Amid a grim trading day of sinking financial markets worldwide, Christie’s Post-War/Contemporary evening art auction pulled off an impressive and reassuring result, bringing £58,099,000/$84,301,640 — comfortably above the low end of pre-sale expectations pegged at £50-74.8/$72.7-$108.6 million.
Only seven of the 61 lots offered failed to sell, for a crisp buy-in rate by lot of 11 percent.
Eleven works sold for over a million pounds and of those, three made over £5 million; 18 works sold for more than a million dollars. Two artist records were set.
Remarkably, seven of the top 10 prices were set by British Isles artists (Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Peter Doig, and David Hockney).
All that said, Thursday’s sale it was miles behind its equivalent last February, which made twice as much — £117,142,500/$178,408,028 — with just eight percent of lots unsold.
(All prices reported include the hammer price plus the added on buyer’s premium calculated at 25 percent of the hammer price up to and including £50,000,20 percent on that part of the hammer price over £50,000 and up to and including £1 million and twelve percent for anything over that.)
The sale got off to an energetic start thanks to a trio of fresh-to-market Alexander Calder works from the estate collection of New Yorkers Arthur and Anita Kahn.
“The Black Mountain,” a buoyant oil on canvas from 1945, sold for £602,500/$874,228 (est. £180-220,000); “Untitled,” a hanging red, yellow, white and blue mobile in painted sheet metal and wire from 1967, brought £962,500/$1,396,588 (est. £600-800,000); and “Crag with Yellow Boomerang and Red Eggplant,” a stunning standing mobile in painted sheet metal and wire from 1974, sold to another telephone bidder for £1,874,500/$2,719,900 (est. £500-700,000).
David Nahmad was the underbidder.
The Crag had been acquired from Calder’s primary American dealer at the storied Perls Gallery in New York in 1974, the year it was created.
The presence of prime estate material in the sale added the needed charge to elicit bidding that often went beyond the mostly conservative pre-sale estimates. Christie’s got it right in that department.
The color parade continued with Yayoi Kusama’s red-hued and intensely patterned “Accreations I” from 1967, which brought £662,500/$961,288 (est. £600-800,000). It had last sold at Christie’s New York in June 1998 for $ 19,550.
A grouping of Minimalist minded works from the collection of Marc and Frederique Corbiau, the former a reknowned Belgian architect, was well received, including Jan Schoonhoven’s Zero Group-era constructed “Relief” from 1971, executed in painted white cardboard, which went for £458,500/$665,284 (est. £180-250,000), and Lucio Fontana’s matching white “Concetto Spaziale Attese” from 1964, bearing five vertical slashes, which sold above estimate to another anonymous telephone bidder for £1,762,500/$2,557,388 (est. £1.2-1.8 million).
A huge wall relief by Frank Stella [lot 9], “Nowe Miasto III (New Town III) from 1973 in painted cardboard and felt on shaped panel construction, another of the Corbiau entries, went to another telephone for £662,500/$961,288 (est. £350-450,000).
But the star Corbiau lot [lot 7] turned out to be the 72 square inch, pea green Robert Mangold abstraction, “Untitled” from 1973 that hit a record £746,500/$1,083,172 (est. £300-500,000).
Fernando Mignoni of Madrid’s Galelria Elvira Gonzalez was the underbidder.
Another record lot was achieved with a rare-to-market, chalk on blackboard object by Joseph Beuys, “Zeitpunkt: Das Massaker von Muenchen/Point of Time: The Massacre of Munich)” from 1972, which sold for £854,500/$1,239,880 (est. £250-350,000).
Paris/Salzburg dealer Thaddaeus Ropac was the underbidder.
All ten works from Corbiau were backed by third party guarantees, and together contributed £5.8/$8.4 million to the evening total, well above the £3.6-5.1 million pre-sale expectations.
Beyond Corbiau, Christie’s solely guaranteed two lots, a big drop from the guarantees it arranged for last November’s $331.8 million Post-War/Contemporary Art sale in New York and perhaps another indication that such risk-taking is less appealing in a changing market.
That absence certainly killed one of the evening’s highest valued lots, Yves Klein’s action packed “Anthropometrie sans titre (ANT 118)/(Untitled Athropometry, (ANT 118)” from 1960, executed in dry pigment and synthetic resin on paper laid down on canvas and bearing the indelible body print of two nude figures in Klein’s signature blue. It bought in at a chandelier bid of £7.5 million (est. £8-14 million).
But apart from the rejected Klein, nine of the top ten valued lots found buyers.
Another Fontana, “Concetto Spaziale” from 1960-61 — distinguished by an all-over pattern of punctured marks, also known as “buchi,” which gave it a kind of moonscape complexion — brought £482,500/$700,108 (est. £450-650,000).
