The London market for Contemporary art seems to be consolidating around a new constituency. For the third February in a row, Christie’s has posted strong Evening sales numbers but backing down in single-digit percentage points from the recent high point in 2012. Christie’s ability to manage its sales volume down but still within record range is a comfort to the market. Sale totals may be down but the number of bidders chasing lots is not. Jussi Pylkkanen introduced several lots during the Evening sale by remarking that he had 9 or 12 bidders on the phones waiting to get in. Christie’s claimed 327 registered bidders hailing from 40 countries for 62 lots–that’s more than five bidders a lot. Combined with an ever-broadening constituency , the mix of works that sold well in London suggests market pause at the top and renewed interest for a broad range of artists at lower price points.
Christie’s London head of Contemporary art, Francis Outred, tried to make this point in his post sale comments:
London has seen stellar evening sales for Post-War and Contemporary Art in the last few years – the Christie’s June 2012 record of £132million in a single night has never been beaten. In that spectrum, our sale stands out as a great result, a huge success. The interest in contemporary art has grown enormously, but at a rate that is sustainable. No bubble produces bidders from 40 countries and six continents for such a diverse range of works.
Here’s not the place to quibble that bubbles are called the madness of crowds for a reason and that the influx of new bidders is not necessarily contrary evidence of a bubble. But Outred is right that the diversity of works argues for healthy and geographically expanding market.
Another way to look at this is to observe that some weakness and miscalculations at the very top of the market. Christie’s did not do spectacularly well with a handful of lots like the Warhol self portrait or Twombly’s chalkboard painting that were being resold after short holding periods. Christie’s played a big hand in the Twombly and, judging by the rumors, miscalculated how far demand would be increased by recent sales.
Colin Gleadell captured this in the two top artists at Sotheby’s and Christie’s:
The other Richters did less well. While one small abstract squeezed into the estimate range and sold for £1.3 million, another that had sold for a triple estimate $6.3 million in 2011, did not reach its £3.5 million ($5.3 million) low estimate and was bought in. The fourth, a six-and-a-half-foot square abstract from 1994, Karmin (Carmine), sold just below its estimate for £9.6 million ($14.6) to art adviser Jude Hess. So the message, as at Sotheby’s, is that the Richter market is hot at the top and cool down below.
There was a similar pattern with the Twombly market. Untitled (New York City) (1970) is one of Twombly’s so-called Blackboard paintings and was being sold by Hollywood film producer Stavros Merjos, who bought it in 2012 for a record $17.4 million. Since then, another larger, perhaps more classically looped Blackboard painting sold for $69.6 million (£48 million) last November. Tonight’s painting came in with a guarantee from Christie’s and a £15 million ($22.5 million) estimate, which is where the bidding began. After the opening bidder dropped out, two bidders from different parts of Asia played cat and mouse until it sold to a Chinese speaking bidder for £19.7 million ($30 million), the top lot of the sale. The sale in London reached parts of the world that had not been reached at the previous sale in New York, said Francis Outred of Christie’s, explaining the rise in price over two and half years. However, two other Twomblys sold either on or below estimates and another was unsold. Cooler lower down, again.
The Master, Judd Tully, locks on the heat in the market:
European artists affiliated with the recently market resurgent Zero Group, the subject of a major exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York last fall, included (lot 4) Gunther Uecker, whose nail studded canvas, “Inseln (Island)” from 1964, sold for £722,500/$1,100,368 (est. £350-450,000) and (lot 5) Yves Klein, whose fabulously pink “Sculpture eponge rose (SE 207)” from 1959 — one of the artist’s cosmic colors saturating an orb of mounted sponge on a stone base — made £1,874,500/$2,854,864 (est. £600-800,000). The Uecker last sold at Sotheby’s London in February 2011 for £253,250 and the Klein sold at the same house in June 1986 for £25,000.
Another Zero Group star, Lucio Fontana’s precisely cut “Concetto Spaziale, Attese” from 1965 (lot 6) and bearing three vertical slashes on a white ground, sold to international dealer David Nahmad for £2,042,500/$3,110,728 (est. £1-1.5 million). A second Fontana — there were five offered — “Concetto Spaziale, Attese” from 1964 (lot 9) and bearing one vertical slash in the center of the monochromatic red composition, also went to Nahmad for £1,762,500/$2,684,288 (est. £400-600,000).
Bloomberg got this mysterious quote from Allan Schwartzman about the most exciting lot of the evening. Anyone watching the Contemporary market these last 18 months or more has noticed the numbers popping for Scheggi works. Christie’s has one of the best examples to come to auction and it outperformed impressively. Schwartzmann seems to be suggesting these strong numbers are part of a public strategy to generate excitement rather than eager buyers competing for previously undervalued works:
In one of the sale’s most explosive moments, a painting by […] Scheggi (1940-1971) fetched 1.2 million pounds, more than triple its high presale estimate of 350,000 pounds. Multiple bidders chased the 1967 piece, “Intersuperficie Curva Bianca.”
Until recently, Scheggi’s works were more common at Italian auctions and art fairs than in New York and London, according to New York art adviser Allan Schwartzman, a founder and principal of Art Agency Partners.
“I haven’t followed the specifics of his market, but it is commonly understood by observers of the Italian market that the recent upswing in his prices is the result of a focused effort,” Schwartzman said.
A Strong Showing at Christie’s London (BLOUIN ARTINFO)
Twombly Blackboard Work Tops Christie’s $178 Million Sale (Bloomberg Business)