Contemporary Art in convalescence



While London’s auctioneers congratulate themselves on the healthy sold rates at their June Contemporary Art sales (92.5% at Sotheby’s, 88% at Christie’s and 75% at Phillips de Pury & Company), bidders are continuing on a path of caution and sobriety.

In terms of revenue, Sotheby’s took first place with a total of £21.85m from 37 lots on the evening of 25 June followed, inevitably, by Christie’s with £16.2m from 35 lots on 30 June and then Phillips de Pury & Company with £6.07m. Together, the three auctioneers posted a combined revenue total of £44.1m vs 176M£ in 2008.
Sterling’s depreciation to €1.17 (vs. €1.30 in June 2008) benefited Europeans who represented 57% of the buyers at the Sotheby’s sale alongside American (24%) and Asian (19%) buyers. The Sotheby’s sale started well when Jean DUBUFFET’s gouache, Paris Plaisir III, overshot its high estimate to a final hammer price of £270,000 ($445,000). The big names in the catalogue – Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Peter Doig – all generated 7-figure results… but the low estimates were sometimes too high.
The best result came from a never-previously auctioned work by Andy WARHOL entitled Mrs McCarthy and Mrs Brown (Tunafish disaster) from his Disaster series which fetched £3.3m ($5.44m), although this was £200,000 below its low estimate. Another Warhol, Hammer and Sickle, fetched £1.75m, but also missed its low estimate by £250,000. The works by Alexander CALDER and Peter Doig faired better: an elegant rare-wood sculpture by Calder entitled A cinq morceaux de bois overshot its high estimate fetching £2.3m (estimated. £1.2m – £1.8m) and Peter DOIG’s Almost Grown reached its high estimate at £1.8m (just under $3m). On the following Tuesday (30 June), Christie’s offered a superb painting by Peter Doig entitled Night Playground that overshot its high estimate by £650,000, fetching £2.65m (almost $4.4m). This adjudication gave Doig (a Saatchi protégé) his third-best auction sale (in GBP) since 7 February 2007 when Sotheby’s added a new dimension to Doig’s prices by selling his White Canoe for £5.1m (equivalent to $10m at the time). Auction records are rare in times of crisis; nevertheless Christie’s managed to set a new record for Alighiero BOETTI after bidding for his diptych Rosso Gilera 60 1232 /Rosso Guzzi 60 1305 stopped at £600,000 (close to $1m), twice its estimated price.

Only three works reached into 7 figures at Christie’s: apart from Peter Doig’s painting (the best sale of the day), Gerhard RICHTER’s 1025 Farben (1025 Colours) fetched £1.2m (close to $2m) against a low estimate of £1.3m and one of Richard PRINCE’s Nurses generated £1.5m (nearly $2.5m) against an estimate of £1.5 to 2 million. Last year, Prince’s price index reached a peak and works from his Nurse series changed hands for between £2 and 4 million. Indeed, in 2008 his prices posted a 34% increase and his auction revenue for the year amounted to $40 million.
Phillips, De Pury & Company did not boast any 7-figure sales. Its best result came from a work by the American artist Ed RUSCHA whose That Was Then This Is Now fetched £600,000 ($991,000), on a par with its low estimate. Between its morning and its evening sale, Phillips offered a total of16 works by Chinese artists – roughly 10% of the contemporary works presented on 29 June.
At the evening sale, two works by Chinese artists attracted generous bidding: a large format painting of laughing faces by YUE Minjun fetched £350,000 (£50,000 above its estimate). Cosidering that a similar painting sold for the equivalent of £214,400 at Phillips in May 2006, this was a good result. The other was a painting (300 x 400 cm) entitled Chinese Portrait P Series 2006 No. 2, by FENG Zhengjie which fetched £81,000. However, in spite of being Feng’s largest work ever offered at auction, its hammer price was considerably beneath the prices generated by this artist just a year ago (six Chinese Portraits sold for over £100,000 in 2008). Works by ZHANG Xiaogang, YAN Pei-Ming and WANG Guangyi were bought in. It is perhaps understandable that Wang Guangyi’s very sombre painting Art Go failed to find a buyer in the £80,000 – £120,000 range. However, two paintings (Rolex and Prada) that are more typical of Guangyi’s style were also bought in the following day at Christie’s. Collectors with considerably smaller acquisition budgets clearly preferred the smaller-dimensioned but iconographically denser, and above all, cheaper work entitled Harry Winston which fetched £20,000 (approximately $33,000).