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Feb. 22, 2011 

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All three major auction houses held sales of contemporary art in London last week, with encouraging results for art-market-watchers. “Sales here were amazing!” noted one London observer. “Yeah, they sold a lot of stuff for a lot of money,” noted another.

Sotheby’s London started things off with an evening sale on Feb. 15, 2011, which sold 54 of 59 lots offered, or 91 percent, for a total of £44,359,900 ($71,051,252 -- a conversion ratio of roughly £1 = $1.60). Buyers from 12 countries participated in the sale, according to the auction firm, with 28 percent based in North America, 11 percent in Asia and 51 percent in Europe and the U.K.

In case any doubt remains about the demand for Gerhard Richter abstractions, a large one (measuring more than 7 x 6 ft.) sold for $11.5 million, the sale’s top price. Other top lots included works by Andy Warhol ($5 million), Juan Muñoz ($4.9 million) and David Hockney ($2.1 million)

The sale established two notable new artist records:  

* The Swiss Hyperrealist Franz Gertsch (b. 1930), saw his Luciano I, 1976 -- based on an oversized snapshot of the handsome young artist and transvestite performer Luciano Castelli after a long dinner, complete with a pile of cigarette butts in a dessert plate -- sell for $2,398,145, double the presale high estimate. The painting, which had been a centerpiece of the artist’s recent traveling retrospective, was put on the block by the financially straitened Weserburg Museum für modern Kunst in Bremen, which had also sold Gerhard Richter’s The Sailors for $13.2 million last November, as well as a collection of photographs. According to the museum director, Carsten Ahrens, the sales are designed to secure the fiscal health of the institution (and certainly not earmarked for future acquisitions, as would be the case in the U.S.).

* YBA painter Gary Hume’s Water Painting (Lilac) (1998), sold for about $389,000, double the presale high estimate. The ca. 10 x 8 ft. enamel-on-aluminum work is one of the artist’s more lyrical and even erotic efforts, consisting of a pale green line drawing on a lilac ground of several superimposed nudes -- the picture includes nine nipples and at least three pairs of lips -- that was originally exhibited at the British pavilion at the 1999 Venice Biennale.

Christie’s London was up next with an evening auction on Feb. 15, 2011. Of the 63 lots, 58 sold, or 92 percent, for an overall total of £61.4 million ($99.2 million). The top lot was the oversized (6 x 6 ft.) Andy Warhol self-portrait that sold, according to press reports, for $17,441,892 to Larry Gagosian after a bidding battle with Jose Mugrabi.

Other especially high prices were brought by another Richter Abstraktes Bild ($5.1 million) and works by Jeff Koons ($4.8 million) and Lucio Fontana ($4.4 million). According to the auction house, buyers hailed from 21 countries: 51 percent from Europe, 40 percent from the Americas and nine percent from Asia.

The sale included five notable new artist records:

* Jenny Saville, another YBA painter, saw Branded, 1992, her supersized portrait of a supersized nude, sell for $2.4 million, well above the presale high estimate of $1.6 million, more than double her previous auction record of $1.1 million, set in October 2008, just before the crash. An emblematic example of the artist’s signature style, the picture was originally bought from the artist’s studio by Charles Saatchi, and sold at a 2001 auction to its current consignor for ca. $472,000.

* The French pop artist Martial Raysse (b. 1936), whose works are relatively scarce in English-speaking evening auctions, certainly made a splash with his admittedly “exotic” Last Year in Capri, 1962, which sold for $6.54 million, rather more than the presale high estimate of $2.4 million. According to the auctioneer, the price is a record at auction for any French artist, with the proceeds earmarked for a charitable foundation. The painting -- a garish glamour girl -- had passed through the hands of two legendary dealers -- Virginia Dwan in L.A. and Rudolf Zwirner in Cologne -- and then been in the same private collection for the past 35 years.

* The Spanish artist Miquel Barceló (b. 1957), one of the stars of the 1980s Neo-Expressionist art scene, has not been seen much in New York recently, but his collectors ran the price of Tres Equis, 1990, a bullfighting painting, up to £1,273,250 (ca. $2 million), a bump of about $400,00. The picture is one of several from this series to come to the block, and itself had sold in 2003 for about $875,000. 

* The Brazilian artist Adriana Varejão (b. 1964), whose signaturestyle, arguably, is the neo-Surreal image of a wall rent open with bloody guts spilling out to the floor, saw her Wall with Incisions a la Fontana II,2001 -- a relatively minimalist example, with a wall of white tiles rent by eight slender, Fontana-like slashes -- sell for almost $1.8 million, about three times the presale high estimate, and about three times her previous auction record. The work had premiered in London at Victoria Miro Gallery in 2002.

* British painter Ged Quinn, whose ironically classic landscapes have only recently drawn the attention of auction players -- seven lots in the last nine months -- saw his record price edge up one more time, as Gone to Yours, 2005, sold for more than $310,000, about $10,000 up from his previous record. According to ace London art-market reporter Colin Gleadell, Quinn’s paintings had sold at Wilkinson Gallery for around £30,000 a piece -- and now the artist has moved to Stephen Friedman Gallery.

The suite of three evening sales came to a close at Phillips, de Pury & Company London on Feb. 17, 2011, with an auction of a mere 29 lots, of which 83 percent sold for a total of £5,409,200 ($8,725,040). Top lots included Jean-Michel Basquiat ($1,818,899), Raqib Shaw ($892,392), Ilya & Emilia Kabakov ($582,696) and Rudolf Stingel ($582,696). And, several new auction records were set:

* Good news continues for fans of the New York artist Wade Guyton’s neo-Minimalist negations, as his ink-printed double X on linen from 2007 -- measuring only 38 x 38 in. square -- sold for more than $345,000. More than 20 works by Guyton have now hit the auction block, the first in 2008; this painting had been exhibited at Galerie Gisela Capitain in Cologne in 2007.

* Collectors also like the brightly colored furniture-like sculptures of the Scottish artist Jim Lambie, who was shortlisted for the 2005 Turner Prize. His Night Divides the Day, 2003, a blue monochrome shutter construction, sold for £91,250 (ca. $147,000), above the presale high estimate, and marginally above his previous record of $144,000, set in New York in 2006.
* Last but not least is the inventive German artist Georg Herold (1947), whose Untitled, a mural-sized canvas from 1990 made with caviar splashed across the surface and sealed in resin, sold for $196,000, more than double the artist’s previous auction record.

For more details, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

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