Art auction records shattered in London

Prized works by new and old sell for record sums at recent Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions in the UK.

Sotheby''s auction
London art auctions broke several records for sale prices last week [Motez Bishara/Al Jazeera]

London, United Kingdom – It took a breathtaking span of 26 hours in London for more records to fall in the thriving global art market.

Works by Gerhard Richter, Lucio Fontana, and Cy Twombly were among those that set the pace at the post-war and contemporary art sales hosted by Christie’s and Sotheby’s. 

The highest priced lot took place on Tuesday when Richter’s Abstraktes Bild surprised the packed auction room on Bond Street with aggressive phone bids coming in at 2 million British pound increments ($3.1m).

The final sale price of 30.4 million pounds ($46.8m) established a new auction record by a living European artist.

The anonymous bidder, reported to be an American, was represented by Sotheby’s worldwide co-head of contemporary art, Cheyenne Westphal.

Gerhard Richter's  Abstraktes Bild sold for $46.8m [Motez Bishara/Al Jazeera] Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild sold for $46.8m [Motez Bishara/Al Jazeera] 

“I think I can genuinely say it went to someone who truly wanted this painting, and he was set on buying it tonight,” Westphal said, noting Richter also happened to be her favourite artist.

A sister painting of the large abstract work was sold by Eric Clapton in 2012 for a then-record of 21 million pounds ($32m).

The artwork, which measures 3 x 2.5 metres draped with jagged lines of reds and greens, was last sold on auction at Sotheby’s in 1999 for $607,500, generating a return of 32.4 percent annually.

“Richter is not hot all of a sudden, he has always been sought after,” said Arianne Levene Piper, founder of the New Art World consultancy.

“There are plenty of ultra-high net worth collectors who are willing to pay for top works. This explains why a great painting by a great artist will sell for high prices at auction.”

Works by another European artist, Francis Bacon, failed to make headlines this auction season, despite drumming up a buzz prior to the sales.

Both his diptych self-portrait at Sotheby’s and his Study for a Head painting of Pope Pius XII at Christie’s hammered at the low-end of estimates, selling for 14.7 million pounds ($22.4m) and 10 million pounds ($15.3m), respectively.

“They are not the most sought after of his works,” noted Levene Piper. Nevertheless, the late Irish-born painter known for his abstract portraits, still holds the record for the second highest price ever paid at auction; his Three Studies of Lucian Freud sold for $142.4m in November 2013 to Las Vegas-based Elaine Wynn.

“Buying a [Francis] Bacon is as good as money in the bank,” said Philip Hoffman, chief executive of The Fine Art Fund. He noted that currency weakness in the British Sterling created an opportunity for overseas buyers – especially those in the United States.

“The Americans will be looking and they are the powerhouses of the art market,” he said, noting most buyers created wealth in the past 20 years and are keen to diversify their assets.

Conversely, married Swedish doctors Anna-Stina Malmborg-Hoglund and Gunnar Hoglund decided to part with many of their cherished works collected over the past 60 years.

Francis Bacon's  Self Portrait  sold for $22.4m [Sotheby's]Francis Bacon’s Self Portrait sold for $22.4m [Sotheby’s]

The couple, both in their mid-80s, had a keen eye for talent, purchasing Fontana’s Spatial Concept, Expectations in 1966 and hanging it in their Stockholm living room ever since.

The white canvas with 23 cuts fetched 8.31 million pounds ($12.7m) in the Sotheby’s sale. The couple sold nine works during the evening for a total of 10.7 million pounds ($16.4m), far exceeding estimates.

One standout sale by an up-and-comer came from Los Angeles-based Jonas Wood. The 38-year-old’s Studio Hallway sold for 365,000 pounds ($556,000), shattering his previous personal best achieved at auction.

Born and raised in Boston, Wood’s passion for professional basketball shows up in a number of his works, with painted photos of former Boston Celtic players appearing as part of the Studio Hallway scene.

“He’s a painter whose work offers subtle nods to the great figurative painters in the past, such as David Hockney,” says Levene Piper.

“He’s doing something different from what a lot of the trendy LA artists are doing, which is more process-based painting – that has been the focus of everyone’s attention for the last few years.”

Another artist breaking ground was late American Cy Twombly with Rome, a work of curved wax crayon drawing over paper that sold for 3.9 million pounds ($5.9m). The new record for a single work on paper arrived on the heels of a similar prominent piece from his blackboard series selling for $69.6m last November at Christie’s in New York.

“Twombly has now made record prices and I think you’ll see his work going up across the board,” said Hoffman, noting collectors are likely to form a trend once artists make headlines.

Should their works be recently purchased by the likes of Francois Pinault or Charles Saatchi, or perhaps featured in a high-profile retrospective at the Tate Modern, it would add to that artist’s allure.

“There is a herd mentality following,” he said.

You'll see some amazing works of art that have been sold to Qatar that will be on show when the museums are all opening.

Philip Hoffman, The Fine Art Fund

On the other hand, artists also experience a cooling-off period. The collective of British artists who achieved prominence in the 1990s, known as the YBA’s (Young British Artists), appear to be at that stage.

None of the works by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin or Chris Ofili – famous for his use of elephant dung – climbed past the low-end of their estimates at Christie’s on Wednesday.

“I think they will come back in time,” said Hoffman, noting Hirst was “not hot” at the moment. “I think there are plenty of buyers out there, but people are reluctant to pay the Hirst prices of 2007 or 2008,” he said.

Hoffman, who spent 12 years as a director at Christie’s, added the records being broken in contemporary art today do not reflect a bubble, symptomatic of too few players controlling the market.

“I saw exactly what was happening in the impressionist market in 1990,” he said.

“There were 10 Japanese buyers and no one else. They were outbidding everybody. And now there are 4,000 potential bidders not at all concentrated in one country.”

Hoffman also noted buyers from the Gulf are being more selective, yet not averse to surprising the market as seen by last week’s record-breaking announcement of a $300m purchase of a Paul Gauguin painting said to be acquired for display in Qatar.

“I think they have got fabulous things and no one yet knows what’s going to go on show, what surprises are going to come out,” he said.

“You’ll see some amazing works of art that have been sold to Qatar that will be on show when the museums are all opening.”

Source: Al Jazeera