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Art Market Watch


by Jessica Mizrachi
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Can’t make it to London for this week’s sales of contemporary art? Well, you could watch live streams of the action on the auction house websites, but the camera stays glued to the rostrum, which hardly gives the full picture. Increasingly, art-market fiends can follow journalist-tweeps in the salesroom, who, in addition to tweeting results, often make note of ambient details the cameras miss.

Take this tweet from Kelly Crow of the Wall Street Journal, for instance: “Be glad you are watching @Sothebys sale online because it's hotter than an Alabama church service in here. Catalogs as fans?”

As it turns out, “hot” described more than just the temperature in the sales room. The auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips in London this week saw heated bidding that resulted in slim buy-in rates and new artist records -- sure signs of a healthy, if not bullish, art market.

Christie’s London got things started on Tuesday evening, Feb. 14, 2012, with 58 of 65 lots selling, or 89 percent, for a total of £80,576,100 (ca. $126, 500,000), within the presale total estimate of £57 million-£84 million. The last-minute withdrawal of a big-ticket Mark Rothko work (est. £9 million-£12 million) didn’t seem to slow the momentum of the sale, which got off to a strong start when the fifth lot on offer, Christopher Wool’s stencil-painted Fool -- practically his signature work these days -- made £4.9 million (ca. $7.7 million) against a high estimate of £3.5 million, setting a new record for the artist at auction.

As Crow noted via twitter, “Ha, several dealers fighting over Wool's ‘Fool.’ No comment.”

A suite of “School of London” works followed -- three works by Lucian Freud (two of them drawings) brought in a combined total of £2.4 million. An oil portrait of curator Catherine Lampert by Frank Auerbach just eclipsed its high estimate and sold for £409,250.

But these lots were appetizers for the twisted figuration of Francis Bacon’s Portrait of Henrietta Moraes from 1963. Based on a photograph taken by John Deakin, who was charged by Bacon with photographing many of his subjects, the star lot was estimated at an unpublished £15 million-£20 million. The hammer came down at £19 million, or £21.3 million with fees, making it the most expensive work of the two-week stretch of Imp/mod and contemporary sales.

Not all was Baconfidence, however (to take a leaf from the playbook of the New York tabloids, which have gone pun-crazy celebrating the “Linsanity” that now greets new New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin). The English expressionist’s diptych, Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne, which came on the block later in the evening, struggled to beat its low estimate of £1.8 million, which was the price paid for the piece at Sotheby’s London in the boom year of 2007. The consignor took a loss when the work sold for £1.7 million.

German and Italian contemporary art was in demand, too. Gerhard Richter continues to be, well, Richterrific when it comes to the art market.  A verdant abstraction in the artist’s sought-after squeegee technique was chased to £8.8 million, or £9.9 million with fees, significantly above its £7 million high estimate. Another Abstrakte Bild nearly doubled its high estimate and sold for £993,250, a nice improvement -- an increase of about 27 percent -- on the £782,100 the very same work sold for in February 2008.

A more minimalist Richter, a rectangular gray canvas, sold for £385,250, with the presale estimate. Lest you feel unimpressed with the monochromatic brushwork, ponder this quote from Richter himself, published in the catalogue, “Nothing is something.”

Typical evening sale stars included Georg Baselitz (£847,650), Piero Manzoni (£2.7 million), Lucio Fontana(£2.05 million) and Nicolas de Staël (£5.3 million).

More interesting was the auction’s first lot, a pair of red fetish legs from 1966 by Allen Jones, which sold for £193,250 (ca. $303,000). Other more contemporary artists making a showing in the evening sale came from the collection of Charles Saatchi, including Berlinde de Bruyckere, whose K36 (The Black Horse), made in 2003, sold for £325,250 (ca. $510,600), a new record for the artist.

And, a white plaster figure from 2008 by Thomas Houseago, bought by Saatchi from Herald Street in London a few years ago and sold for £157,250 (ca. $247,000), was also a new auction record for the artist.

When all the results were in at Christie’s London, its Imp/mod sales (which included three other auctions) totaled £109,500,000 ($172,100,000), a new high for a London Imp/mod sale.

Sotheby’s London sale the following night, Feb. 15, 2012, was even more Richterrific, if that can be imagined, with six paintings by the 80-year-old artist accounting for £17.6 million of the sale’s final £50.7 million tally. The auction apparently saved the best for last, since the top Richter lot -- selling for £4.9 million -- was the 52nd of the 63-lot sale.  “Richter at £4.3m to Sotheby's staffer Georgina - not me!” tweeted Art Newspaper auction ace Georgina Adam.

Overall, 57 of 63 lots sold, or 90.5 percent, for a total of £50,688,450 ($79,672,106).

Other Richter lots were Ice (£4.3 million), another Abstraktes Bild (£4.1 million), and Child, which sold for £3.1 million to a mystery man “in a black leather bomber jacket with a fashionable scruff,” according to a tweet from Kelly Crow.

A new auction record (in pounds sterling, anyway) was set for A.R. Penck when his stick figure picture of an artist at work sold for £325,250 (ca. $511,000), and a record was also set for Albert Oehlen, whose smeary Richter-relative abstraction from 1989 fetched £445,250 (ca. $700,000).

A work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Orange Sports Figure, which sold for £4.1 million. made headlines after the auction house discovered the work was signed in “invisible ink.” The secret signature proved to be brilliant promotion, though Art Market Monitor wasn’t so sure. “Basquiat Orange Sports Figure stalls out at £3.6m hammer. Respectable but no heat on it. Murmurs in the room follow,” AMM tweeted.

Excitement was generated by a pair of landscapes by Zao Wu-Ki, who was born in Beijing and, after teaching at the Hangzhou National College of Art, moved to Paris in 1947, where he struck friendships with Paul Klee, Franz Kline and Joan Miro. Both paintings on offer, whose titles are the dates they were painted, doubled their high estimates – 10.01.91 fetched £1.6 million (est. £600,000-£800,000), and 28.12.99 did £1.8 million (est. £500,000-700,000).

Last was a small 25-lot sale at Phillips de Pury that brought in £5.7 million total (“It was a day sale, really” tweeted Georgina Adam). Still, the firm can always be counted on for some fun lots. A Marc Quinn Golden Column, featuring two gold-leafed bronzes of Kate Moss in an impossible yoga pose, sold for £289,250 (ca. $457,000), and a Joe Bradley two-panel color work, looking more like a parody of Ellsworth Kelly than ever, sold for £49,250 (ca. $77,791)

Two artist records were set. Walead Beshty’s conceptual work, consisting of a shattered glass cube resting atop the cardboard box it traveled in (evidenced by FedEx labels covering the box), brought an impressive £58,850 against a high £20,000 estimate. And a blue surfer’s dream wave painting by Raymond Pettibon went for £157,250, above its presale high estimate of £120,000. Remember when his drawings went for about $5,000?

Prices given here include the auction-house commission of 25 percent of the first £25,000, 20 percent of the next £25,000 to £500,000, and 12 percent of the rest.

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

JESSICA MIZRACHI is a decorative arts specialist who writes on the art market.