Anxieties about plunging stocks and shaky accounts did little to deter buyers from Sotheby's London evening sale of contemporary art on June 26, 2002. Totaling £14.1 million [$21.5 million, at a conversion rate of ca. £2 =$3] for 46 of 55 lots offered (about 84 percent), it was the department's highest grossing sale since 1990.
The following evening at Christie's London on June 27 posted results that were comparatively lackluster -- £8.77 million for 39 of 56 lots, or 70 percent sold, for a sale that combined post-war and contemporary material.
But start at Sotheby's, where auctioneer Tobias Meyer put on a highly entertaining show, wiggling his eyebrows and leaning in toward the audience as he ferreted out each new bid. The highest call of the evening went out for a 32 x 39 in. cloud study from 1970 by Gerhard Richter, hammered down for £1.99 million (est. £300,000-£500,000). The bidding "was fearless and fast," Meyer later said of the entire sale, and certainly Henry Allsopp, New York director of London dealers Dickinson/Roundell, wasted no time winning this lot.
Five world records were set. Lucio Fontana's silver and blue Concetto Spaziale (1961), its surface covered with a crescendoing spiral of puncture wounds, sold to an anonymous phone bidder for an outstanding £1,381,650, well over the high estimate of £800,000. A anonymous European phone bidder paid an equally impressive £941,650 (est. £300,000-£600,000) for Miguel Barcelo's 1989-90 Autour du Lac Noir (Around the Black Lake), a stunning 8 x 10 ft. canvas of a glassy puddle in the barren Malian earth that was reproduced on the catalogue cover.
A 1985 Patrick Caulfield painting, a drawing-room scene featuring a vase of flowers, a decorated plate and a swath of pink light, broke the artist's auction record, selling for £111,000, well up from his previous high of £32,000. And a group of four 1992 paintings of racehorses by Mark Wallinger, bought by Charles Saatchi for £10,000 when they were first shown, sold for a record £89,150 (est. £80,000-£120,000), to the artist's dealer, Anthony Reynolds.
Saatchi was a major player in the auction, both as a buyer and a seller, though he was not physically present in the salesroom. The mega-collector-cum-dealer picked up an early Peter Doig painting, The Architect's Home in the Ravine (1991), for £314,650 (est. £120,000-£150,000). A charming image of a house in the woods covered with a lattice of white branches, the work had originally been bought directly from the artist by the now-disgraced accounting firm Arthur Andersen for its corporate collection for £1,500, according to a report in the Telegraph by ace auction scribe Colin Gleadell. Doig's already healthy market is showing continued strength, as the price fell just short of the artist's £322,500 auction record, set last season by Peter Simon of Monsoon through dealer Thomas Dane.
Saatchi's sale of Michael Landy's Costermonger's Stall, a brightly colored flower cart strung with lights that was included in the original "Sensation" exhibition, went for a record £23,900 (est. £20,000-£30,000) to collector Anita Zabludowicz, purchased through the aforementioned Thomas Dane. Very little work has come up at auction by Landy -- perhaps because the yBa shredded every single thing he owned last year as part of a well-publicized performance in a disused department store on Oxford Street.
Sotheby's senior director of contemporary art Cheyenne Westphal estimated that buyers at the evening sale were at least 60 percent European. Gerard Goodrow, director of contemporary art at Christie's, also quoted high European interest at 65 percent, and said, "It represents London's continued position as an important art-world center."
The hottest moment at Christie's on June 27 came when a painting by Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle attracted 19 phone bidders and auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen quickly brought the sale to the winning £633,650 (est. £100,000-£150,000). Bought by an unnamed U.S. dealer over the phone, the 1951 painting, done in a Pollock-inspired allover style, had a lot of appeal. The world record for Riopelle remains, however, at $1.5 million, set in 1989.
The auction contained eight works by Andy Warhol, and three works from the 1960s went unsold at the sale, most surprising of which, according to specialist Fernando Mignoni, was the 1964 unique silkscreen on paper of James Cagney in a scene from The Public Enemy (1931), which was estimated to fetch between £600,000-£800,000. The room remained silent for this lot, as it did for another early work on paper, Warhol's Race Riot (1963), which carried a presale estimate of £250,000-£350,000.
Also disappointing, given their strength in the past, were the poor performances of the German photographers. Works by Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth went unsold, and the two Gurskys that did find buyers did so at the very low end of their presale estimates.
A world record was set for Elizabeth Peyton when the painter's 1997 portrait of Matthew fetched £89,000 against an estimate of £30,000-£40,000. The work was bought by a private collector on the telephone. Represented in London by dealer Sadie Coles, Peyton's celebrity portraits will be spotlighted this fall at the Royal Academy's "The Galleries Show."
Also interesting was the sale of a thoughtful, metaphysical self-portrait by Bill Viola, a video installation that is, incredibly, the first work by the artist ever to come up at auction. Estimated to fetch between £40,000-£60,000, it was bought by London dealers Blains for £47,900.
Another highpoint of the sale came when six paintings were auctioned off from the collection of Lars Ulrich, drummer of the heavy metal band Metallica. As at the sale in New York in May, Ulrich offered works by Jean-Michel Basquiat and two CoBrA artists, Asger Jorn and Karel Appel. And as in New York, he did well, with four works going for above their pre-sale estimates. The Basquiat, a mural-sized picture from 1982 known as The Saint, was the most expensive work of the entire sale, finding a buyer at £1.38 million, just at the top end of its presale estimate of £800,000-£1,200,000.
Next up was Sotheby's later that day, with 31 of 40 lots offered, or 78 percent, selling for a total of £38.9 million. Top lot was a 1908 Claude Monet Nympheas in exceptionally good condition; it sold for £13.8 million, above its high presale estimate of £15 million -- the highest price reached at London auctions in 2002. Carol Vogel speculated in the New York Times that the unnamed buyer may have been either Stephen Cohen, a Manhattan hedge fund manager, or financier Henry Kravis.
Christie's evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on June 25 totaled almost £40 million, with 32 of 43 lots selling, or 74 percent. Top price was brought by a 1932 Pablo Picasso portrait of Marie-Therese Walter, which sold for almost £16 million, well above the presale estimate of £9 million. The buyer was anonymous.