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The great surprise of the London Contemporary art sales was not the strong performance of works by younger artists or overlooked historical masters. Taken together, all four auction houses transacted somewhere around £186m with only a few of those works selling above £10m.
That trend within the art market continues to be pronounced and persistent. We’ll have a more detailed discussion of the sales composition and performance when we publish our sales analysis in the next week. In the meantime, let’s marvel at the unexpected strong performance of the Evening sales of Contemporary art in London just when it looked like these events were getting squeezed out of the calendar.
To be sure, the top of the market is much lower than it has been in the past for these sales. Sotheby’s posted the biggest single lot with a guaranteed Lucian Freud reclining nude that sold for nearly $30m. Just below that was the surprise lot of the week, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s untitled work sold from an American collection (said to be New Line’s Michael Lynne) that composed a significant portion of Sotheby’s sale. It made just below $20m but had carried a low estimate nearly half of the final selling price.
The dogged bidding over the Basquiat began with auctioneer Oliver Barker pushing the opening bids toward the low estimate. It wasn’t long before two aggressive telephone bidders engaged in pitched campaign to out do each other. Their bids came either without the briefest hesitation or in increments greater than the crying required. The underbidder bowed out several times before finally capitulating.
In the current climate where high-value works are sold with an armature of financial support surrounding them which have a tendency to often but not always dampen bidding, it was a rare show of determination by two collectors. Earlier in the sale, a Basquiat work on paper had done quite well selling to (it appeared) Simon Lee in the audience for £3.8m with fees over a £2.5m high estimate without. It was another example, as Barker would point out to journalists, of the surprising amount of active bidding in Sotheby’s sale rooms.
Indeed, one of the reasons that these sales have come into question is the prevalence of phone bidding from buyers who have not bothered to attend the sales. Many reporters remarked on the strong support for Contemporary artists from Chinese buyers. Without glamorous big lots, the thinking goes, it would be easier to run lower value day sales in this calendar slot.
The Art Newspaper‘s Anny Shaw spoke to a few central figures about this trend:
“It is truly a global art market,” Dolman said. “The truth is that few buyers are actually based in England.” Asian bidding, particularly from Japan and Hong Kong, was apparent from the first lot. As the London art adviser Nazy Vassegh observes: “In today’s high-tech world it is no longer essential to be physically present in the location where auctions take place. The auctions do benefit, however, from the summer season as events such as Ascot and Glyndebourne, which are a strong draw for some collectors.”
“There has been a lot of discussion about fatigue, but the market feels very solid right now. We are all a little cautious at the top end of the market, which is high risk and speculative,” said Ed Dolman, the chief executive at Phillips, after the sale. “But the demand for things under £5m is extremely strong.”
With Sotheby’s and Phillips both posting strong Evening sales with only a single lot failing to find a buyer between the two houses, Christie’s seemed to back-pedal from their strategic choice to focus on March and October for Evening sale material. Here’s what Colin Gleadell got out of him after Christie’s long say sale:
“This is the kind of thing the mid-season sales are all about,” said Francis Outred afterward, discussing the pros and cons of staging contemporary art evening sales in June. “Our June sale totals had been diminishing and our October sales increasing,” he said. “So it seemed a logical progression to build up October when there are more contemporary art collectors in London. Ideally, we want to stage the best quality evening sales possible,” he said, “to raise our level by compiling masterpiece sales, and I don’t think that it is feasible to maintain that aspiration three times a year in London.”
There’s the rub for all of this. Christie’s remains focused on the ‘masterpiece’ market at a time when the bulk of buyer’s interest seems to be focused on works that have not yet been consecrated as such. Contrary to Outred’s insistence, the middle market isn’t a training ground for future collectors. Right now it seems to be a playground for the seasoned players and the speculators.
Colin Gleadell points out in his report that after many years of a rising art market, flipping is not a sure thing for those who like their art fast and furious. Commenting upon two works sold at Sotheby’s not long after being acquired at Phillips, Gleadell noted some losses:
A large Infinity Nets painting by Yayoi Kusama bought at Phillips in New York two years ago for $2 million sold below estimate for a hammer price of £1.4 million ($1.84 million). A sizeable mixed media painting from 1990 by Miguel Barcelo bought at Phillips last year for £413,000 ($540,000) sold for a hammer price of £320,000 ($418,000).
Those losses were more than offset by the gains others made. For example, Laurence Graff sold an Yves Klein he’d held for a respectable 8 year period:
a large anthropomorphic spray painting of a woman by Yves Klein that he had bought at Christie’s London in 2010 for £4.1 million. There have been no major Klein sales at auction lately, but Christie’s found a guarantor to back the painting, and it sold within estimate for £6.8 million.
Others benefitted from the transformation of an artist’s market effected by the alchemy of a major museum show and concerted auction house effort:
The £10 million to £15 million ($13 million to $20 million) estimate on David Hockney’s diptych Double East Yorkshire (1998) reflected the upward spiral in prices, especially for the post-1960s Pop work, that has been characterizing the artist’s market recently. The 12-foot, 8-inch panorama is comparable with a 1990 Santa Monica landscape that fetched a record $28.4 million in New York in May, and was last auctioned in 2013 when it was bought, reportedly by an Asian buyer, for £3.4 million. This time it failed to ignite competition and sold, probably to the guarantor, for £11.3 million ($15 million)—handing the seller a very good return on their investment.
Finally, Gleadell noticed that Asian buyers are putting pressure on particular artists:
Also going up fast is the Brooklyn-based commercial artist Brian Donnelly, known as KAWS, whose work is sold as much in Asian auctions as in the West. A typically graphic blue-and-white painting, which had been bought in New York two years ago for $125,000, sold for £321,000 or $422,000.
That doesn’t mean others cannot or will not benefit in the market. One of the more prominent sales at Sotheby’s was a new public record for Sam Gilliam who had private sales at Art Basel above this mark. Judd Tully commented on the sale:
On a more notable front, Washington Color School master Sam Gilliam’s handsome and color saturated abstraction, “Forth” from 1967 sparked an all-out bidding war, flying to a record £910,000/$1.2 million (est. £400-600,000). Sotheby’s identified the anonymous telephone buyer as an Asian collector.
Other obvious artists that still saw significant gains, according to Tully, were:
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s single figure homage to Charlie Parker, “Bird as Buddha” from 1984, making its fourth appearance at auction, sold for £2,529,00/$3,321,336 (est. £2-3 million). It carried a third party guarantee and last sold at Koller Auktionen AG in June 2005 for 480,000 CHF/$377,625 hammer. The painting debuted at Basquiat’s Mary Boone Gallery solo in 1984.
In a different light, Joan Mitchell’s late, color infused abstraction, “Champs” from 1990, realized £3,189,000/$4,188,114 (est. £2.5-3.5 million). It was backed by a Phillips’ guarantee and last sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 2013 for $2,165,000.
Finally, there was at least one new name that has begun to feel so familiar that we forget his market is quite new:
Jonas Woods’ memoir like “Rosy’s Masks” from 2008, depicting in part Tribal Art hung salon style in a cluttered room, sold to another telephone bidder for £1,569,000/$2,060,568 (est. £700-900,000). Backed by a third party guarantee, it last sold at Sotheby’s London in October, 2015 for £293,000/$453,349, proving to be a handsome investment.