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July 7, 2008 

Last week, the art-market action moved to London, as Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips, de Pury and Co. all held sales of contemporary art. The results were once again record-setting, as anyone who scans the headlines is well aware.

Sotheby’s London evening sale of contemporary art on July 1, 2008, totaled £94,701,550 ($188,853,831), at the top end of the presale high estimate of £96.6 million. Of 75 lots offered, 71 found buyers, or almost 95 percent. (A year ago, Sotheby’s London sale of contemporary art totaled £72,427,600, or about $144,319,236, for a sale of 72 lots.)  The firm’s breakdown of buyers for this year’s sale was 49 percent Europe, 39 percent U.S. and the rest Asia and other. New auction records were set for 11 artists.

The star lot of the evening was Francis Bacon’s intimate, 12 x 14 in. Study for Head of George Dyer (1967), showing the artist’s lover in profile against a bright green background, which sold for £13,761,250 ($27,442,685), well above the pre-sale estimate of £8 million. As Carol Vogel pointed out in her report in the New York Times, the painting is the tenth work by Bacon to sell for more than $25 million in the past 18 months. The sale’s second Bacon, Figure Turning (1962), with a presale estimate of £10 million-£15 million, was bought in.

The number two lot was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Pecho / Oreja) (1982-83), a seven-foot-square portrait that seems to suggest a medical chart ("pecho / oreja" translates as "chest / ear"), which sold for £5,081,250 ($10,133,029), about in the middle of its presale estimate. Since the work was owned by the Irish rock band U2, the price was widely reported on youth-oriented radio stations. "Basquiat was a pretty rockin’ artist," said one deejay.

Still another nurse painting by Richard Prince was also in the top ten, this one titled Overseas Nurse and dating from 2002. It sold for £4,241,250 ($8,457,901), a new record for the artist. The buyer, according to press reports, was New York dealer Jose Mugrabi.

Andy Warhol’s Portrait of John McEnroe and Tatum O’Neal sold for £241,250. The work was consigned to sale by John McEnroe, who is donating proceeds to Habitat for Humanity. The funds, according to the charity, are enough to help repair or build over 100 homes in developing countries, "by the sweat of the families that will live in them."

Auction records were also set for Marlene Dumas (£3,177,250), Bridget Riley (£2,561,250), Frank Auerbach (£2,455,294), Antony Gormley (£2,281,250), Anish Kapoor (£1,945,250), Martial Raysse (£1,161,250), Jean Tinguely (£1,049,250), Domenico Gnoli (£769,250), Sean Scully (£657,250) and Rachel Whiteread (£445,250).

Prices given here include the auction house premium of 25 percent of the first £25,000, 20 percent of any additional sum up to £500,000, and 12 percent of the rest.

Christie’s London post-war and contemporary art evening sale on June 30 totaled £86,241,600 ($171,879,508), a record for the firm for such a sale in Europe. Of 58 lots offered, 48 sold, or 83 percent. (Christie’s sale in June 2007 totaled £74,072,800, or about $147,256,726, on a sale of 101 lots, almost twice as large.) According to Christie’s, 42 percent of the buyers were from Europe and the U.K., while 48 percent were from the Americas.

The top lot of the auction was once again Francis Bacon, whose Three Studies for a Self Portrait, painted in Paris in 1975, sold to a telephone bidder for £17,289,250 ($34,457,475). The modestly sized work (three panels, each 14 x 12 in.) was estimated to sell for $20 million.

But the sale’s most notorious work was no doubt Jeff Koons’ large stainless steel Balloon Flower (Magenta) (1995-2000), which was being sold by Dallas collectors Howard and Cindy Rachofsky, who had reportedly bought the work for about $1.1 million in 2001, quite a sum at the time. In London the work sold for £12,921,250 ($25,752,051) to an anonymous buyer, a new record for a work by the artist at auction.

Speculation in the auction room centered around Kiev billionaire Victor Pinchuk, who is said to have bought the two big Koons sculptures sold in November in New York, Hanging Heart ($23.5 million at Sotheby’s) and Blue Diamond ($11.8 million at Christie’s).

Another top lot was Lucian Freud’s Naked Portrait with Reflection (1980), a portrait of a nude woman curled up and reclining on a threadbare sofa, with the bottom of the artist’s trousers and his shoes showing in a corner. The painting sold for £11,801,250 ($23,519,891), the second-highest price for a work by the artist at auction.

Seven other artist’s records were set, for Gilbert and George (£1,889,250), Nicolas de Stael (£1,721,250), Antonio López García (£1,385,280; the price is also a record for any Spanish artist at auction), Syed Haider Raza (£1,273,250), Yan Pei-Ming (£1,026,850), Michael Andrews (£937,250) and Karin Mamma Andersson (£517,250). A record was also set for a painting by Koons when Auto (2001) sold for £2,505,250

At Phillips de Pury & Company London, the contemporary art evening sale on June 29 totaled £24,483,000, coming in a bit below the presale low estimate of £29,250,000. The sell-through was a little shaky, with 60 of the 91 lots finding buyers, or 66 percent.

Top lots included a minimalist late abstraction by Willem de Kooning, which sold for £3,513,250 ($7,013,875), and Warhol’s Nine Multicolored Marilyns (1979-80) from the "Reversal Series," which sold for £2,505,250 ($5,001,497). The winning bidder for the de Kooning was London private dealer Ivor Braka, according to press reports. A peculiarly horrific portrait of Mao smoking a cigarette by Zeng Fanzhi went for £2,169,250 ($4,220,704), and a gothic stained-glass-style painting made with butterflies by Damien Hirst went for £1,609,250 ($3,212,727).

New auction records were set for Banks Violette (£205,250), Franz West (£361,250), Wilhem Sasnal (£229,250), Grayson Perry (£58,850), Ugo Rondinone (£181,250), Faile (£103,250), Jeremy Deller (£61,250) and Elmgreen & Dragset (£55,250).

The June 30 day sale of contemporary art at Phillips London totaled £6,275,800, and set another 59 new auction records for artists, according to the firm.

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