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Christie’s rounded up the London Contemporary Art sales week this evening with its traditional combination of Post War and Contemporary art and 20th century Italian art. The former had been estimated at £40.9 million-£56 million ($53.4 million-$73 million) for 27 lots after 2 were withdrawn, and made £49.2 million ($64.6 million). The Italian sale had 30 lots estimated at £9.7 million-£14 million ($11.8 million-$15.7 million) after 2 were withdrawn, but only made a disappointing £5.3 million ($6.9 million) with more than half the lots unsold.
Taken as a whole, comparative figures for last October’s London sales were £64.6 million ($84 million) for 49 lots of Contemporary Art, and £24.6 million ($32 million) for 36 lots of Italian art. So, all told, while lot numbers were down by 33%, the overall sale total was a more drastic 40% down from last year.
Taking the more buoyant contemporary sale first, Christie’s had the distinction of handling the only two £10 million lots of the week.
Peter Doig’s Boiler House carried the top estimate of the London week at £13 million ($15.7 million). Dating from 1993, the painting was from the “Concrete Cabins” series, which depict a Le Corbusier designed building in France and have sold in this price region before. Promised by previous owners, West coast collectors Ken and Judy Siebel, to the San Francisco Museum of Art who lent it to a Tate retrospective in 2008, it was sold instead to the anonymous consignor at this sale. Boiler House had a third party guarantee, and although never seen at auction before, attracted little competition and sold below the estimate, presumably to the guarantor, for £13.9 million ($18.2 million) including the premium.
In second place was a rare commissioned portrait by David Hockney estimated at £11 million-£18 million ($14.4 million-$23.5 million) with a third party guarantee– an odd estimate that made most people think the reserve was probably £10 million ($13 million). Made in 1971 in the artist’s inimitably cool style mostly reserved for his friends, Ossie Clark, Celia Birtwell or Henry Geldzhaler, but of the less famous Sir David Webster, a former administrator at London’s Royal Opera House, it was being sold by the Opera House to inject some much needed cash into its operation. Hockney only accepted the commission because of his love of opera and making opera designs and probably never imagined it could be sold. As it was there were two bidders who took the bidding to the £11 million low estimate or £12.9 million ($16.9 million) including premium— the 6th highest price for the artist
Another cool, stylish portrait was Alex Katz’s 12-foot-plus, 2009 double portrait Bettina and Marina, (coincidentally Marina Abramovic, of whom, more later), with a seemingly attractive £400,000-£600,000 ($522,000-$783,000) estimate. But then the painting was not as stunning as that of his wife under an umbrella in the rain which sold for £3.4 million ($3.4 million) a couple of years ago at Phillips in London, and it sold below estimate for £437,500 ($571,484). The portrait was being sold by what Christie’s described as a ‘Distinguished Corporate Collection’ – a collection which is also offloading another 12 lots by artists such as Fiona Rae, Mary Heilmann and Chris Ofili in the day sale tomorrow. Further research reveals that these works formed part of the collection made by the Bermuda based insurance group Aspen, which were buying actively on the primary market between 2005 and 2017. However, the company was recently bought out by art collector and Met Trustee, Leon Black’s Apollo Global Management. An email to Apollo’s press representative asking whether they had acquired Aspen’s art collection as well had not been answered at time of writing.
The sale, as is customary, opened on an energy charged high with a 2001 painting, Tarifa, by Daniel Richter with the highest estimate yet for his work of £350,000-£450,000 ($457,000-$587,000). But 5 telephones and 2 commission bids took the price way beyond that and beyond a 12 year-old record to a new record £1.2 million ($1.6 million) Richter was the star of the recent Radical Figures exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery which featured some of the hottest names on the art market. He also had a sell-out show of new work at Thaddaeus Ropac in London in May, which helps to explain demand.
Also carrying a record estimate of £120,000-£200,000 ($156,000-$261,000) was Canadian artist, Steven Shearer, an artist who has been represented by multiple galleries from Gavin Brown in the US to Eva Presenhuber and Franco Noero in Europe, from where his Brother (2005) was purchased. Frequently praised for his amalgam of influences from Munch to heavy metal, Sotheby’s achieved a record £106,250 ($138,789) for him, but that was five years ago. Yesterday, Phillips could not sell a photomontage of his for £30,000 ($39,187)and this evening only one bidder was in the running, buying it below estimate for £125,000 ($163,000)… a record nonetheless.
