Any collectors suffering from the recession blues went wholly unnoticed in last week's post-war and contemporary art auctions in London. At Sotheby's on Feb. 7, auctioneer Tobias "James Bond" Meyer hammered down 82 percent of the lots offered for a total of £7.6 million ($10.6 million). Meyer's once famously rigid eyebrows grew increasingly animated as buyers continued to bid and bid.
The day before on Feb. 6 at Christie's, a beaming Jussi Pylkkanen presided over a strong post-war art sale and a somewhat spottier contemporary art sale (unlike Sotheby's, Christie's differentiates between the two). The totals were £7.4 million ($10.5 million) for post-war, selling 89 percent by lot, and just over £2.2 million ($3.2 million) for contemporary, with 72 percent sold. The grand total was £9.6 million ($13.7 million) for the evening.
Asked how the Warhol market is these days, Meyer cocked his eyebrow and said, "Hot. Very hot" -- an unsurprising answer, considering the Warhol retrospective at the Tate Modern, a highly acclaimed three-part documentary TV series devoted to his life and work, and celebrity-filled bashes in his name. So why was Sotheby's star lot, Two Gold Mona Lisas (1980), withdrawn from the sale? The official word at the press conference was that the owners "simply decided to withdraw it," but a group of dealers were overheard at Claridge's later that evening saying that it had been sold just prior to the sale -- themselves being the new owners.
Despite the withdrawn lot, the other Warhols at Sotheby's commanded much attention. Works from later in the artist's career fetched higher prices than usual. For example, Knives, executed 1981-82, realized £377,500 ($530,940), well above the £180,000-£250,000 estimate. A Campbell's Soup from 1986, one year before the artist's death (and depicting a flattened Campbell's dried soup box boasting of its nine pouches of dried Chicken Noodle Soup), fetched £289,500 ($407,170) against its £80,000-£120,000 estimate.
A definite highlight was an outstanding painting by British artist Peter Doig entitled Swamped (1990), depicting a canoe in a reflective pool of water that was inspired by a scene from the slasher film Friday the 13th. The striking stillness of the scene, rich with foreshadowing reds, is a beautiful juxtaposition to the horror to come. After a frenzy of bidding that at one point included curator Max Wigram, a private UK buyer won the painting for £322,500 ($453,590), well over the presale estimate of £80,000-£120,000. This is the highest price ever paid for a work by Doig, who was born in 1959. The same buyer purchased Damien Hirst's installation piece, Sometimes I Avoid People, for £168,500, at the low end of the £150,000-£200,000 estimate.
A world record was also set for a work by conceptual artist Douglas Gordon. Instruction (Number 8) fetched £30,400 ($42,900) against an estimate of £15,000-£20,000. The work comes from a series of "Instructions," this one filmed at the Galleria Bonomo in Rome in 1994. For the purpose of the work, each day during the show Gordon said "I know what you are thinking" to a telephone caller to the gallery. The lot itself was two photographs of the action and the text describing the instruction.
Gerhard Richter was very popular at Sotheby's, claiming four of the top ten prices from the sale, with Stadtbild SA soaring well above it's pre-sale estimate of £150,000-£200,000 to £641,500 ($902,250). Selling below estimate but nonetheless earning a new auction record for the artist (the specialists must have felt optimistic) was Arte Povera master Luciano Fabro's It-alia, a sculpture in the shape of Italy, with half cut from mirror crystal and half from lead. It fetched £113,000 ($159,000) against the estimate of £150,000-£200,000.
Over at Christie's, the mania for all things Warhol was primarily demonstrated by one relatively rare portrait of Judy Garland, executed in 1978, which fetched £443,750 ($627,463) against an estimate of £200,000-£250,000.
The top post-war lot was Mark Rothko's No.15, selling to a phone bidder for £1.7 million ($2.3 million), well above a presale estimate of £800,000-£1.2 million. The 1949 canvas was painted one year after the artist's mother passed away, which plunged the artist into an acute depression that appears to have galvanized him into abandoning figuration for the poetic power of sheer color. He turned out some 40 canvases in 1949 and it is generally seen as a defining point in his career.
An auction world record was realized for French abstract artist Pierre Soulages for a gorgeous predominantly black and blue 1963 canvas entitled Peinture, 23 Avril, 1963. It fetched £289,750 ($409,707) against an estimate of £70,000-£90,000. Three Francis Bacons sold, the highest earning being Portrait of a Man With Glasses IV (1963), which fetched £894,750 (£1,265,177), rocketing past the presale estimate of £300,000-£400,000. The portrait is of a face that looks as though it has been beaten, glasses mangled and crooked, done with purples and reds that evoke bruises and blood.
More holdings by German mega-collector Hans Grothe (the first half hit the block last fall) continued to wow at Christie's. Grothe sold Andreas Gursky's Untitled V (1997) for a whopping £432,750 ($611,909), against an estimate of £150,000-£200,000. Not only an auction world record for the artist, it was the highest price ever paid for a photograph in a public sale. The record came after a fierce bidding war between renowned London gallerist Jay Jopling of White Cube and a woman seated near the back of the room who was identified by observers as California art advisor June Lee. She won the lot, which depicts scores of athletic shoes in a bright white shelved display.
Christie's contemporary-art auction also set a new record for Thomas Demand, when his Studio (1998) sold for £75,250 ($106,000) against an estimate of £40,000-£60,000. Thomas Struth's Musee d'Orsay II, Paris (1989) sold to a U.S. dealer for £97,250 ($137,512), above a presale estimate of £50,000-£70,000.
Another interesting highlight was Mona Hatoum's Deep Throat (1996, in an edition of three), which went for £60,950 ($86,000) to a phone bidder, against an estimate of £25,000-£30,000. The notorious work consists of a table set with a plate that is actually the screen for a hidden video projection of an endoscopic journey through the artist's intestines. Titled with a pun on the cult porno movie by the same name, the work is central to Hatoum's reinvigoration of body art. Perfect for the living room?
The sale also featured strong prices for works by Gary Hume, Peter Doig and Glenn Brown, who though little-known in New York was a finalist for the 2000 Turner Prize. Christie's London contemporary-art expert Gerard Goodrow said, "The prices and fierce bidding seen tonight reaffirmed that London remains central to the cutting edge contemporary auction market."
Lots of great prices indeed, but how about the 28 percent that failed to sell? Among them were works by Sara Lucas, Chris Ofili, Gavin Turk and Rachel Whiteread, who, as the catalogue says, were "flying the flag for Britain." Works by Hirst did not sell particularly well either at Sotheby's or Christie's, with Beautiful C Painting, a spin tondo, being knocked down to Jay Jopling at the low end of its presale estimate and AHAA, a cabinet full of pharmaceutical drugs, going unsold at Sotheby's.
Last week, London Institute of Contemporary Arts board chairman Ivan Massow was forced to resign after a hailstorm of criticism and mockery greeted an article he wrote, that included comments like "conceptual art is pretentious tat" and that "British art is disappearing up its own arse." Has he now cause to celebrate?