In London, the auction houses pride themselves on how quickly they dispatch their sales. In what amounts to a long weekend of activity, the London sales usually come fast and furious. New York houses, by contrast, draw out their marquee events into a two-week festival of art.
By sheer accident this February, the London sales, which resume tomorrow, have broken the pattern. Now, set against the uncertain state of the world economy, what used to seem like a one-act play has turned into a grand opera. With the auction cycle caught in a brief intermission, now is a good time to recap the ups and downs of the drama and preview the finale.
Two weeks ago, Sotheby’s had a strong Impressionist and Modern art sale held in between Christie’s two solid but uneven sales. The results added a little drama to the story. Christie’s Postwar and Contemporary art sale hit a high overall number but had an uncharacteristically large number of unsold lots. Some big names — and smaller ones, too — failed to draw bidders. That’s the sort of thing that makes the art market’s stomach tighten into a knot of uncertainty.
Last week, though, Sotheby’s gala (Auction) Red in New York showed the contemporary market’s remarkable strength, even if dealer and co-sponsor Larry Gagosian was seen bidding on most of the lots. Nevertheless, star power met wall power — the sale beat high estimates and set a surprising number of records.
When the auctions resume tomorrow, some of the standouts from (Auction) Red will be represented, and the guessing game will start all over again. Will Francis Bacon reach a new record price? Can Warhol recover from the pasting he took at Christie’s where half of the pictures in the evening sale went unsold? Will Damien Hirst keep his momentum? And what about Rudolf Stingel?
At Sotheby’s, the three top lots — you can tell they’re the top lots because the auction house isn’t printing estimates for the works — are a seminal Bacon, a rare Lucio Fontana, and a major Andy Warhol self-portrait.
Bacon’s “Study of Nude With a Figure in the Mirror” from 1969, which is expected to go for £18 million, or roughly $36 million or more, is beautiful and disturbing. The sculpted and swirling faces, the twisted and voluptuous nude, and the striking lavender background make it an exceptional example of Bacon’s second great period in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Though Bacon continues to beguile the art buyers, this painting probably won’t break through the $52 million price ceiling that was established in November and earlier this month. But stranger things have happened.
Lucio Fontana’s work has been on fire in Europe for the last year. “Concetto Spaziale, La Fine di Dio” (1963) comes from one of the artist’s most important series. Fontana is the creator of a school called Abstract Spatialism and these perforated, egg-shaped canvases hold a special place in his work. This work is estimated at £4 million or nearly $8 million. Considering that Christie’s Fontana made a record $13.5 million with the buyer’s premium just a few weeks ago, the $8 million price tag is a conservative estimate. After all, Italy is the unsung hotbed of the art world these days.
The last of Sotheby’s big three is a triptych of late Andy Warhol self-portraits. Made in 1986, they were bought by the consignor in 1987, the year of Warhol’s death, and have never been on the secondary market. Estimated at more than £10 million, or almost $20 million, the self-portraits will be a test of whether Warhol’s momentum has really flagged.
Other interesting pictures at Sotheby’s include striking works by Joan Mitchell, Peter Doig, and Cy Twombly. The catalog cover lot, Gerhard Richter’s “Candle” from 1983, rounds out the sale.
Phillips de Pury continues to press its case with a strong London sale. Carving out a specialty in Russian contemporary painting, Phillips has also built a sale strong in big names such as Prince, Hirst, and Basquiat, as well as hot artists such as Cecily Brown, Stingel, and Anselm Reyle.
A very large Hirst spot painting, estimated at between £1.8 million and £2.5 million, or upwards of $3.6 million, is the biggest lot in the sale. Richard Prince’s 2003 painting, “Surfing Nurse,” is estimated at between £1.5 and £2 million, or more than $3 million. It is the latest in a series of nurse paintings the house has sold, one as high as $4 million last fall.
But, following Christie’s misses with Stingel at the beginning of the month, the most closely watched paintings may be Phillips’s three Stingel paintings, all estimated above $400,000. Phillips, though, is the house with the longest and most successful history making a secondary market for Stingel. And the pictures being sold are of an older vintage than the ones that passed at Christie’s, which should give owners of Stingel’s work — and there are a lot of them recently — more confidence.