Big Night at Christie’s Caps London Contemporary Week
Francis Bacon's "Portrait of George Dyer Talking," 1966, which sold for £42.2.

Francis Bacon’s “Portrait of George Dyer Talking,” 1966, which sold for £42.2.

London—Powered by a runaway Francis Bacon portrait, Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary evening sale—the last of the London season—surged to £124,192,000 ($206,158,720) on Thursday. The results toppled pre-sale expectations of £87-107.5 million ($144.4-178.5 million) and decisively bested Sotheby’s £87.9 million ($144.5 million) tally on Wednesday evening.

Seventeen works sold for over a million pounds, 25 hurdled the million dollar mark, and seven artist records were set. Only eight of the 48 lots offered failed to sell, for a trim buy-in rate by lot of seventeen percent and five percent by value.

The big tally easily outscored last February’s equivalent sale, with its £81.6 million ($127.7 million) total for the 65 lots sold.

Thursday’s auction started with the sale for charity of Damien Hirst’s personally donated “Mickey” from 2012, a spot painting in household gloss on canvas that depicts an abstracted version of the Disney mouse. It sold for an impressive £902,500 ($1,498,150; est. £300-500,000/$500-820,000) and benefitted Kids Company, a UK-based organization providing support to vulnerable inner-city youth.

In a surreal moment of marketing, all of the specialists and client service reps manning the banks of telephones donned black Mickey Mouse ears for the Hirst, which made for a light mood in the jam-packed salesroom.

For the third evening in a row, a large canvas by young New York artist Lucien Smith tested his rollicking market as “Secret Lives of Men” from 2012, another from his rain painting series executed with a paint-filled fire extinguisher, brought £158,500 ($263,110; est. £30-40,000/$50-65,000.)

The slightly older market darling Oscar Murillo was also featured early on with “Untitled (Burrito),” from 2011, a large canvas in oil, oil stick, and dirt dominated by the word Burrito in yellow. It sold to a telephone bidder for £194,500 ($322,870; est. £20-30,000/$33-49,000).

British sculptor Rebecca Warren also made a big impression with “Untitled (Twins)” from 2004, a pair of clay female figures standing on a plinth. It sold to an Asian telephone bidder for £266,500 ($442,390; est. £80-120,000/$140-200,000).

The evening also included a group of several paintings and a sculpture by artists made famous by ther inclusion in the epoch-making 1997 show “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection.”

Of those YBAs, Jenny Saville was represented by a grandly scaled nude self-portrait, “Plan” from 1993. Showing the diagrammed lines on her torso and thighs for liposuction surgery, it sold to the same telephone bidder for a record £2,098,500 ($3,483,510; est. £800,000-1.2 million/$1.4-2 million). London dealer Pilar Ordovas was the underbidder.

Chris Ofili’s elephant dung and glitter canvas, “Popcorn Tits” from 1996 made £386,500 ($641,590; est. £400-600,000/$660-980,000), selling to London dealer Hugh Gibson, and Gary Hume’s “Vicious” from 1994, in which the outline of a glossy male figure is set against a lush landscape, realized a record £410,500 ($681,430; est. £300-400,000/$500-650,000).

But Hirst’s two-part “Adam and Eve (Breaking Open the Head)” from 1994-2003, containing two severed bull heads in a formaldehyde solution brutally decorated with shards of mirrored glass, bought in at £380,000, either too gruesome or expensive for the market (est. £500-700,000/$820,000-1.1 million).

A work by a fellow YBA painter, Peter Doig, that was not part of the trove, “Tour de Charvet” from 1995— featuring a distant view of skiers on a snowy slope—crushed expectations, selling to a telephone bidder for £2,378,500 ($3,948,310; est. £900,000-1.2 million/$1.5-2 million).

Though not the hot commodities they were in the late ’90s, the group seems to have some legs for future appreciation.

“Sensation” aside, the biggest drama of the sale swirled around Francis Bacon’s “Portrait of George Dyer Talking,” from 1966, a seminal and rare-to-market depiction of the artist’s lover and muse seated cross-legged on a bar stool in the middle of an otherwise empty studio—a scene dominated by a bare hanging light bulb, a red carpet and monochrome wall painted in an eye-popping shade of lilac. Dyer tragically committed suicide just hours before the opening of Bacon’s retrospective at the Grand Palais in 1971. This work was included in that exhibition, and its history no doubt fueled the competition to own it, which ended with whopping top-lot bid of £42,194,,500 ($70,042,870; est. on request in the region of £28/$47 million).

