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Contemporary sales, London: Phillips struggles in bid to lead auction week

But Bacon brings profitable business to Christie’s and Sotheby’s

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As the art market season closed for its traditional summer recess, there was general agreement that Christie’s and Sotheby’s had posted highly satisfactory results for their important evening auctions, but that Phillips de Pury, which launched the contemporary art week with what auctioneer Simon de Pury described as a late afternoon Evening Sale on Sunday 29 June, delivered a less convincing performance that may have failed to generate any profit for London’s third way. The devil is the guarantee, which prospective consignors expect to extract for the privilege of supplying key material, and subsequent business, to the competing houses, and while auction accelerates its income whenever a lot surpasses its guarantee, it can prove to be a costly gamble if the guarantee is not reached or the lot does not find a buyer.

At Phillips, nearly half of the catalogue, 39 of 91 lots, had been given a guarantee and was, in effect, owned by the house, which was therefore offering it on its own behalf. This material featured a small stainless steel statue of a Mermaid Troll by Jeff Koons, consigned by Venice jeweller and contemporary art collector Attilio Codognato; and Paul McCarthy’s Bunk House, which was the property of London design dealer David Gill. Neither of the works secured a bid and so come to sit on the house’s stockbook until its sales team can identify a new owner. Other guaranteed items that did not perform on this occasion included Rudolph Stingel, Zhang Xiaogang, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Yan Pei Ming, Sol LeWitt, Jack Pierson and a McCarthy chess set. It is, one presumes, an unsustainable situation but Phillips faces a dreadful dilemma. Does it have the persuasive muscle to construct a convincing catalogue without resorting to the guarantee system, which threatens to erode its income stream?

Phillips de Pury, 29 June

With the completion of a further floor of preview space, and the renovation of the winter garden feature at the back of his former Post Office headquarters near Victoria Station, there is no doubt that Simon de Pury commands the auction houses’ outstanding exhibition environment in town. He marked this stage of his property development with a characteristically bold decision, reversing the week’s usual running order of business and offering his catalogue ahead of his rivals. But whether the final football match of the European championship interfered with his plans, or whether he was a victim of a lazy summer Sunday afternoon, the room was missing too many key contemporary art market personalities and did not generate the bidding activity that he would have wanted.

In retrospect, one wonders whether he might have been better served if he had delayed his event and attached his house to the achievements that his rivals posted on the following days. Nevertheless, total proceeds of £24.5m ($47.9m) compare favourably with the figures of £21.9m ($42.8m) that the house reported on 28 February 2008, when the catalogue was bolstered by a substantial package of 16 lots provided by Charles Saatchi. On this occasion, the source supplied only two consignments: a pot by Grayson Perry for which an unidentified telephone bidder paid a new auction record of £58,850 ($112,000) against competition from international collector Tiqui Atencio; and a dull painting by Jörg Immendorff in which there was no interest. Willem de Kooning, Untitled, 1984, est £1.5m-£2.5m, sold for £3.5m ($7m), guaranteed

London dealer Ivor Braka, bidding, it is believed, on behalf of Monsoon proprietor Peter Simon, paid the highest price of the session when he acquired this canvas at the end of a prolonged contest with an unidentified telephone bidder. More significantly, he set a new auction record fora picture from the final

chapter of the artist’s long career. Previously, this house’s New York salesroom hadsupplied the record for a 1982 canvas that fetched $5.9m on 15 November 2007. However, a more appropriate comparison might be another 1984 painting, identical in dimensions and also resembling a large drawing in oil colours, which had sold for £916,000 ($1.8m) at Sotheby’s London on 7 February 2007. With a stock of similar worksavailable from Gagosian and other dealing sources, the price appears to defy logic until it is remembered that Braka has correctly called, and led, the market through the reassessment of other artists with impeccable judgment.

Franz Gertsch, Patti Smith IV, 1979, est £1.5m-£2m ($3m-$4m), unsold

The centrepiece of the house’s catalogue was this monumental portrait (lot 213) of Patti Smith, the poet and musician, who enhanced its historical pedigree by performing an unplugged set of songs at Phillips the previous weekend. With Franz Gertsch having featured prominently in the Hayward Gallery’s admired “The Painting of Modern Life” at the end of last year, the time to bring a significant work by this fine painter to auction seemed to be perfectly judged but, to the room’s surprise, there were no bids. Perhaps the artist’s name is simply too rare toregister with contemporary art’s present fashions.

But the identity of thepicture’s consignor is afascinating conundrum that illustrates just how far auction houses have journeyed away from their traditional role as an agent facilitating transactions between a vendor and competing purchasers. As the catalogue correctly identified, this lot had been exhibited, with a second Patti Smith portrait from the same series, at Patrick Painter’s Los Angeles gallery four months earlier, apparently onconsignment from Berlin dealer Michael Fuchs. Art market sources have indicated that Simon de Pury acquired both canvases for $5.5m on that occasion and would have turned a useful profit if the lot had sold at, or close to, its low estimate. But since thecatalogue did not print the usual symbol identifying the house’s interest in a work, the deal may, in fact, have been funded by an existing client or the new Russian investor who is believed to have placed substantial funds at de Pury’s disposal.

