot. It proved the pull of Yves Klein, who took first and second place in the top ten (see box). Eight other works sold for over £1m, including Martin Kippenberger’s Fliegender Tanga (Flying Tango), 1982-83, which went to Philippe Segalot for £2.6m (est £800,000-£120,000)—the second highest price for the artist at auction. It beat the £2.28m price for Paris Bar, 1991, the painting of the artist’s favourite Berlin haunt that sparked fierce bidding in London last October.

Phillips de Pury

Phillips de Pury had success

in its evening sale on 12 February with Donald Judd’s Untitled (87-29 Studer), 1987, a two-tier wall piece that went for £735,650 (est £600,000-£800,000). The sale raised £6.1m in total—almost a third more than the £4.2m February sale made in 2009. Basquiat sold well, including a 1984 Untitled collage, which went for £713,250 (est £600,000-£900,000).

Impressionist and Modern evening sales

Sotheby’s, 3 February

Sale total: £146.8m

Pre-sale estimate: £69m-£102m

Lots offered: 39

Sold by lot: 79.5%

Christie’s, 2 February

Sale total: £66.7m

Pre-sale estimate: £46.3m-£66.m

Lots offered: 41

Sold by lot: 87%

Post-war and Contemporary evening sales

Sotheby’s, 10 February

Sale total: £54m

Pre-sale estimate: £32m-£45m

Lots offered: 77

Sold by lot: 96.1%

Christie’s, 11 February

Sale total: £39.1m

Pre-sale estimate: £26.2m-£38.3m

Lots offered: 51

Sold by lot: 90%