This recap of Sotheby’s London Contemporary 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 return of flipping has been greatly exaggerated. It was perhaps too easy to look at this week’s auctions with top lots returning to market after not-too-long and conclude that flippers were again ascendant. The results of the last two night’s auctions have shown that, at least at the very top of the market, we’ve reached stable price level.
Don’t take our word for it. Here’s former Christie’s frontman and now private dealer and gallerist Brett Gorvy talking to the dean of art market journalists, Judd Tully:
“I don’t think there’s any progression in the market,” said Gorvy, who also noted that price is strictly governed by quality as buyers have become more discerning. “Anything not quite there, the prices are affected.”
In other words, although Sotheby’s was able to post a strong evening sale of £109.3m with 95% of the lots sold (21% of them above the high estimate, according to our friends at Live Auction Art,) where most of the pre-sale top lots were sold to guarantors which, Colin Gleadell explains, made up substantial portion of the pre-sale low estimate:
Taking some drama out of the proceedings, 21 of the lots were guaranteed either by Sotheby’s or a third party, with a combined low estimate of £48.5 million ($67.4 million)—more than half the value of the sale. Eleven of them were last-minute third-party guarantees, arranged in the 48 hours before the sale.
Deflating the expectations that flipping would produce excitement was Sotheby’s top lot, a much-traded Peter Doig painting which Gleadell speculates still made a profit for its consignor even at the £14.3m selling price:
The seller this evening bought it in 2016 for £11.3 million ($15.7 million) and would have made close to £2 million after fees, if there were any.
Guarantees themselves were not the determining factor in success. The second most valuable lot of the evening was an early Gerhard Richter abstract painting that was sold “naked” and chased to within £500k of the high estimate. Gleadell provides some background:
a very large early example, Gelbgrün (Yellow-Green) (1982), once handled by the disgraced dealer, Helge Achenbach, with a £7–£10 million estimate. It needed no guarantee and sailed to £10.9 million ($15.1 million) on a phone bid from an American buyer, much to the delight of its German owner.
The work was once owned by the Ulbricht Collection in Dusseldorf and has been widely exhibited as recently as three years ago at the Frieder Burda museum. The painting may have succeeded because of its combination of large size and relatively small price compared to the later large abstract paintings which trade at multiples of the Sotheby’s price.
Another work that seems to have surprised auction watchers is Christopher Wool’s massive 10ft-by-8ft gray 2007 work being sold by Benedikt Taschen, according to Tully:
The Wool ignited a fierce and drawn-out bidding battle in the salesroom before finally selling to New York’s Andrew Fabricant of Richard Gray Gallery for a sizzling £9.1 million (£10.4 million with fees), well above the high estimate of £6.2 million. Bidding opened at £3.7 million and almost instantly started a bidding ping-pong match between Fabricant and the New York-based private dealer Philippe Ségalot, with each volley across the net nudging the price up in £100,000 increments. […] The seasoned dealer pointed out that another Wool from that small group of monochromatic, large-scale works sold at Sotheby’s London a year ago for £7.1 million. Another version resides at Tate Modern.
As happens with relative prices the bidding was sparked by the hope of getting a bargain but ended up pushing the price level of this select group of works up by another 30%. Something similar happened with the other successful Richter, one of only a handful of large color chart paintings which are mostly in museums, according to Gleadell:
a rare Gerhard Richter color chart painting titled 1025 Farben (1974). Very few works from this series have been at auction, possibly because some are known to have condition problems. The last color chart painting at auction was in 2014 when a larger work, though with fewer colors, sold below estimate for £3.9 million. This evening’s example had a £5.7 million estimate and attracted competition from Brett Gorvy of the Levy Gorvy gallery, and Nicholas MacLean of Eykyn Maclean, the former winning out at £7.4 million ($10.3 million). The painting was last sold in New York in 2008 for $4 million (£2.1 million).
The most exhibited example of these large color charts is said to be in the same collection that once held the large 1982 abstract. Still working our way down the top prices at Sotheby’s, yet another familiar artist was the focus of an unexpected dogfight among bidders. Tully had his eyes on this:
Concetto Spaziale, Attese (1963), a Ferrari-red Fontana bearing six vertical cuts, […] launched a bidding battle that ended with a victorious telephone bid of £4.3 million (£5 million with fees), well above its £3 million high estimate. It last sold at Sotheby’s London in March 1995 for £84,000.
Most of the remaining top ten works—the Rudolf Stingel Tyrolian landscape bought from Gagosian less than four years ago, a Warhol hammer and sickle once owned by Thomas Ammann and bought from a private collection in 2013, Richter’s medium-sized abstract Wind, and the 1968 Pistoletto Lovers—were sold for prices that showed little excitement. One of the few flipped items to make a good showing over a four year holding period was Antony Gormley’s maquette for the Angel of the North which made £2.8m having been bought for a little more than £1m. That price may have been helped by Yusaku Maezawa’s recent acquisition of another similar work for more money.
Some other strong prices were for a small £2.16m Sigmar Polke raster painting as Lévy Gorvy holds a show of works in a similar vein; a record for a complete set of Warhol Marilyn prints at £2.34m; and then a few other noteworthy pops. For example, Tully was watching Albert Oehlen’s 1994 which:
sold for £1.6 million (£1.9 million with fees), just above its high estimate of £1.5 million. It came to market with an irrevocable bid, and last sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 2012 for $722,500, a record for the artist at the time.
Gleadell was watching the sale of Richard Prince’s work, including hood sculpture that got unexpectedly heated:
[F]rom 1989–90 [it] sold above estimate for £2 million ($2.8 million). A record for a Prince sculpture, it sold to Amalia Dayan of the Luxembourg Dayan gallery and wife of collector Adam Lindemann, who had to beat off competition from the Nahmad family and a collector from Paris.
And a joke painting bought at Christie’s in 1995 for £6900:
The Housewife and the Grocer (1988) sold tonight below estimate, but it hammered down for £1.4 million ($1.95 million) to dealer Per Skarstedt.
Gleadell also had the goods on some savvy short-term trading that proves flipping isn’t a matter of timing so much as finding a market that offers an arbitrage opportunity like this one:
The most impressive gains were for some of the comparatively lower value lots. US artist Sam Gilliam, for instance, has been riding a steep incline these past couple of years, and one seller had been lucky enough to buy one of his folded polyester works from 1982, After Micro W #2, through an online Paddle 8 auction in 2016 for $44,000. This evening it sold for £200,000 ($277,520).