Christie’s, 30 June

Success, surprise and a rare disappointment characterised the stage at Christie’s, which obtained the highest price of the week with a triptych of small self-portraits by Francis Bacon, 1975, acquired by an unidentified telephone bidder for £17.3m. Incontrast, Lucio Fontana’s pink colourway La Fine di Dio, 1964, which had been estimated to fetch £8m, failed to attract a single bid. It had been consigned by Daniele Pescali who had paid £397,500 ($756,000) for it in these same rooms on 4 December 1996. A golden version had fetched £10.3m at Sotheby’s on 27 February 2008 and set what were, as it now turned out, misplaced expectations for a similar result. Evidently, pink is not the season’s new black (nor gold).

And the biggest surprise of the week? The assertive, but ultimately unsuccessful, entry of L&M Arts into the market of early Gilbert & George. To Her Majesty, 1973, was keenly pursued by Robert Mnuchin who jumped bids in an attempt to shake away his telephone competitor who acquired the photo-piece for a new auction record of £1.9m. The following evening, L&M Arts was the underbidder for Dead Boards No 13, 1976, which fetched £541,250 ($1.03m) at Sotheby’s. Gilbert & George appear to have gathered an important new supporter and the market waits to see how the connection evolves. Jeff Koons, Balloon Flower, 1995-2000, unpublished est £12m ($22.8m), sold for £12.9m ($25.7m), guaranteed

The delivery of this famous “Celebration” sculpture toauction in London, and its

preview exhibition in St James’s Square where it received its own round-the-clock security detail, was the biggest talking point of the week and a bold gamble for the house, which has identified this city as the significantdistribution point for the new markets of Russia, Ukraine, China and the Middle East.

The identity of the consignor was widely known as Dallas hedge-fund manager Howard Rachofsky and his wife Cindy, who are believed to have purchased the sculpture in its distinctive magenta colourway from the artist for $1.1m in 2000. Subsequently, it was installed on the pond in front of their Richard Meier home in one of the most serene presentations that the art of Koons has ever received. House and collection were bequeathed to the Dallas Museum of Art in 2005, but it turns out that the benefactors have retained control of the collection’s development and are permitted to make disposals and new acquisitions.

In order to win thisprestigious piece of business, Christie’s is believed to have agreed a guarantee of $25m, which was covered (just) by the winning telephone bid but any residue profit will have been eroded by the operational costs that included transportation of the sculpture to Germany for a fresh polish ahead of its arrival on the lawns of London.

As the summer recess started, the sculpture’s new owner had not been identified and it will be interesting to learn, in due course, whether one of the new markets being targeted by the house has, indeed, acquired this highly distinctive “objet de grand luxe”.

Damien Hirst, L-Tyrosine-15N, 2001, est £2m-£3m ($3.8m-$5.7m), unsold, guaranteed

Ahead of his exhibition-auction being staged in collaboration with Sotheby’s on 15 and 16 September, Damien Hirst was a quiet and thin market. Phillips de Pury had offered a large butterfly stained glass window picture, which fetched £1.6m ($3.04m); and, the evening after this auction, White Cube paid £1.4m ($2.6m) for abutterfly tondo consigned to Sotheby’s by Daphne Guinness Niarchos. However, this canvas, a pharmaceuticalpainting of mural dimensions, carried the highest valuation of Hirst’s week, as well as aguarantee, but failed to arouse any interest. Its consignor was Dawnay Day partner Peter Klimt, who offered a large Ayers Rock painting, 1985, by Michael Andrews in the same catalogue. This important picture had accumulated an impressive exhibition history and provenance, having belonged to Charles Saatchi and Astrup Fearnley, and will be returning to Oslo since it was purchased by Gallery K proprietor Ben Frija for a new auction record of £937,250 ($1.8m).

With the investment bank’s collapse announced a fortnight after the auction had taken place, further auction consignments from this source, from the private collections of Klimt and his partner Guy Naggar, appear to be inevitable.

Sotheby’s, 1 July

The star turn on the final evening of the contemporary art season was Francis Bacon’s extraordinarily powerful small portrait of George Dyer, 1967, which fetched £13.8m ($26.2m). In addition, there were new auction records for Marlene Dumas, for Bridget Riley and for Richard Prince, whose Overseas Nurse, 2002, was purchased by Valentino, seated in the front row of the room, for £4.2m ($8m). This canvas had been consigned by leading Wolverhampton collector Frank Cohen, who may have paid $80,000 for it in 2003. To be sure, he turned an extraordinaryprofit, but Sotheby’s is believed to have supplied a guarantee at the level of the winning bid and will not, therefore, have participated in the action.

Another guaranteed lot on which the house is assumed to have posted a small loss was Andy Warhol’s 5 Deaths, 1963, which had been consigned by Connecticut collector Peter Brant and for which an unidentified telephone bidder paid £1.6m ($3m) against competition from L&M Arts. Antony Gormley, Angelof the North, 1997, est £600,000-£800,000 ($1.1m-$1.5m), sold for £2.3m ($4.6m)

By tradition, public ormonumental sculpture has been an unreliable performer at auction, although Sotheby’s continues to develop an interesting solution through its series of selling exhibitions in the stately grounds of Chatsworth and, tonight, delivered new auction records for Anish Kapoor, whose substantial alabaster block, 2003, fetched £1.9m ($3.6m); and for this artist, whose life-scale model for Angel of the North demolished Gormley’s previous record of £334,100 ($635,500) for a Domain sculpture offered in these same rooms on 28 February 2008. The Angel edition, in total a series of five cast-iron sculptures, was originally priced at £150,000 ($285,300) by White Cube in 1997. An unidentified Asian (Korean?) consortium was the lot’s underbidder and also underbid the two lots that immediately followed it: Bacon’s portrait of George Dyer and the brothel picture of Marlene Dumas.