The opening group of youngish, sought after artists also included Titus Kaphar (a regular fixture it seems, till the steam runs out) with an art historical trope, Fidelity, 2010, based on Thomas Gainsborough’s stylish portrait of Captain John Bullock with his faithful dog. Last time out, the Gainsborough went unsold at Christie’s with a £3.5 million estimate ($4.6 million). Fidelity was estimated at a more tempting £100,000-£150,000 for contemporary art speculators (another historical work by Kaphar featuring Benjamin Franklin sold for a quadruple estimate record $855,000 this month) several of whom joined in the competition this evening as it sold above estimate for £250,000 ($327,000)
Also for sale was Eddie Martinez’ ‘Men’s Health’, a 2015 painting which was sold by Mitchell-Innes & Nash at FIAC in the year it was painted for $75,000. Now at auction after the resale market has taken off for Martinez, particularly in Asia where a record $2 million was set for a painting last November, it had an in touch £200,000-£250,000 estimate, and sold above that for £350,000 ($457,000).
Squeezed in between the young ones was 73 year-old performance artist, Marina Abramovic, with the first mixed reality installation to be auctioned, The Life (2018-19). The work which creates a life like image of her which viewers see through a pair of goggles as if she was there, was being sold by the artist and the film maker, Todd Eckhart, who made the work which reportedly cost £1 million (1.3 million). If they could sell all three in the edition around the auction estimate of £400,000-£600,000 ($522,000-$783,000) they will cover costs ok. But that may prove a trickier proposition than anticipated after it sold to the Faurschou Foundation, which appeared to be the only bidder, below estimate for £287,500 ($376,000).
There was, as ever in London, a strong group of work by British artists, but they all struggled. Apart from the Hockney and the Doig the was an early Auerbach with a £800,000 ($1 million) low estimate which just eked out a bid at that price.
Two Francis Bacons were not out of the top drawer. For the earlier one, a small Head of a Man 1959, Christie’s had omitted to mention that it had been up for sale with them before, in 1995, where it was unsold with a £120,000-£160,000 ($157,000-$209,000) estimate. Bought after the sale by a London based US collector, it was back having been included in a Bacon portrait exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, this time with an ambitious £4 million-£6 million ($5.2 million-$7.8 million), but was wisely withdrawn as there was no pre-sale interest at that price.
The other Bacon was one of his last works, Study from the Human Body, 1991, found in his studio by his estate after his death. Works which Bacon had not released from his studio were always problematic under the Marlborough regime, but the estate has had a much more liberal attitude to potentially unfinished work. Thought to come from an Italian collection, Study from the Human Body (1991), a portrait of the painter Anthony Zych, was estimated at £4.6 million-£6.5 million ($4.6 million-$8.5 million) and sold just above the low estimate for £5.5 million ($7.2 million). The closest equivalent at auction in the last decade was the 1985 Figure in Movement, also with an orange background, that sold in 2010 above estimate for $14 million. The Nahmad family were underbidders.
Also from the School of London group was an early ink drawing by Lucian Freud, Untitled (Interior Drawing, The Owl). This was last auctioned in 2011 when it was bought £517,250 ($680,000) by London dealer, Daniel Katz, who was now the anonymous seller. Katz has been letting quite a lot of stock go cheaply during the pandemic, but this had a more solid looking £800,000-£1.2 million ($1 million-$1.6 million) and sold for £982,500
The exception here was a 1962 painting Oh to be a Serpent that I might love you longer by the British post-war abstract expressionist, Alan Davie, that had been in a US collection since the 1980s. Davie’s prices and reputation have gone up, then down over recent years, so this work had an attractive £50,000-£70,000 ($65,000-$91,000) estimate. Three bidders went for it, including dealer, Alan Wheatley who represents the artist’s estate Davie, but he was outbid by a private U.K. collector, Frank Cohen on the telephone as it sold for £150,000 ($196,000).