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Sale reports: Impressionist and Modern, Surrealism, and Contemporary

Peaks for best modern and contemporary artists High prices for works by Miró, Bacon, Moore and Richter are reminiscent of the boom

Impressionist and modern

The London sales of impressionist and modern art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s (7 and 8 February) were a study in contrasts: Christie’s fulfilled expectations with the best material and results, while Sotheby’s disappointed both in its offerings and outcome. Christie’s lengthy 88-lot sale was defined by a sculpture by Henry Moore, Reclining Figure: Festival, 1951 (est £3.5m-£5.5m), which sold for £19.1m, heady prices for works from the philanthropic German foundation Hubertus Wald, and three so-so paintings from the Elizabeth Taylor estate. But it was Christie’s separate surrealism section, led by the £16.8m sale of Miró’s Painting-Poem, 1925 (est £6m-£9m) which broke the previous $17m (£8.6m) record for the artist set at the peak of the market in May 2008, and confirmed that the right surrealist works, appropriately estimated, remain highly attractive.

One of the underbidders on the Miró was the Dusseldorf-based collector Christian Peter Henle, who had come to the sale especially for that lot. “This is the last Painting-Poem in private hands, it could have been priced even higher,” he said. The work sold to a telephone bidder, against Henle and the New York dealer Bill Acquavella.

The following night at Sotheby’s, Miró’s Peinture, 1933, was punished for its aggressive estimate of £7m-£10m, and was bought in at £6.4m. It was not the only casualty of the evening: the heavily hyped symbolist landscape by Gustav Klimt, Lakeshore with Birches, 1901, failed at £3.8m (est £6m-£8m). However, after some urgent negotiations between three potential buyers and the owners in the room, they accepted a £5m hammer for the work, a price the auction house said was “acceptable to both sides”. This was announced from the rostrum before the sale ended, but the last-minute deal was not included in the sale total. Overall, Sotheby’s smaller and less compelling catalogue fell short of expectations, with 12 of 53 lots unsold and only £78.9m raised, under the pre-sale target of £79m-£113.3m (estimates do not include premium, results do). After this sale, Heinrich zu Hohenlohe from London-based dealer Dickinson said: “Christie’s sale was too long, with too much good material, while Sotheby’s was too short and there was not enough good material.”

Surrealism

The Art Market Report’s index for surrealist painting currently stands at an all-time high of 13,094 (from a base of 1,000 in 1976). It is a field that has proved attractive to new buyers, notably Russians.

The growing strength of this market was highlighted during last year’s February sales in London, when a 1929 Dali portrait of Paul Eluard sold for £13.5m at Sotheby’s, well above its £3.5m-£5m estimate. Another Dalí sold for £4.1m at Christie’s in the same month, going to the Spanish-based Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation.

Last year’s results no doubt helped the auction houses to attract strong surrealist consignments for this February’s sale. The best examples were in the Wald collection at Christie’s, including three fine works by Jean Arp. The top material drew numerous bids, including Picabia’s Hera, 1929, which was chased by four bidders. Christie’s Japanese specialist Sumiko Roberts (who often bids for Japanese buyers) emerged victorious at £1.8m, over double the lot’s £700,000 high estimate. Buyers seem to like languid nudes in dreamy settings by Paul Delvaux, which performed well at both houses: at Christie’s, Le nu et le mannequin, 1947, sold for £3.4m, just on the upper estimate, while at Sotheby’s Les adieux, 1964, with less bare flesh, made £1.5m (est £700,000-£900,000).

Nevertheless, there were casualties. Weak examples by brand names fell by the wayside, notably Dalí’s Oasis, 1946, which failed to raise a single hand in the Sotheby’s salesroom (est £4m-£6m). Christie’s dark Dalí painting, L’Automobile Fossile du Cap Creus, 1936 (est £1.4m-£1.8m) also failed to attract any bids. Aside from the £16.8m Miro, the overall sales results were actually comparable with last year.

Nonetheless, while “surrealism has traditionally been a niche market... it’s definitely expanding,” says James Roundell of the London dealers Dickinson. “There is more literature, the auction houses are giving it more prominence and exhibitions such as [the] Tate’s Miró are helping to raise visibility. There is a lot of material in private hands, which means there is supply. It used to be mainly a European taste, but the buying base is broadening.”

