Contemporary art 2011: a new lease of life!



The austerity imposed by the crisis has been relegated to a distant memory. Collectors are back in the market, not just as observers but as active participants. Over the last three years, revenue from the Contemporary art sales in London has been rising: Christie’s and Sotheby’s evening sales generated £22.3m in February 2009, £79.5m in February 2010 and £83.2m in February 2011.

On 15 February, Sotheby’s sold 54 out of the 59 lots offered for £30.03 million. Looking only at the bottom line, the American auctioneer actually posted revenue down £14.1m versus the same sale a year earlier. However in February 2010, Sotheby’s sold an exceptional private collection with 49 masterpieces from the Sammlung Lenz Schönberg collection and it sold an additional 20 works (total of 74 lots sold in 2010).

Warhol… pillar of the sales
The following day, their competitor Christie’s added a further £20 million to Sotheby’s already good result, with a substantial help from a self-portrait by Andy WARHOL that fetched £9.6m vs. an estimated range of £3m – £5m. This Warhol self-portrait , Janus, with half of his face hidden in shade, tripled a record fetched by a smaller version in different colours in 2004 (roughly £3.5m on 11 May 2004 at Christie’s). The version sold at Christie’s is an exception work not just for its bright red but also for its excellent provenance: its was specially made for the American pavillon of the Universal exhibition of Montreal in 1967 housed in the famous geodesic sphere created by Richard Buckminster Fuller.
A central pillar of any major Contemporary art sale, Andy Warhol was represented at Sotheby’s by an iconic Marylin Monroe. Her face, repeated nine times in negative in Nine Multicoloured Marilyns (Reversal Series, 137.2 x 106.7 cm) fetched £2.8m. That result was in itself a sign of the recovery, since an exactly similar work that Christie’s hoped to sell for $2.8m remained unsold on 19 October 2008 at the beginning of the crisis. Between 1996 and 2000, works from the series Nine Multicolored Marilyns changed hands for between 200 and 400 thousand pounds at auctions!

The best results
The two days of sales generated some memorable results. The Sotheby’s sale opened with the famous pile of 100,000 sunflowers seeds in porcelain by AI Weiwei, offered for between £80,000 and £120,000 and which fetched £290,000. During the sale, thousands of similar hand-painted grains were strewn over the floor of the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern where the Chinese artist’s work is currently on show (from 12 October 2010 to 2 May 2011).
Less known, the Swiss artist Franz GERTSCH created a whole series portraying a certain Luciano Castelli, of which LUCIANO I (acrylic, 1976) doubled its high estimate (which was already a record price). As works by this artist are rare at auction, the piece fetched £1.3m. The same day, Sotheby’s got very close to a new record with Juan MUÑOZ’s Conversation Piece in bronze. This unique work had been in a private collection since 1993. It depicts a father tenderly leaning over his son and seems to have seduced the Sotheby’s audience: the bidding went all the way to £2.7m. A year earlier, not two but six man-sized bronze statues by the artist, Conversation Piece III, sold for a similar price, a record at £2.9 m ($4.3m) at Sotheby’s (12 May 2010). Worth mentioning also, Glenn BROWN’s Declining nude which fetched the artist’s second best-ever auction price at £1.1 m behind his Dali-Christ which sold for £1.25m at Christie’s on 30 June 2010.
Other successful sales: Günther UECKER’s Lichtfeld, estimated at £300,000 – £400,000 and which fetched £620,000 and Abstraktes Bild Gerhard RICHTER. Guaranteed by Sotheby’s, the latter work fetched £6.4m.

At Christie’s, the first lot – a somewhat disturbing sculpture by Dinos & Jake CHAPMANTwo Faced Cunt – fetched an excellent price. Its inclusion in the famous Sensation exhibition by Charles Saatchi is the ‘stamp’ that allowed the work to triple its estimate (£60,000). After that, the best results rewarded (apart from Warhol) Martial RAYSSE for whom a record was expected for L’année dernière à Capri (titre exotique), estimated £1m – £1.5 m. And indeed it came… the work went under the hammer at three times its estimate! An exceptional piece, the work fetched £3.6m.New records were also signed by Jenny SAVILLE (Branded, £1.3m), Miquel BARCELO (Tres equis, £1.1m) and Adriana VAREJAO whose bloody revisits of Lucio FONTANA’s slashes, Parede com Incisões a la Fontana II (Wall with Incisions a la Fontana II) sold for £950,000.

A few hours after these strong Contemporary art sales, 70% of AMCI Art Market Confidence Index) expressed a firm intention to buy works of art. The art market appears to have decided: the top-end is back on form!