This recap of Christie’s London PWC evening sale is available to AMMpro subscribers. Monthly subscriptions begin with the first month free. Feel free to subscribe and cancel before you are billed.
The London PWC sale held on the eve major art fairs in New York and Maastricht was scheduled by Christie’s in its long-term effort to remake the sales calendar that includes eliminating the June sales of Contemporary art in London. That means last night’s total of £137m, which the auction house was quick to tell viewers of the post-sale press conference was up 43% over the previous year and a record total for London beating the June 2012 Evening sale that made £132m, will be the only major sale in London for the first half of the year. With so much riding on the event (and so much seemingly achieved) one would have thought the evening would have had more energy, something Colin Gleadell remarked upon in his report on Artnet:
The result was a solid, though not stunning, £137.5 million ($190 million), with seventeen of the lots selling above estimates and only four lots unsold. This now rates as the highest total for any postwar and contemporary art sale in Europe—even if, at times, it didn’t feel like it.
There are a number of reasons why the very successful sale—Christie’s sold 60 out of 65 lots for a 92% sell-through rate—seemed to lack energy but the primary one seems to be that the top of the market lacks energy. At another time we will discuss the rising pressure from the middle market but, for now, let’s just accept that six of the ten top lots in the sale made numbers that were either pre-ordained by outside arrangements, near the low estimate or at prices that made little forward advance on resales.
There was also Christie’s curious choice to open the sale with a series of photographs and a Lalanne desk which also struck Gleadell:
The sale commenced unusually, with a group of four self-portraits by the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose market has been quietly accelerating in recent years. Alison Jacques, who represents the Mapplethorpe estate in London, said this was due to astute management by the artist’s guardian, lawyer Michael Ward Stout, who has placed significant works in museum collections such as the Getty, without an eye to financial gain. Mapplethorpe’s elevated reputation as more than just a photographer has had a spinoff in the market place.
One of these self-portraits, a 1985 platinum print in an edition of just three, with horns protruding from the artist’s curly locks, had been acquired in 2007 for $37,000 and now sold within estimate to a phone bidder for £137,500 or $190,025. The under bidder for three of the photographs was the dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, who bought a fourth work, below the estimate for £87,500, but well in excess of its $25,000 cost in 2003.
There was a flurry of bidding for Francois-Xavier Lalanne’s sculptural desk in the shape of wild sheep as it doubled its estimate to sell for £1.4 million ($2 million) to an Asian buyer. Otherwise, Asian interest in the sale was hard to spot.
In the news conference, the head of the evening sale, Katharine Arnold, emphasized the photography and the Lalanne which she said was treated as sculpture and performed accordingly. Edmond Francey then described their approach as “very very selective about editing the market.” That may be true but the price levels on many of the works that were fresh to the market left little room for competition.
Take the Jean-Michel Basquiat work that Judd Tully gives us the background on in his debut writing for Artsy:
The price points quickly escalated with the third-party backed Jean-Michel Basquiat acrylic and oilstick-on-canvas composition with crudely tied wood supports, Multiflavors (1982), which sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for £10.5 million, just above its low estimate. With the buyer’s premium, it came to £12 million.
The 60 1/2-by-61-inch work featured a menu-like array of words painted across the richly blue hued canvas in the artist’s distinctive spelling style, including “CHACKED CHICKEN WITH VRV MULTI FLAVORS.” It had last sold in 1990 at auction in Paris for the pre-Euro price of 600,000 French francs, or the equivalent of $118,261. It was first exhibited at Galerie Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich the year it was made.
It’s also worth remembering that for many years the heart of Basquiat’s market was in France where his works would appear at auction and presumably collectors still remain in possession of works bought early in the cycle of the painter’s fame. The small Francis Bacon study that was in the collection of an architect for 30 years had an even tougher time than the Basquiat outpacing its estimates. That work sold for £9m just below the low £10m estimate.