Contemporary

In contrast with the sometimes patchy results in the impressionist and modern sector, the sales of contemporary art (13 to 16 February) demonstrated a huge appetite for blue-chip artists. The fortnight’s top price was for Francis Bacon’s powerful, lilac-hued Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, 1963, at Christie’s. Estimated at £15m to £20m, there were at least five bidders chasing the work, which sold for £21.3m. Boosted by strong US and European buying, Christie’s 66-lot sale realised £80.6m—the firm’s second highest total for a contemporary art sale in London, beaten only by the £86.2m made in June 2008. The total would have been higher without the last-minute withdrawal of Rothko’s Untitled, 1955 (est £9m-£12m). Dealers speculated that there had been no interest in the lot, although the official line was that the firm was working on a private sale “and wanted to be in control of the price”.

Sotheby’s contemporary sale on 15 February lacked any outstanding lots but came in over its £35.8m-£49.7m pre-sale estimate with £50.7m. Four of the top five lots were works by Gerhard Richter, with his Abstraktes Bild (768-4), 1992, fetching £4.9m (est £3m-£4m). Also popular were two abstracts by Zao Wou-ki, including 28.12.99, 1999, which sold for £1.8m (est £500,000-£700,000). Two records were set, for A.R. Penck (£325,250) and Albert Oehlen (£445,250).

There were high hopes for works by Lucian Freud (the auctions coincided with the opening of a Freud exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery). Three paintings and seven drawings met varying fortunes with no spectacular prices and lacklustre bidding. The highest price was at Christie’s where Small Figure, 1983-84, just made its low estimate at £1.6m.

In the same week and same street, Bonhams held a contemporary art sale but with a spectacularly different outcome: its 20-lot sale only managed to raise £1m and 55% of the works were bought in. “Obviously we’re disappointed but it was only our second sale and we’re still working on a five-year timescale,” said Anthony McNerney, the head of contemporary art at Bonhams.

Philips de Pury held its sale on the 16 February, a pared-down auction of just 25 lots, with a pre-sale estimate of £5.2m-£7.7m and total sales of £5.7m, with 97% sold by lot. Specialist Michael McGinnis said the firm had deliberately edited the sale very selectively, with the aim of making a smaller and lower risk auction, and that this was successful. The top lot was a white Fontana, Concetto Spaziale, Attese, 1960, which made just over £1m (est £1m-£1.5m).

london. The past six months in the saleroom have seen one artist dominate the contemporary art market: Gerhard Richter. There has been a strong flow of works (mainly his later abstracts) coming up for sale and bidders have clamoured for them. He is having “his moment”, as the art adviser Lisa Schiff puts it.

For a start, there was the acclaimed Tate retrospective (6 October 2011 to 8 January 2012), which has now moved to the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin (until 13 May). With the death of Lucian Freud, Richter is widely acknowledged as the greatest living painter, and demand for his work is surging. This is not a new phenomenon: not a single Richter work has sold below its average estimate since 1988, according to an analysis of his market by the art database Artnet. As for the rate of works going unsold, this peaked once in the past 20 years, at 40% in 2001, but has generally stayed at a healthy 73% plus.

There was a glut of Richters on offer in New York last November, when Sotheby’s had eight major pieces, and there were a further 25 on offer in London last month. As for fears that prices might ease with so much supply—not a bit of it. In New York, three of his abstracts made the top ten, including Abstraktes Bild (849-3), 1997, which sold for $20.8m, and a smaller Gudrun, 1987, which sold for $18m.

In London this February, Sotheby’s made £4.9m for a 1992 Abstraktes Bild, while a big, red, abstract canvas from 1991 sold for just over £4m. All six Richters in the firm’s evening sale sold, racking up £17.6m against the pre-sale high estimate of £14.18m. Christie’s made £9.9m for its Abstraktes Bild, 1994, against an estimate of £5m to £7m. In Sotheby’s day sale, the cover lot, a lovely abstract from 1995, made £959,650, over the £600,000 to £800,000 estimate.

So, what explains Richter’s seemingly unassailable position? His works are appealing, safe investments, says Schiff. “He’s one of the artists who will never go away,” she says. Add to that a career carefully managed by his long-term American dealer Marian Goodman, the diversity of his work (from the easy-to-place abstracts and spiritual candle pieces to tougher works dealing with death), a strong following in the US and a meticulously maintained website, which illustrates all his works and gives a sales history with prices. The website has a particular resonance for buyers from the financial services industry, who are used to making decisions based on hard data.

Buyers are not only American: his appeal is global, with Chinese, South Koreans and Europeans. Schiff says she knows of a South African collector with three works.

Other buyers include the Russian collector Roman Abramovich, who spent $15.2m on a large squeegee abstract in 2008, and the Brazilian-born, London-based Lily Safra, who was the buyer of the $20.8m abstract mentioned above. She has donated it to the Jerusalem-based Israel Museum.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Sale reports: London + Richter'