Fontana’s Ferrari-red “Concetto Spaziale, attese” from 1962, bearing the more familiar mark of three vertical slashes, sold for £578,500/$839,404 (est. £500-800,000).
If you haven’t already guessed, Fontana is the European Post-War market equivalent of Warhol at auction, with multiple works appearing in every evening venue.
Speaking of Warhol, only one was offered, the 40-by-40 inch “Portrait of Man Ray” from 1974, based on a Polaroid SX-70 photograph of the great artist in a brimmed cap, lips locked on a cigar. It sold to Nick Maclean of the London/New York gallery Eykyn Maclean for £362,500/$525,988 (est. £200-300,000).
“I bought it on behalf of a collector who is a big Man Ray fan and a big Warhol fan,” said Maclean as he exited the packed salesroom. “So it’s the perfect piece for him.”
Maclean, who also bought Zero Group artist Gunther Uecker’s nail-driven abstraction, “Poetische Reihe (Sylt)” from 1976 for £302,500/$438,928 (est. £200-300,000), attributed the evening’s success to estate material. “When you get estates it makes for good sales. That’s what you need.” (Sotheby’s, although it had a higher tally of £69.4/$100.4 million on Wednesday night, lacked the clusters of estate material that Christie’s landed.)
Other highlights included Gerhard Richter’s blurry, deliberately faulty photographic image “Kleine Sekretarin (Little Secretary)” from 1965, in oil on canvas, featuring a young secretary seated at a modern desk. Part of the artist’s Capitalist Realist paintings series, it sold to London/Hong Kong dealer Ben Brown for £626,500/$909,052 (est. £500-700,000). The anonymous seller had acquired the petite canvas directly from the artist in 1965.
Another kind of realism showed up in two widely exhibited, small format, 14 ¼-by-12 ¼-inch oil portraits by Lucian Freud of two of his then twenty-something daughters, “Head of Esther” from 1982-83 and “Head of IB” from 1983-84.
The former (“Esther” as in Esther Freud, the novelist) was the auction’s cover lot. It made £4,786,500/$6,945,212 (est. £2.5-3.5 million), while the latter (the initials stand for Isobel Boyt) realized £2,546,500/$3,694,972 (est. £2.5-3.5 million).
Both paintings had been included in major Freud exhibitions, including his breakout U.S. retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., in 1987-88, and his National Portrait Gallery (London) show in 2012.
Fellow School of London star Francis Bacon was represented by the dynamically intertwined “Two Figures” from 1975, a slender, 78-by-27 ¾-inch canvas depicting Bacon and his lover George Dyer, locked in an embrace.
Dyer committed suicide in 1971, on the eve of Bacon’s important exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, and this work is from the tail end of a series referred to as the Black Triptychs that memorialized the relationship and that event. It sold to an unidentified bidder standing at the back of the salesroom for £5,458,500/$7,920,284 (est. £5-7 million).
Long in the collection of writer and Bacon confidant Michael Peppiatt, to whom the artist gave it to in 1975, the work was literally split in two by Bacon sometime later, removing what had been the third figure in the composition, a voyeuristic dwarf. That painting is now in a private Australian collection.
Another major offering from the British Isles, Peter Doig’s celebrated and large-scaled “The Architect’s Home in the Ravine” from 1991, replete with references to Le Corbusier, sold to another telephone bidder in a brief two-bid duel for the top lot price of £11,282,500/$16,370,908 (est. £10-15 million).
It had last sold at Christie’s London in February 2013 for £7,657,250 against a £4-6 million pre-sale estimate. This time it came to market backed by a third party guarantee, assuring it would sell.
Another Doig, “Island Painting” from 2000-2001, featuring a bearded figure poised in the middle of an impossibly long red canoe, sans paddle, sold to yet another telephone bidder for £3,442,500/$4,995,068 (est. £2-3 million).
Figurative painting was much in evidence on Thursday, for example in the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans’s faintly visible “Mrs.” from 1999, an oil on canvas measuring 85 by 53 inches, which made £1,482,500/$2,151,108 (est. £1.2-1.8 million). (Its archetypal female figure bears some resemblance to Jacqueline Kennedy, but since it is faceless, the viewer can only guess.) It had last sold for $1,080,000 at Christie’s New York in November 2006.
Less enigmatic, David Hockney’s sun shadowed and enticing “Beach Umbrella” from 1971, included in the artist’s traveling retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1988-89, sold to a telephone bidder for £1,762,500/$2,557,388 (est. £1-1.5 million).
Nick Maclean was the underbidder.
“We really had the right sale for this moment,” said Edmond Francey, Christie’s London head of Post-War and Contemporary Art.
Christie’s was the final evening sale of the week and the chatty community of numbers crunchers and art-market pundits will have plenty of time to analyze the mixed results before the next big round of auctions take place across the pond in May.