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Art Market Watch

by Emily Nathan
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Thanks to Occupy Wall Street, people everywhere are turning against the super-rich in a dramatic demonstration of public conscience. The last thing the art world needs, then, is headlines tying it to the oligarchic 1% (whose gut feeling for symbols of sophistication, i.e. artworks, fuels our vigorous art economy). So what the hell is up with Sotheby's idiotic lock-out of its art handlers union, now entering its third month?

OWS activists have already disrupted one Sotheby's auction with a protest against ostentatious wealth, and were reportedly planning to demonstrate at the auction house's York Avenue headquarters today, Oct. 19, 2011. Can someone wake up Sotheby's board chairman Michael I. Sovern and Sotheby's CEO William F. Ruprecht and tell them to settle the damn dispute? It's time to push the art world over towards the enlightened side.

OK, back to the market machinations of people with more money than God. Last week's series of contemporary sales in London, timed to coincide with the Frieze Art Fair and its attendant inflow of art collectors, suggested that plenty of people still want to play in the deep end. Trouble may lurk under the surface, however, if Sotheby's stock price is any indicator -- it remains bogged down at summer's low 30s, rather than rising in anticipation of fall auction triumphs, as is typical.

Perhaps these factors weighed on the contemporary art evening auction at Sotheby's London on Oct. 13, 2011. The sale totaled £17,809,000, or about $28 million, with 36 of 47 lots selling, or just over 76 percent, a performance that would be easily bested the following night by arch-rival Christie's London (see below). The top lot at Sotheby's was Lucian Freud's 1952 portrait of Charlie Lumley, Boy's Head, which sold to an anonymous buyer for $4,999,085. Freud's auction record is $33.6 million, set in New York in mid-2008.

A new auction record was set for Freud's fellow British expressionist, Leon Kossoff, when his gnarly 1985 painting of a man on a bench, Street in Willesden (1985), sold for $1,086,983, well above the presale high estimate. The demand for Kossoff seems to be rising overall, as his 1972 Self Portrait II sold in Sotheby's day sale for $626,145, triple its presale high estimate.

Kate Moss is art-market catnip, and yBa Marc Quinn's decision to make a series of sculptures depicting the supermodel twisted up like a pretzel has proven wise. His Microcosmos (Siren), a 13-inch-tall sculpture of Kate in an impossible yoga pose, made from 10 kilograms of 18-carat gold, sold for $908,245, while during the day sale on Oct. 14 his Pink Sphinx, another pretzelesque Kate, sold for $361,344.

A new auction record was set for Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, whose toy-sized laser-cut stainless steel sculpture of a flatbed truck and construction crane sold for $360,626.

Sotheby's 20th century Italian art sale brought £21,647,950, or $34,060,885, the highest-ever total for a sale in this category. The evening's top lot was Alberto Burri's 1957 period piece, Combustione Legno, an eerie composition of wood, plastic, vinavil and burnt fabric, which was won in spirited bidding by an anonymous phone buyer for $4,999,085, a new record for the artist at auction. New records were also set for Francesco Lo Savio ($360,626) and for a Gino Severini work on paper ($1,157,472). 

Sotheby's Italian sale featured 36 lots of Arte Povera from a private collection, which totaled $16.8 million. The top lot was Pino Pascali's Bambu, a sculpture of seven oversized stalks of white bamboo made from painted canvas and wood, which sold for $1,157,472. New auction records were set for Michelangelo Pistoletto, whose Muro (1967), a painting of a partly completed red brick wall done on a sheet of polished stainless steel, sold for $870,300, and Giuseppe Penone, whose Albero di 5 metri (five-meter tree), a kind of 2 x 4 leaning against the wall, sold for $417,256.

Combined, Sotheby's contemporary art and 20th century Italian art sales totaled $62,081,566, about at the presale high estimate.

The star of Christie's London evening sale of post-war and contemporary art on Oct. 14, 2011 was perennial market favorite Gerhard Richter, whose 1982 oil painting of a candle sold for almost £10.5 million, or $16,530,588, to a telephone bidder. The price was a new Richter auction record, barely, besting the $15.8 million paid for another candle picture back in 2008. The artist himself made news when he called the prices "absurd" and "impossible to understand."

Christie's evening total was $59,998,872, with 47 of 53 lots selling, or an impressive 89 percent. A new auction record was set for Karen Kilimnik, whose diminutive (20 x 15 in.) Prince Albrecht at home at the castle on school break brought $533,117, on the high side of its presale estimate. Records were also set for Ahmed Alsoudani ($1,127,489), Albert Oehlen ($608,994 -- Oehlen just moved from Luhring Augustine to Gagosian Gallery), Zhang Dali ($144,245) and Brooklyn's own Joe Bradley, whose 2006 Double Runner, a pair of figures constructed from red, blue and white monochrome canvases, sold for $124,898, more than doubling its presale high estimate.

Sculpture had its fans as well at Christie's. Martin Kippenberger's Untitled sculpture of a drunken light post from 1990 (this one weaves in and out of the gallery wall in seven parts), sold for $2,094,898, almost four times its presale high estimate. Antony Gormley's iconic Angel of the North (1996), a maquette for the celebrated British landmark, sold for $5,360,370, a new record for the artist. And a gruesome flayed bull's head preserved in formaldehyde and displayed in a glass box, Damien Hirst's 1994 Judas Iscariot (the Twelve Disciples), brought $1,570,107, nearly double its presale low estimate. The price is Hirst's 63rd highest at auction; his record is $19.2 million.

The buyers at Christie's Italian sale, held the same evening, broke down almost evenly between the U.S., Italy and the rest of Europe. The top lot was a boring, um, make that spirituominimalist Piero Manzoni Achrome (1958-59), which sold for $5,199,573, above its high estimate but a bargain all the same, at least when compared to the record-setting $10.1 million brought by another 1958 Achrome in 2008. New auction records were set for Arnaldo Pomodoro ($798,687) and Domenico Gnoli, whose odd Busto femminile di dorso (1965) sold for a record $3,683,506, more than double his previous record, set a year ago.  

Christie's noted that the two evening sales combined totaled $87,672,880, the second highest sum ever for an October sale in London.

The week actually started out with contemporary art sales at Phillips de Pury and Company on Oct. 12-13, 2011, which totaled £11,896,563, or $18,721,501, with 67 percent of the lots selling. Top lots included works by Jeff Koons ($3.3 million), Damien Hirst ($1.2 million), Cecily Brown ($661,000) and Steven Parrino ($567,500).

New auction records were set for science-minded abstractionist Tauba Auerbach ($77,372) and London-based artist Walead Beshty ($73, 601, for a 20-inch-square copper box he sent to an exhibition via FedEx).

As has been its practice, Phillips introduced several younger artists to market. That list includes downtown art celebrity Klara Lidén, whose Untitled (poster painting), an empty frame made from rolled and wrinkled posters, sold for $39,326, nearly four times its estimate, and New York artist Seth Price, whose four-foot-square inkjet print Gold key (Blue 1) brought $47,192 (actually, it was his second lot at auction, but the first sold for only $5,000).

Another first-timer at auction was the Brazilian-born Maria Nepomuceno, an artist who shows with Victoria Miro, whose ten-foot long, fantasy-folk installation of beads, fiberglass and braided rope went for $23,596, somewhat under its presale estimate. Proceeds from the sale benefit the Bottletop Foundation.

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine. contact Send Email