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by Chris Bors
London: Home of arguably the greatest science fiction television show of all-time, Doctor Who, not to mention $100 taxi rides to or from the airport. I know, I know. . . take the train to Paddington instead. But serious collectors have the ducats for first-class transportation and they were in a buying mood at last week’s smallish contemporary art auctions in London, which coincided with the Frieze Art Fair and are often a harbinger for the spring auction action in New York in May.

The evening sales started at Phillips, de Pury & Company London on Oct. 13, 2010, with a 56-lot auction of contemporary art that totaled £6.6 million ($10.3 million). A mere 69 percent of the lots sold, but the total was still a notable increase from last year’s $6.7 million tally.

Top lot was David Hockney’s very blue but nevertheless cheery Autumn Pool (1978) at $2.1 million (for a work on paper, no less). Almost routinely selling in the mid-six figures were works by Barry Flanagan ($648,000), Mark Grotjahn ($572,000), Christopher Wool ($525,000), Ed Ruscha ($525,000) and Antony Gormley ($439,000).

New record prices came for works by Sterling Ruby (for a spray-paint abstraction, at $303,403), Dana Schutz (for Frank in the Desert, her sunburnt “last man on Earth” from her break-out 2002 show, for $284,563), and Aaron Young, whose huge (16 x 20 ft.), Brice Marden-looking Greeting Card 10a (2007), made by motorcyclists burning rubber on painted plywood during a performance at the Park Avenue Armory, sold for $190,363.

Bought-in lots included works by Banks Violette, Barnaby Furnas, Terence Koh, Richard Phillips, Yinka Shonibare, Kelley Walker and even Maurizio Cattelan, whose set of knotted sheets and a hangar -- supposedly a do-it-yourself escape kit -- failed to find a buyer at £400,000-£600,000 estimate.

The highlight of Phillips’ day sale was Yayoi Kusama’s Pop-era (1964) naked mannequin of a child painted with infinity nets and wearing a Marilyn Monroe wig, which sold for $165,407. The next three lots illustrated the topsy-turvy art market all too well: a brand new (2010) Einstein by Mr Brainwash ($121,000), a Roy Lichtenstein Reverie screenprint ($117,000, in an edition of 200), and Marc Quinn’s white-painted statue of Kate Moss in an impossible yoga pose ($117,000, in an edition of seven).

Overall, the Phillips contemporary total was $14.1 milllion, up 29 percent from last year’s $10.9 million.

At Christie’s London evening sale of post-war and contemporary art on Oct. 14, 86 percent of 51 lots sold for a total of £19.6 million ($31.4 million), within the presale estimate. A 17-foot-wide butterfly diptych by Damien Hirst earned the highest price, almost $3.5 million, with the poetic title of I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds (via Robert Oppenheimer, quoting the Upanishads, if memory serves).

Compared to the offerings at Phillips, the top Christie’s top lots seemed rather humdrum, though the prices were certainly higher: a Takashi Murakami ($3.1 million), a Jean-Michel Basquiat ($2.4 million), a Gerhard Richter ($1.8 million). The buyer of the Murakami -- which tripled its presale high estimate -- was dealer Daniella Luxembourg, according to the Baer Faxt.

New auction records were set for five artists, including 1970s conceptualist painter Roman Opalka, whose acrylic-on-canvas triptych of painted numerals (4,875,812 to 4,932,016, if I read the catalogue right) sold for $1.3 million.

Overall, the auction was a modest increase from last year’s total of $27.8 million.

Directly following contemporary art came Christie’s annual “Italian Sale,” which totaled £18.6 million ($29.8 million), with 89 percent of the 45 lots finding buyers. The top lot, a Marino Marini Cavaliere from 1951, sold for $7.1 million, a new record for the artist.

The “20th Century Italian Art” sale at Sotheby’s London the next day, Oct. 15, did almost as well as arch-rival Christie’s, totaling £17 million ($27.8 million) for only 36 lots, of which 89 percent were sold. A Lucio Fontana monochrome slash painting, Concetto Spaziale, Attese (1965), brought $3.7 million, helping the firm reach its personal best for the category.  

But first came Sotheby’s London contemporary art sale, which totaled £13.3 million ($21.2 million), with 90 percent of 40 lots selling. Interesting lots included several depicting supermodel Jerry Hall, the former wife of Mick Jagger, who put up for sale portraits of herself by Lucian Freud ($963,000), Ed Ruscha ($50,000) and Francesco Clemente (bought in), among others.

Elizabeth Peyton is still in play, as her 1997 portrait of Prince Harry sold for $771,000, well above the presale estimate and her highest price at auction in several years.

New records were set for allegorical neo-traditionalist painter Ged Quinn ($300,000) as well as Albert Oehlen ($502,000) and Francesco Vezzoli ($348,000). A new auction record was also set for Iraq-born New York-based artist Ahmed Alsoudani, whose Baconesque canvas Untitled (2007) went for $464,000. The artist only had his first New York exhibition in 2007, at Thierry Goldberg Projects, and another at Mehr Gallery before going to Goff & Rosenthal, which later became Robert Goff Gallery. He currently shows with Haunch of Venison, where Goff is now a director after closing his own space. Phew.

Speaking of Haunch of Venison, another of the gallery’s artists stood out in the day sale on Oct. 16, as Günther Uecker’s Nagelbild (1969) -- a trippy spiraling circle of nails and charcoal on board -- did the honors as top lot, selling for $732,515, well above its presale high estimate $480,600.

The art market still likes Joseph Beuys, as the late German art-shaman’s cryptic (and slight) Untitled pencil drawing of a female form sans head with another woman behind it -- dated from 1948, which makes it quite early -- sold for $559,499.

The latest art-market marvel, Brooklyn artist Matthew Day Jackson, proved less than bulletproof, as a trippy outfit on a hanger, titled Beuys Suit (2007) (est. $80,100-$112,140) failed to sell. A second major Day Jackson work, an array of several dozen images titled Dance of Destruction (featuring "Lady Liberty" as Shiva, Wovako, Eleanor, and Jim Jones) (2005) was bought in at Phillips on Oct. 13, 2010.

Prices given here include the auction-house buyer’s premium, which is 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the amount between $50,000 and $1 million, and 12 percent on anything above that.

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

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