London Auctions Play It Safe With the Tried, the Trusted and the Dead
LONDON — At least four times a year, Christie’s, Phillips and Sotheby’s hold evening auctions of high-end contemporary art in New York and London. This week, it was London’s turn. The auctions feature works by a predictable cast of prestigious names, marketed across the world to the select group of wealthy individuals who covet and can afford blue-chip 20th- and 21st-century art.
Most of the more expensive works at these auctions are certain to sell, courtesy of minimum prices pledged by the auction houses or by third-party guarantors. A majority of the bidding is conducted on the telephone, or through agents in the room. Unsold lots have become a rarity. The outstanding prices are dutifully reported by international news outlets and on social media, creating a general perception that contemporary art sales are on an unstoppable roll.
That perception was maintained in London, helped by two early 20th-century masterworks. This latest series of evening contemporary auctions at Christie’s, Phillips and Sotheby’s raised an aggregate total of 344.6 million pounds, or about $478 million, about 50 percent more than the £229 million achieved at the equivalent events last March.
“It’s confirmation of the solidity of the market. There are no surprises,” Thaddaeus Ropac, a contemporary-art dealer with galleries in Paris, London and Salzburg, said in an interview. He was speaking on Tuesday night after a Christie’s sale that raised £137.5 million, a total that was within the overall estimate but that nonetheless represented the highest total yet achieved for an auction of contemporary art in London.
“Everything sells within the expected range, and it comes around again and again. This is what we want,” added Mr. Ropac, who appeared gratified by the market’s stability and predictability. But, he added, “It’s a bit boring.”
What else is there to say about this procession of anonymous seven- and eight-figure bids for bankable brands such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lucio Fontana, Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol?
Well, the first thing is that the high-profile contemporary auctions in London are only the glittery tip of the iceberg that is today’s art market. And that tip isn’t quite as glittery in London as it is in New York, where, last year, $110.5 million was given for a Basquiat and $450.3 million for a Leonardo da Vinci that had been offered in a contemporary sale.
London, by contrast, has become the place to auction good quality “midmarket” contemporary works priced at $20 million to $30 million. There was almost something routine about the moment when the 1986 Warhol work “Six Self Portraits” sold to a telephone bidder for an upper estimate £22.6 million, the top result at Christie’s. The dollar price, $31.3 million, was pretty much the same as it was when the seller bought the work at auction in New York in 2014, according to Artnet.
But other works demonstrated why, in the longer term, contemporary art has become such a compelling investment for wealthy collectors. At Christie’s, the 1991 Peter Doig snow scene “Charley’s Space,” which had been bought at a charity auction in 2006 for £820,000, was resold on Tuesday at £10.9 million.
Mr. Doig’s painterly landscapes have become one of the staple trophies of contemporary auctions. The following evening, his much larger canvas from the same year, “The Architect’s Home in the Ravine,” showing a house seen through a screen of frosted branches, proved the top lot at Sotheby’s, selling for £14.4 million. This was the fifth time the painting had appeared at auction; the first time, in 2002, it sold for $475,000 to the British collector Charles Saatchi.
The Doig piece was one of no fewer than 21 works guaranteed by third parties in Sotheby’s 58-lot event. The guarantees supported price levels and helped keep the tally of unsold works down to 5 percent. But several observers expressed mystification that an auction with so little energy in the room — and no noticeable activity from Asian bidders on the telephone — could raise £109.3 million.
Brett Gorvy, co-founder and partner at the New York and London dealership Lévy Gorvy, said he was skeptical that new buyers were bolstering the market. “These are established people bidding,” said Mr. Gorvy, who gave £7.4 million at Sotheby’s on behalf of a client for a 1974 Richter work, a color-chart piece called “1025 Farben,” one of the few lots to attract sustained competition.
“It’s a conservative market,” said Mr. Gorvy, a former head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s. “People are looking for tried and trusted names with a track record.”
And Sotheby’s provided those. Christopher Wool’s swirling monochrome abstracts have become an obligatory addition to any serious collection. At Sotheby’s, a much-admired 2007 example was bought for a client by Andrew Fabricant, director of the Richard Gray Gallery in New York, for £10.4 million.
Phillips, an auction house that was synonymous five years ago with the speculative market in emerging art, has embraced this new mood of conservatism. Its contemporary sales now include earlier 20th-century works, giving its auctions some historical gravitas — and some heftier price tags, which bolstered the week’s numbers.
The Phillips sale of 20th-century and contemporary art on Thursday night included Picasso’s remarkable, if sparse, 1932 oil and charcoal on canvas, “La Dormeuse,” showing the artist’s lover and muse Marie-Thérèse Walter naked and asleep, floating across the sky like a cloud.
With the exhibition “Picasso 1932 — Love, Fame and Tragedy” having just opened at Tate Modern, there could hardly have been a better time to offer a picture of Marie-Thérèse Walter, particularly one that had never before been seen on the auction market. It had been in a collection in France for the last 25 years and was offered without a guarantee at what dealers viewed as an attractively low estimate of £12 million.
Plenty were wondering whether this was on the shopping list of Harry Smith, executive chairman and managing director of the London-based art advisers Gurr Johns. The previous week, Mr. Smith spent more than £110 million on behalf of a client, buying no fewer than 12 Picasso works at the evening Impressionist sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, including the 1937 painting, “Femme au Béret et à la Robe Quadrillée (Marie-Thérèse Walter),” for £49.8 million pounds
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“La Dormeuse” attracted half a dozen bidders, selling for £41.9 million to a client via telephone. Phillips said in an email that the buyer was a “seasoned private collector” not represented by Gurr Johns. One lot earlier, Henri Matisse’s rare bronze sculpture from about 1908, “Nu Allongé I (Aurore),” had weighed in with a further £14.9 million from another anonymous telephone buyer.
Auction houses generally like to keep outsiders in the dark about who is selling and buying. But the former tennis star John McEnroe was named as the trophy seller of Mark Bradford’s monumental 12-foot-wide mixed media painting, “Helter Skelter I,” from 2007. Capitalizing on the enhancement to Mr. Bradford’s reputation of his having represented the United States at last year’s Venice Biennale, the piece sold for £8.7 million, an auction high for the artist.
Phillips’s final total of £97.8 million was the highest the company has achieved for any auction.
All three auction houses traditionally start their contemporary sales with a first lot by a fashionable young name. Tellingly, this month, Christie’s started its sale with Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), Sotheby’s with Christopher Wool (born 1955), and Phillips with Jack Whitten (1939-2018).
The established, the tried, the trusted and the dead. That has become the formula for success at today’s risk-averse contemporary art auctions.
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