If some fresh works were struggling against expectations, resales of recently acquired works were also hard pressed to show results. Here’s Tully again:
On the sculpture front, Louise Bourgeois’s iconic and creepy steel Spider III, a unique work from 1995 and standing on eight legs at 19 inches high, went for its low estimate of £4 million, or £4.7 million with fees. It had last sold at Christie’s New York in May 2012 for $4.5 million.
When one factors in fees, that’s about a 25% return for six years holding which is a good deal for a collector but not a great deal for someone trying make a killing in art. That shouldn’t suggest a sale of total torpor. Bidders sprang to life on lots by Peter Doig, Alberto Burri, Kelley Walker and Mark Bradford. The sleeper of the evening was the aggressive bidding on a Donald Judd wall piece. Tully handles the description again:
Donald Judd’s stringently minimal, painted, aluminum relief, Untitled(1985) attracted four bidders and raced to £1.1 million—or £1.3 million with fees—finally selling to London advisor Nicholas Maclean of Eykyn Maclean for almost three times its low estimate of £350,000.
Gleadell also points to the very strong sale of lesser known artist that Francis Outred emphasized in the press conference too:
A rarity was a 1944 painting by Portuguese artist Helena Vieira da Silva, L’Incendie 1, a figurative response to the horrors of war in Europe which anticipates the more familiar energetic grid structures of her postwar abstracted landscapes. Da Silva seems to have produced few paintings in this year, when she was in exile in Brazil, as this is the only one on record at auction with that date. Rightly estimated to exceed her record of £911,000 set in Paris in 2010 it duly succeeded selling for £2 million ($2.8 million).
Another somewhat below the radar sale was the surprise announcement of third party guarantee on a small lot by an infrequently traded artist, as Gleadell details:
Another one for the record books was Kelley Walker’s large 2007 silkscreen painting, Black Star Press, which had attracted a third-party guarantee just before the sale (a clear sign of market heat) and sold near the high estimate for £572,750 ($791,541).
Though one wonders, given the result, whether the consignor came to regret taking the third party’s guarantee given the result. The final lot to set a record was a Mark Bradford work that had been hanging in an art fair booth less than three years ago. That went on to set a new high price for the artist, for now, as Judd Tully tells us:
On the artist-record front, Mark Bradford’s richly layered, large-scale multi-media collage on canvas, Bear running from the Shotgun (2014), sold to Abigail Asher of New York and Los Angeles-based Guggenheim Asher Associates, Inc. for £3.2 million (£3.8 million including buyer’s premium), surpassing its high estimate of £2.8 million. The underbidder for the 84-by-108-inch work was Melanie Clore of London’s Clore Wyndham Fine Art.
“We’re very excited, because it’s going to a collection where the new owner has a great social justice conscience, just like the artist,” said Asher as she raced out of the salesroom.
For all of the commentary on works fresh to the market, the top sale of the evening remains a bit of a mystery. The small set of six Warhol fright wigs was returning to the market after four years with a collector who is rumored to have recently disposed of another pricy Warhol held for seven years. The fright wigs made a price that was a loss with carrying and transaction costs for the seller. Given the state of the Warhol market, the evening’s other big Warhol painting, an orange Birth of Venus was bought in, Christie’s decision to move the six fright wigs through a public sale seems counter-productive.
This sale marks the fourth time in recent years that a major Warhol has returned to the market without making any real pricing progress. The Four Marilyns sold in 2015, 2.5 years after it was bought at Phillips for $2m more, was the worst example. The six fright wigs narrowly avoided that fate by posting a $1.275m gain. But the Big Campbell’s Soup Can with Can Opener made less than $4m when it moved from $23.8m in 2010 to $27.5m last year. And lest we think the problem is a recent one in the Warhol market. Two very similar Liz paintings sold in 2007 and 2011 for less than 15% gain ($23.5 to $26.9m) which barely covered transaction costs.