The Bacon last sold at auction at Christie’s New York in November 2000 for $6.6 million, a record at the time. On Thursday night it carried a third-party financial guarantee.

Brett Gorvy, Christie’s world-wide head of contemporary art, took the winning bid, which beat back six other contenders. After the sale, Gorvy acknowledged the buyer was American but declined to give further details, apart from saying, “he’s a very good poker player and has great taste.”

Though two Bacon triptychs have sold for more, including ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud” from 1969 that made a record $142.4 million at Christie’s New York in November, this portrait stands as the most expensive single Bacon canvas, vanquishing “Study from Innocent X” from 1962, which sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 2007 for $52,68,000.

Asked about the price, veteran dealer David Nahmad, who watched the action from the front row of the salesroom but didn’t bid on the picture, said, “I don’t know anymore, but I bought my first Bacon, a portrait of a businessman, at auction in London in 1964 for £800.” Thursday at Christie’s, he added, “was another crazy night at the auctions.”

Other standout offerings included Gerhard Richter’s “Abstraktes Bild” from 1989, tapestry-like in its scale and richly marbled in a cacophony of colors, which fetched £19,570,500 ($32,487,030; est. on request in the region of £15 million). It too carried a third-party financial guarantee, meaning the seller wanted insurance that the painting would sell for a certain price no matter what transpired in the salesroom. Xin Li, Christie’s deputy chairman of Asia, took the winning telephone bid.

Another Richter, “Portrait Schniewind” from 1965, a grainy and cropped example of the artist’s photo-realist black and white work, failed to sell at £1.4 million—just not sexy enough, it seemed, for current taste (est. £2-3 million/$3.3-4.9 mllion).

The market’s hunger for paintings appeared unquenchable as Bridget Riley’s striped “Chant 2” from 1967 sold to London dealer Pilar Orvovas for a record £2,882,500/$4,784,950 (est. £2.5-3.5/$4-6 million). It was first exhibited at the British Pavillion of the Venice Biennale in 1968, and most recently at Riley’s Tate Britain retrospective in 2003. It last sold at auction at Sotheby’s London in July 2008 for £2,561,250.

Classic, Post-War European painting stood out as well, with Pierre Soulages’s “Peinture 195x155cm., 7 fevier 195,” in oil on canvas—looking somewhat like a cousin of Franz Kline—selling for £3,666,500 ($6,086,390; est. £2-3/$3.3-4.9 million) and Nicolas de Stael’s color-charged, red-sky landscape “Selinute” from 1953, bringing £2,882,500 ($4,784,950; est. £1-1.5/$1.7-2.5 million).

More remarkable was the fevered bidding for Domenico Gnoli’s Pop Art-like figurative painting “Black Hair” from 1969, in acrylic and sand on canvas, which ultimately sold to London dealer Guya Bertoni, who apparently beat out a determined Chinese telephone bidder. Bertoni acknowledged that she had bought the painting on behalf of a client as she raced out of the salesroom.

American artists also made a good showing, with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Slide Germ” from 1982, a large-scale collage of oil and acrylic on paper laid down on canvas, bristling with Basquiat’s signature cartoon and graffiti elements, bringing £2,322,500 ($3,855,350; est. £2.2-2.8/$3.6-4.6 million).

Jeff Koons’s perfectly cast “Cracked Egg (Magenta)” from 1994-2006, fabricated as one of five unique versions in mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, sold to another telephone bidder for £14,082,500 ($23,376,950; est. £10-15/$17-25 million). Part of Koons’s storied “Celebration” series, this version of the pristine egg was part of his 2008 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. It was the first appearance of a Cracked Egg at auction.

Cy Twombly’s decidedly more esoteric “Untitled (Rome)” from 1960, brashly executed in oil based house paint, lead pencil and wax crayon and energized by a dense field of his poetic scrawls, sold to Turkish collector Kemal Has Cingillioglu for £2,658,500 ($4,413,110; est. £1.2-1.8/$2-2.9 million).

“The global art market follows quality,” mused auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen moments after the blockbuster sale, “and it’s very striking.”

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