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After a fairly nail-biting contemporary art evening sale in London last week, Christie’s global president Jussi Pylkkänen handed the auctioneer’s gavel to Arlene Blankers, Christie head of Decorative Arts in London for the house’s “Thinking Italian: Modern Italian Art and Design,” sale, no doubt conscious of the sea of empty bids that awaited her. Blankers ended up selling only 18 of the 30 lots offered, just 9 of which were within or above the estimate, for £5.3 million ($6.9 million) including premium—one of the lowest totals for an Italian sale in years and far below the £9.7-£14 million ($12.6 million-$18.2 million) pre-sale estimate, without premium.
The modern Italian art sales were a fixture in London’s auction calendar long before the Frieze fair was thought of, the brainchild of dealer, Ben Brown, while he worked in Sotheby’s Contemporary Art department in the 1990s. His sale was so successful, Christie’s followed suit the next year. At their peak in 2015-16 they were generating some £84 million ($109 million) between Sotheby’s and Christie’s in two evenings. A score of specialized Italian art galleries opened in London creating an alternative Italian festival within Frieze week.
But with the export of valued post-war modern art from Italy being restricted and the threat of Brexit to the movement of goods generally, the Italian market in London began to shrink. Sotheby’s stopped holding Italian sales last year, incorporating works within their mixed international modern and contemporary Art sales. This week, it was just Christie’s bravely persevering in pandemic conditions.
The sale took off at rocket speed, however, with a small blue-painted 1967 wood relief by Alighiero Boetti titled Celant. Owners of Boetti enjoy a steadily increasing demand for his work, and this example, compared to other similar works, was tamely estimated at £35,000-£50,000 ($45,600-$65,100). As attractive again was the subject being a homage to Germano Celant, the apostle of Arte Povera, who died earlier this year. The two elements created a bidding storm before selling for £450,000 ($586,000)– one of the highest on record for an example from this series.
To underline Boetti’s consistent and universal appeal, one of his large embroidered maps of the world, from 1984, sold above estimate for £1.7 million ($2.2 million)– the second highest price for a work from his “Mappa” series. The work, with an unusual and distinctive purple coloring, was underbid by the Grosvenor Vadehra Gallery, which specializes in modern Indian art, so presumably for an Indian client, but they were outbid by a phone bidder thought to be from the US.
A third, historically interesting conceptual work from 1966 by Boetti– two measuring poles from 1966 that had been bought eight years ago for £290,000 ($380,000) sold, albeit on the low estimate, for £500,000 ($650,000). Other strong prices were realized for late 1950s to early 1960s works by Mimmo Rotella and Mario Schifano. Following the success of his bread rolls at Sotheby’s one of Piero Manzoni’s 1957 conceptual series of 7-meter drawn lines folded in a sealed cardboard tube, which had been bought in 1998 for £21,800 ($28,381) sold, after competition from London, Switzerland and the Middle East, to an Asian bidder above the estimate for £206,250 ($270,000).
But this was not enough to raise the spirits. An important 1965 sculpture of an anti-aircraft gun by Pino Pascali was estimated too high at £2.5 million-£3.5 million ($3.3 million-$4.6 million) to sell, and is currently subject to after sale negotiations. A unique sculpture by the highly rated Luciano Fabro which had cost £290,500 ($378,200) over six years ago, sold on a bid below estimate for just £240,000. A good 1960 example of Salvatore Scarpitto’s bandage compositions, soaked red like blood was from the collection of Italian senator, Walter Fontana, who had bought it in 2015 for €675,000 ($879,000) found no buyer at £500,000 ($651,000) before it went unsold. The bloodbath is best read in the top 9 estimated lots which reads two withdrawn, five unsold and only Boetti coming out unscathed.
“One of the problems Christie’s had was that all the estimates were set at retail level,” said London art dealer Ben Brown after the sale, adding that, “In the past, these Italian sales were full of dealers, willing to pay low estimate prices where they could see a margin, and ensuring little went unsold. Now, most of the estimates are only targeting private buyers and the dealers are not generating enough capital through art fairs to mop up the low estimate lots.” Brown— normally an active bidder—only bought one Italian work, a Fontana at a bargain level during Christie’s London contemporary day sale today.
Another London dealer, Marco Voena, who sat through the sale without bidding, made a similar comment, adding that, if he knew where a consignment was coming from and the works were unsold– as with the £800,000 ($1.1 million) unsold Fontana painting from the respected Folco collection— he could go straight to the source without paying the auction house’s ballooning commission rates. A unique iron Fontana sculpture from 1957, also from the Folco collection, might also be available in that way after it was withdrawn with a £2.5 million ($3.3 million) low estimate. The work was bought by Folco in 2008 for £1 million ($1.3 million), and “should have made £2 million with a more sensible estimate,” according to Brown.
Ursula Casamonti of Tornabuoni Gallery, which has branches in London, Paris, Milan and Florence agreed with Brown’s sentiments on the estimates. “I think that it’s superficial to measure the success of the market on the number of lots sold or not sold at this time,” said Casamonti. “But the Dorazio, an excellent piece, didn’t sell because its estimate was too high— near the record price. At this moment, it is not possible to have so many works offered at the record price level,” she said.
“The issue is low volume of top works and not a lot of buyers,” she continued, “This is not a catastrophe.” Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s stage modern and contemporary Italian art sales in Milan next month when the market will be scrutinized again.