The bull market for contemporary art continued its rampant run in London last February when Sotheby's and Christie's together amassed a whopping 90m [pounds sterling] of sales over three days. The comparative figure in February 2005 was 54m [pounds sterling].
The backbone of these sales was the exceptional supply and demand for paintings by Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach, which raised over 20m [pounds sterling] altogether. The juiciest selection was at Christie's which was selling works from the estate of Valerie Beston, the director of the Marlborough Gallery who died last year. Her fabled relationship with Bacon, and the secrecy with which she guarded her private life and her collection, created so much interest that Christie's 'Great Room' was packed. Beston lived in a small flat, with small paintings, but the prices they made were huge. A 1968 portrait study by Michael Andrews set the pace selling for a triple estimate 176,000 [pounds sterling]. Several Auerbachs tripled and quadrupled estimates. An early Head of E.O.W, 1969, sold to London dealer Richard Nagy for 344,000 [pounds sterling], and Tree on Primrose Hill, 1986, fetched a record 433,600 [pounds sterling] from New York's Acquavella Galleries. But the jewel of the collection was a Bacon self-portrait, affectionately inscribed 'To V', which sold for 5.2m [pounds sterling]--three times the price of any other small Bacon painting. Bidders in the room included private collector Lawrence Graff, and dealers Ivor Braka, Larry Gagosian and Andrew Fabricant of the Richard Gray gallery in New York, but they were all outgunned by an anonymous telephone bidder.
School of London paintings from other sources completed the British dominance of the sale. A much larger Bacon pope painting from 1959, which had none of the concentrated energy of the self portrait, sold for the same amount. A very early Freud, Girl on the Quay, 1941, sold within estimate to Nagy for 400,000 [pounds sterling], while a more mature portrait of Freud's bookmaker, Victor Chandler, sold for 4.15m [pounds sterling].
But British art wasn't the only story. Some of the liveliest bidding came for late works by Andy Warhol. A black and white version of The Last Supper, 1986, doubled estimates to sell for 2.7m [pounds sterling] to a French collector (possibly Francois Pinault or Bernard Arnault, insiders say). An even more remarkable price was the 2.6m [pounds sterling] given by Alex Lachmann, a Russian emigre dealer from Cologne, for a large dollar sign painting estimated at 400/600,000 [pounds sterling]. The price was three times more than any dollar sign painting had made before and is believed to have been bought for a Russian collector. The smell of Russian money, which has lifted sales of Russian art by 166% in the last year, is like nectar to the accountants in Bond Street and St James's, even if it might be laundered.
The sale was also marked by heavy bidding for European and especially German painters. A 1966 'hero' painting by Georg Baselitz set a record selling to US hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb for 1.24m [pounds sterling]. A large 1990 abstract by Gerhard Richter doubled estimates to sell for 770,000 [pounds sterling] after a battle fought between two New York art consultants, Abigail Asher and Rachel Mauro. But records were broken most often by paintings of the last seven years. Franz Ackermann's large B2 Barbeque with the Duke, 1999, doubled his previous record, selling for 299,000 [pounds sterling]. A 2002 painting by Matthias Weischer of an empty room quadrupled its high estimate to sell for 220,800 [pounds sterling]. Also quadrupling estimates were Eberhard Havekost's small Team, 2001, which made 131,200 [pounds sterling] and the first painting by Michael Borremans at auction--The Mirror, 2001--which sold also for 131,200 [pounds sterling].
All of this must have been like music to the ears of Charles Saatchi, who offered …