Saturday, October 17, 2009

Christie’s Sells $18.3 Million, Lures Buyers With Low Estimates

By Scott Reyburn

Oct. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Christie’s International last night attracted buyers with reduced estimates, selling all but one of just 25 contemporary artworks it selected for its London auction.

Christie’s total for the event, timed to coincide with the Frieze Art Fair, was 11.2 million pounds ($18.3 million), which included fees. This was almost double the presale low estimate of 6.8 million pounds, based on hammer prices. Three works sold for more than 1 million pounds, led by 2.3 million pounds for a Martin Kippenberger work. Half of the lots were bought by North American-based bidders, said the London-based auction house.

“There were some good things in the auction and estimates were reasonable,” said New York-based dealer Christophe van de Weghe. “It will give buyers confidence. People are able to see things are selling and there’s no panic in the market.”

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.

Christie’s equivalent auction last October, containing 47 lots, took 32 million pounds, against a lower valuation of 57.8 million pounds. Forty-five percent of the material failed to sell at that time. Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury stopped guaranteeing minimum prices to sellers at the end of 2008. Collectors have been reluctant to offer high-priced works in public without guarantees; auction companies are selling more pieces through discreet private transactions, often for higher prices than they would have achieved under the hammer.

Big Frieze

“Frieze is a big week in London,” said Francis Outred, Christie’s European head of contemporary art. “We wanted to get the right property at the right price. There were a few come-on estimates that attracted a good mixture of bargain hunters and big-game hunters,” he said.

A 2004 Rudolf Stingel silver wallpaper painting that failed to sell at Christie’s London in February 2008 against a low estimate of 500,000 pounds was re-offered last night at 150,000 pounds to 200,000 pounds. A flurry of bidding pushed the price up to 289,250 pounds.

“Prices are back to the level of 2006 and 2007,” said Van de Weghe.

Kippenberger’s 1991 painting, “Paris Bar,” sold to a telephone buyer, with New York dealer Tony Shafrazi the underbidder. The 13-foot-wide depiction of the Berlin bar that was once frequented by himself, David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Andy Warhol was entered by a European collector and had never been offered at auction before. The artist died in 1997, aged 44.

Pop Life

Another version of the same subject by the artist’s contemporary, Daniel Richter, is currently on show in the “Pop Life” exhibition at Tate Modern. At least six bidders contested the painting, which was estimated at 800,000 pounds to 1.2 million pounds. New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch paid a further 1.1 million pounds, double the low estimate, for Kippenberger’s 1991 panel painting of a street mounted with wall lights, “Kellner Des... (Waiter Of...)”

Peter Doig’s 1994 canvas “Pine House (Rooms for Rent)” was another re-offer, having failed to achieve its low estimate of $4.5 million at Christie’s New York in November, when it was guaranteed. Now owned in whole or part by the auction house, it sold to a lone telephone bid of 1.4 million pounds against a revised estimate of 1.5 million pounds to 2 million pounds.

Signal Box

The sale’s other main success was the double-estimate -- and record -- 892,450 pounds paid for “Stellwerk” (Signal Box), a 1999 painting by Leipzig School artist Neo Rauch.

Christies will be offering 145 lots of “Part II” quality material today with a low estimate of 2.9 million pounds.

Earlier yesterday, Sotheby’s held a 217-lot auction of contemporary art that combined its “Part I” and “Part II” quality material, bolstered by a section of Arab and Iranian works. The event achieved a total of a mid-estimate 12.8 million pounds, with 73 percent of the pieces finding buyers.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1983 acrylic and oilstick painting “Fuego Flores” was the most expensive lot, selling to a telephone bidder for 959,650 pounds against a high estimate of 1.2 million pounds. The 5-foot-6-inch-high painting, featuring a half-length figure with one of Basquiat’s trademark skull faces, had recently been authenticated by the artist’s estate. Two slightly larger paintings by Basquiat from 1982 fetched 6.5 million pounds and $13.5 million at auctions in London and New York last year.

Damien Hirst’s pale-blue-and-white 2006 circular butterfly painting “Retribution” sold to the New York collector Jose Mugrabi for 541,250 pounds against an estimate of 450,000 pounds to 650,000 pounds.

Hirst Incarnate

The 6-foot-8-inch-diameter household-gloss-on-canvas was a similar size as, and a similar color to, the 2008 butterfly work “Reincarnated,” which had a low valuation of 500,000 pounds at the company’s “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” sale last September. That work went on to fetch 1.6 million pounds with fees. The ArtTactic Average Price Index for Hirst butterfly paintings has dropped 41 percent since September 2008, said the research company’s founder Anders Petterson.

“It’s very difficult to value things at the moment,” said the New York-based art adviser David Nisinson, who bought a 1990 Gerhard Richter abstract for 529,250 pounds at Sotheby’s against a low estimate of 500,000 pounds. “So little has been traded recently that it’s hard to know what things are worth. It’s a market in flux. There’s more confidence than there was, but it’s fragile and depends on the financial markets. At least a lot of people have a lot more money than they did six months ago,” he said.

Kapoor Mirror

An 8-foot-diameter Anish Kapoor stainless-steel-mirror sculpture, dating from 1997, sold to a telephone bidder for 825,250 pounds against an estimate of 600,000 pounds to 800,000 pounds. The sculpture had been acquired from London’s Lisson Gallery, which has just sold a new 4-foot-diameter Kapoor mirror piece, this time in gold, priced at 475,000 pounds at the Frieze Art Fair.

For the first time, Christie’s and Sotheby’s also held their October auctions of 20th-century Italian works on the same day as their contemporary-art sales. Christie’s took 5.8 million pounds from 37 lots, while Sotheby’s achieved 7.4 million pounds from 33 lots of Italian material.

Sotheby’s sales included nine works donated by artists to benefit Harefield Hospital, a unit on the outskirts of London specializing in cardiac surgery. The auction 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 sold for a hammer price of 48,000 pounds, near to the top estimate of 50,000 pounds. The section generated a total of 485,000 pounds for the hospital.

(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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