Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Contemporary Art Sales Off By 80%

By Scott Reyburn
Sept. 28 (Bloomberg) -- The estimated value of London’s October contemporary-art auctions is down 81 percent from 2008 as prices and lots on offer decline amid the financial crisis.

Sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s International and Phillips de Pury of “Part I” works during the week of the Frieze Art Fair are estimated to fetch at least 20.8 million pounds ($33.1 million), according to a total of auction-house figures calculated by Bloomberg. The equivalent sales last year had a low estimate of 107 million pounds.

The three auction houses stopped guaranteeing minimum prices to sellers at the end of 2008. Collectors remain reluctant to offer high-priced works in public without guarantees; auction companies are selling more pieces through private transactions.

“There’s still a definite reluctance to sell at auction,” London-based dealer Thomas Dane said in an interview. “People got used to unrealistic prices and they still have them in their heads. A lot of people don’t need to sell at the moment. There are quite a few private transactions going on.”

The volume of sales at contemporary-art auctions dropped between 70 percent and 80 percent and the prices of works by 50 percent or more since the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. last September, said the London-based research company ArtTactic.

‘Frieze Week’

This year, Sotheby’s and Christie’s will hold their “Frieze Week” contemporary-art sales on the same day. Christie’s 25-lot evening sale on Oct. 16 has a low estimate of 6.8 million pounds. Last year it offered 47 lots, six of which were guaranteed, with a low value of 57.8 million pounds.

“Though volumes have come down significantly, people are more willing to transact in the auction market,” Francis Outred,” Christie’s European head of contemporary art, said in an interview. “Private sales were significant in the first six months of this year. Things have changed slightly: We now know what people are prepared to pay at auction.”

After high unsold rates during the winter, 88 percent of the works sold at Christie’s June contemporary auction in London. Sotheby’s rival event sold 92.5 percent.

Private sales of contemporary art at Christie’s outstripped auction sales in the first half of 2009, said Outred.

“Sellers were attracted because asking prices were much higher than the low auction estimates,” Outred said. “You could sell high quality works for boom-time prices.”

Private Sales

“We’ve currently got between 15 and 20 works that are actively being offered privately at the moment,” said Outred, who was not able to provide a value for the group. Christie’s had 133.1 million pounds in private sales in the first half of 2009, said the London-based auction house.

Matt Carey-Williams, formerly a director at Christie’s dealership Haunch of Venison, was appointed the company’s European director of private sales in August.

Sotheby’s has taken $1.5 billion in private transactions over the last three years, according to an advertisement that the New York-based company placed in the Art Newspaper.

The highlights of Christie’s evening auction are Martin Kippenberger’s 1991 painting “Paris Bar,” estimated at 800,000 pounds to 1.2 million pounds, and Peter Doig’s 1994 canvas “Pine House (Rooms for Rent),” at 1.5 million pounds to 2.5 million pounds.

Kippenberger’s 13-foot-wide depiction of the Berlin bar that was once frequented by himself, David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Andy Warhol has been entered by a European collector and has never been offered at auction before. The artist died in 1997, aged 44.

Doig’s House

Doig’s painting of a house by a river is being re-offered, having failed to achieve its low estimate of $4.5 million at Christie’s New York in November, when it was guaranteed.

Sotheby’s 177-lot sale on the afternoon of Oct. 16 is expected to fetch between 9 million pounds and 13 million pounds. The company’s equivalent event last year, held in the evening, contained 62 works valued at a minimum of 30.6 million pounds.

Sotheby’s sale will include nine works donated by artists to benefit Harefield Hospital, a unit on the outskirts of London specializing in cardiac surgery. The sale was the idea of surgeon Jullien Gaer, who invited artists to visit the hospital.

Grayson Perry’s glazed ceramic “Urn for the Living,” depicting surgeons around a gaping hole in the body of the pot, was inspired by observation of an open-heart operation. It is expected to fetch up to 50,000 pounds in a section that Harefield hopes will raise more than 400,000 pounds.

Basquiat Painting

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1983 acrylic and oilstick painting “Fuego Flores” is the most highly estimated lot at Sotheby’s, at up to 1.2 million pounds. Two slightly larger paintings by Basquiat from 1982 fetched 6.5 million pounds and $13.5 million at auction in London and New York last year.

Sotheby’s and Christie’s will be offering 20th-century Italian art on Oct. 16. Last year, the equivalent auctions were held a week after Frieze. Sotheby’s is expecting to raise at least 5.7 million pounds from 33 Italian lots, Christie’s 6.5 million pounds from 38 lots.

“Persuading collectors to part with high-quality works is difficult,” said Anthony McNerney, Phillips’s London-based head of evening contemporary sales. “They still think it’s a risk.”

Phillips’s evening auction on Oct. 17 contains 44 works with a low estimate of 5 million pounds. Last October, when guarantees were available, it offered 70 lots with a minimum valuation of 18.6 million pounds.

Basquiat’s 1983 painting “Year of the Boar,” carries an estimate of up to 1.2 million pounds, while two large-scale paintings by Kippenberger entered by his former Austrian-based dealer Gabriella Bleich-Rossi are expected to fetch up to 500,000 pounds and 600,000 pounds each.

An archive of material relating to Kippenberger will be offered for private sale by Bleich-Rossi through Phillips for an undisclosed price in October.

“Private sales are the way forward,” McNerney said. “Collectors realize that auction houses have huge client bases. The trick is not to show the works to too many of those clients.”

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Scott Reyburn in London at

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