Post-War and Contemporary Art: new records!

[16 Feb 2016]


Against the backdrop of stock market crashes, the Art Market proves to be particularly solid. The auction results of London’s Contemporary Art sales have naturally adjusted compared to 2015, as auction houses acted wisely in this particular economic situation and reviewed their number of lots on offer. These results are far from alarming. The unsold rates are low and new records were set. Last Wednesday, 10 February 2016, Phillips’ chairman, Ed Dolman, commented on the Art Market in 2016: “the Art Maket has not crashed the way stock exchange markets did because it is an intelligent, more discerning market“.
Phillips, the famous and third biggest auction house, took a great start with its two February sales +41% up from 2015. Sotheby’s Post-War and Contemporary Art sale on the evening of 10 February 2016 generated a total of $100.7 million with an unsold rate of 20%.
Christie’s sale yielded $84.3 million from its prestige sale on 11 February 2016 with only 11% of lots unsold and new records listed for Joseph Beuys and Robert Mangold. While the big winners of the two days of sales in 2015 were Cy Twombly, Gerhard Richter and Francis Bacon, this year Lucian Freud, Peter Doig and Alberto Burri were the only artists to cross the $10 million threshold.

Lucian FREUD generated the best result of the February 2016 sales. Sotheby’s was hoping to make $15 million from his Pregnant girl, an intimate canvas to which the auction house had dedicated a short promotional film. The painting galvanized bidding which continued up to $23.2 million, well above its estimate and the artist’s fifth best-ever result. The following day, Christie’s offered two works by Freud, dedicating the cover of its catalogue to Esther, a portrait estimated $3.5 – 5 million, which finally sold for $6.9 million. The other portrait (IB), carrying the same price estimate, attracted less enthusiasm and sold for $3.6 million.

The second star of the sales was Peter DOIG, one of the world’s top 100 artists by auction turnover in 2015. In fact Doig was more coveted at these sales than Yves Klein (with a superb 1960 Anthropometry that was bought in against an estimated price range of $11 to 20 million) and Francis Bacon. His canvas The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (1991, 200 x 250 cm) was greeted with extraordinary enthusiasm at Christie’s. This was the work’s fourth auction appearance since 2002 when it was worth just under $500,000 (c. $475,000, Sotheby’s, 26 June 2002). In 2007, it was acquired for $3.6 million and it subsequently sold for $11.9 million in 2013. On 11 February 2016 it fetched $16.3 million, multiplying its original price by 34 in 14 years. Two other Doig works were offered in the sale: a bearded man in a canoe (Island PaintingIsland Painting, 2000- 2001, 77 x 91 cm) fetched $4.9 million, and a large oil on paper, Blotter (1993), sold within its estimated range for the equivalent of $265,000.

We also note a new world record for the Italian artist Alberto BURRI, whose work Sacco e Rosso fetched its low estimate at $13.1 million at Sotheby’s. This result buried Alberto Burri’s previous record ($7.6 million for Combustioni plastiche [1960-61] at Christie’s London on 11 February 2014) by more than $5 million. This latest value jump joins a string of re-valuations and new records that have affected 20th century Italian art in recent months.

At a lower altitude, but even more spectacular, a stunning new record for the young Adrian GHENIE (born in 1977) firmly posits the artist as one of Contemporary arts new idols. Sotheby’s initiative to post images of the artist’s reinterpretation of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in The Sunflowers in 1937 on its website appears to have paid handsome dividends: the work demolished its estimated range (equivalent to $550,000 – $850,000) to sell for $4.5 million! This new record adds $2 million to his previous record set in 2014 (The Fake Rothko fetched $2.4 million at Sotheby’s London on 30 June 2014). The young Romanian, venerated at the 56th Venice Biennale, is supported by the prestigious Pace and Thaddaeus Ropac galleries.

Other strong results at Christie’s rewarded works by Francis BACON and David HOCKNEY. Bacon’s larger-than-human canvas Two Figures (198 x 70cm) had never been to auction and has superb provenance (purchased directly from Bacon in 1975 by his close friend Michael Peppiatt). An intense and cathartic farewell to his lover and muse, George Dyer, who died tragically four years before completion of the painting, it sold within its estimated range for $7.9 million. Hockney’s canvas, Beach Umbrella, which had remained in the same collection for 40 years, sold well above expectations, fetching $4.5 million, more than twice its high estimate.

Besides a couple of surprising buy-ins, the sales also bore witness to a certain deflation on Basquiat and Warhol. Jean-Michel BASQUIAT’s Head of Madman sold for $8.9 million after fetching $12 million at Christie’s on 12 November 2013, and Andy WARHOL’s Small Electric Chair, estimated $5-8 million, found no takers despite its auction virginity. That didn’t stop his iconic Campbell Soup (1964) from selling within its estimated range, at $7.4 million, adding $400,000 to its first auction appearance in 2008 (Sotheby’s London, 1 July 2008).