Contemporary art in London: the first results of the year

[17 Feb 2015]


$188.2 million (incl. fees) at Sotheby’s on February 10, and $177.8m at Christie’s the following day. The two auctioneers were delighted to encounter such strong and wealthy demand. Sotheby’s was particularly pleased as $188.2m is the best total in its European history for a Contemporary art sale. The American auction house sold only 63 works (83% of the lots offered). With buyers and bidders from all over the world (42 countries according to Sotheby’s), the sold rate could only be good… The following day, Christie’s sold 92% of its lots (57 of the 62 available), including works by Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat. For the two market leaders, two artists strongly dominated the sales with more million-dollar results for Gerhard RICHTER and Francis BACON.

Market obsessed with Gerhard Richter and Cy Twombly

The two artists are now unavoidable ingredients in prestige sales and Gerhard Richter and Cy Twombly are driving the market in an upward price spiral. The three Cy Twombly works at Sotheby’s were not important enough to generate a new record, but they generated $17.8m incl. fees, nearly 10% of the evening’s turnover. The most coveted Twombly work, Untitled (New York City), was offered by Christie’s and it fetched $29.9m incl. fees. This result shows the price manipulation at the ultra-high end of the market where the competitive spirit defies logic. The very same Twombly painting was worth $12 million less in 2012 (it sold for $15.5m [$17.4m incl. costs] at Sotheby’s New York on May 9, 2012). But after a similar Untitled work by the artist fetched $62m ($69.9m incl. fees) on November 12, 2014 at Christie’s New York (raising Twombly’s record by no less than $40 million), the biggest buyers were definitely chasing this smaller work from the same series and the same year (1970). Indeed, unexpected price fires can be very impressive and they pull up all surrounding prices with them. In total, the three Twombly works sold by Christie’s on February 11 generated $37.5 million incl. fees, more than 20% of the prestige sale’s total turnover.
The sale of three Twomblys and three Richters at Christie’s generated over 43% of the sale’s total turnover on February 11. Richter’s works, including a romantic landscape (Vierwaldstätter See (Lake Lucerne)) dated 1969 which fetched $24m and Karmin (Carmine), a red abstract work from 1994 acquired in 2010 from the Gagosian gallery that fetched $14.6m incl. fees, brought in a total of $40.6 million. But it was at Sotheby’s that Gerhard Richter was the most impressive: a 1986 Abstraktes bild set a new personal auction record at $46.3m incl. fees. This result buried the high estimate for the work by $16 million and his previous auction record by $9m. The same painting had already been to auction at Sotheby’s on May 18, 1999 when it fetched $550,000 ($607,500 incl. fees). So the seller, who already paid a very large sum in 1999 had to wait just fifteen years to earn 45.6 million dollars on its resale…
Whether Contemporary works circulate on the market at low or high speed, the capital gains are impressive and usually involve millions of dollars for the most sough-after signatures. And the auctioneers are so confident in the upward spiral of prices that they do not hesitate to guarantee highly attractive sale prices for these signatures.

Among the significant results: a double self-portrait by Francis BACON (1977) sold for $19.8m ($22.4m incl. fees) at Sotheby’s, generating a gain of $19 million for its owner who had purchased the work on December 2, 1993 for $477,000 at Sotheby’s. We should also mention the excitement surrounding Jonas WOOD (born 1977), an as yet unknown artist enjoying an exhibition at the Hong Kong branch of the Gagosian Gallery until February 28. Buoyed by his association with the gallery, the young Californian artist saw his record multiplied by 10 at Sotheby’s (Studio hallway fetched $457,140 [more than $556,000 incl. fees)..

Sotheby’s and Christie’s each signed a new million-plus result for Thomas SCHÜTTE, who holds an auction record of $4.6m since last year. The February sales of Contemporary Art in London generated new records for the English artist Howard HODGKIN (In the Green Room, $1.8m incl. fees) and the Italian artist Paolo Scheggi (1940-1971). The latter tripled the high estimate for his work Intersuperficie curva Bianca after a final bid of $1.79m (incl. fees). Like Twombly, Paolo SCHEGGI is also sold by the Gagosian Gallery. The law of auction records and of media coverage of art prices is often made by a few big names who have god-like powers over the art market.