Sotheby’s dominates the London market

[15 Jul 2015]


On 1 July 2015 Sotheby’s succeeded in generating its best-ever sales total in its European Contemporary Art sales history and the American auctioneer substantially outsold its British rival by totalling $209.6 million (including fees) versus $150 million at Christie’s Contemporary Art sale on 30 June. An excellent result for Sotheby’s indeed; but one that could have been much better if it had managed to sell a major work by Francis Bacon (from his famous Popes series), two key works by Warhol, and Peter Doig’s large canvas, Pelican. These four works would have added 90 to 100 dollars million more to the evening’s final result.

So, a historic sale… but marred by several major disappointments, starting with the failure of its headline lot – Francis BACON’s Study for a Pope I. A deathly silence overtook the room when the sale’s “star” lot failed to reach its low estimate of $39 million. The estimate was too aggressive for the 1961 red and green portrait that just 10 years ago (8 November 2005) fetched $10 million at Christie’s New York (suggesting a value accretion of $29 million). That was apparently too much for even the world’s most powerful buyers. A sign that Bacon’s prices are beginning to stabilize perhaps, but in no way a sign of disaffection for the artist, who generated nearly $47 million during the same sale from two other lots: $23.9 million for Self-portrait and $23 million for Three studies for self-portrait.
The other disappointments included two major works by Andy WARHOL, both multi-dollar screen-prints: Front And Back Dollar Bills and Two Dollar Bills (Back) could have added $40 million to the sale’s total… Nevertheless, despite these two setbacks, Andy Warhol was still the undisputed star of the sale thanks to his obsession with the US currency because his Dollar signs and Dollar Sign fetched respectively $10.8 million and 7.3 million (including fess) and his One Dollar Bill (Silver Certificate), a large canvas from 1962, sold for $32.8 million (including fees), generating the best result of the evening and exceeding its high estimate by $4.5 million.
As regards Jean-Michel BASQUIAT (who joins Warhol and Bacon as a regular top-seller at prestige sales), it is clear that his prices are still rising: his Orange Sports Figure (1982) fetched $8.8 million including fees, compared with $6.4 million including fees just three years earlier (15 February 2002) at Sotheby’s in London, implying a gain of $2.4 million. In the early 1990s, it only fetched $66,000.

Christie’s kindles the YBA market

Christie’s best result on 30 June ($19.1 million) came from Francis Bacon’s Study for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne, a double-portrait of the artist’s great friend Isabel Rawsthorne next to his lover George Dyer, that sold slightly above its high estimate. But, above all, Christie’s managed to set six new auction records, for Chris Ofili, Malcolm Morley, R.H Quaytman, Jeff Elrod, Brent Wadden and the Chapman brothers. These records are significant as they highlight a number of the so-called Young British Artists supported by Charles Saatchi in the late 1990s. Indeed, three of the six new records belie the influence of choices made by the advertising mogul:

Chris OFILI – $4.5 million for Holy Virgin Mary (1996)
Going under the hammer for $4.5 million (incl. fees), Holy Virgin Mary has the flawless pedigree of having been included in the now legendary Sensation exhibitions in London (1997) and New York (2000). The Sensation exhibitions – organized around Charles Saatchi’s collection of Young British Artists – played a key role in launching a new wave of flamboyant British artists, including Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas.
Malcolm MORLEY – $1.8 million for SS Amsterdam in Front of Rotterdam (1966)
This work, once in Charles Saatchi’s collection, is one of the first examples of Morley’s characteristic hyper-realistic style. The result was Morley’s first above the million-dollar threshold.
Dinos & Jake CHAPMAN – $665,000 for Great Deeds Against the Dead (1994)
The fibreglass sculpture, inspired by Goya’s Disasters of War, caused a scandal at the Sensation exhibition in London. As expected, this major work set a new auction record for the British brothers, notwithstanding their very low auction-market profile since 2007.

Listed artists: Francis BACONAndy WARHOLPeter DOIGJean-Michel BASQUIATIsabel LAMBERTGeorge DYERChris OFILIMalcolm MORLEYRebecca QUAYTMANJeff ELRODBrent WADDENDinos & Jake CHAPMANDamien HIRSTSarah LUCASMalcolm MORLEYFrancisco José DE GOYA Y LUCIENTES