London Closes the Gap

Article excerpt

In spite of import VAT and the introduction of the artist's resale royalty (droit de suite), London is currently improving faster as a market centre than New York. Figures from Sotheby's and Christie's for all sales during the first six months of 2007 show London at $3bn--ahead for the first time of the US total of $2.6bn. This has been due mostly to the strength of the pound against the dollar, and the growing number of buyers in Europe, southern Asia and Russia who seemingly prefer to do business in London.

Although New York is still ahead in contemporary art, the gap between the two is closing. Since 2003, regular New York sales totals have increased by just over four times. In London they have increased by eight. In June the London sales returned a record 221m [pounds sterling]. The comparable figure a year ago was 81m [pounds sterling].

An important factor behind these figures is the increased number of American collectors selling in London to take advantage of the strong pound. In June US collectors Elaine and Melvin Merians opted to sell 19 School of London paintings at Christie's which contributed 16.8m [pounds sterling] to a UK record 74m [pounds sterling] contemporary art sale.

Top lot was Lucian Freud's 1992 full-length portrait of the writer Bruce Bernard, which sold for 7.8m [pounds sterling]--a record for the artist and, briefly, for any living European artist. Further records from the Merians collection were set by Paula Rego's Moth, 1994, which sold to Marlborough Fine Art for 378,400 [pounds sterling]; Michael Andrews' landscape Sax A.D.832-Second Painting, 1983, which sold to dealer Ivor Braka for 692,000 [pounds sterling].

Several American Pop Art works were also sent for sale from US collections. However, although these helped to boost sale totals, they also exposed the Warhol market to some unexpected fragility. There was only one bidder for Three Marilyns, 1962 (estimate: 5/7m [pounds sterling]), which sold for a disappointing 5.6m [pounds sterling], and three later works, notably Brigitte Bardot, 1974 (2.5/3.5m [pounds sterling]), and Vesuvius, 1985 (1/1.5m [pounds sterling]), were bought in. At Sotheby's the next day a large 'Dollar Sign' (1.8/2.5m [pounds sterling]), a small 'Mao', 1973 (600/ 800,000 [pounds sterling]), and the earlier 5 Deaths, 1963 (1.2/1.8 [pounds sterling]), all failed to sell. In most cases, the estimates were simply set too high. Where they were more reasonable, the Warhol market looked quite secure. At Christie's a small 'Jackie', 1964, sold well over the 300/500,000 [pounds sterling] estimate to an Asian dealer for 1.4m [pounds sterling], and at Sotheby's the later Gun, 1981 (220/280,000 [pounds sterling]), sold to New York's Acquavella Galleries for 714,000 [pounds sterling].

Eighteen works by younger generation artists from the collection of duty-free shops magnate Antony Pilaro made 6.6m [pounds sterling] and saw several records tumble. Among these was a Kara Walker cut-out which sold for 180,000 [pounds sterling]; a 1991 Christopher Wool painting which sold to collector Peter Brant for 916,000 [pounds sterling]; and a Rosemarie Trockel knitted wool canvas which sold to Andrew Renton for the Cranston Collection for 252,000 [pounds sterling]--all far above estimates.

Charles Saatchi was also among the sellers, offering mainly German art from his 'Triumph of Painting' exhibitions. A large 1987 canvas by the late Jorg Immendorf, Contemplating the Question--Where do I Stand ..., sold for 216,000 [pounds sterling], and Albert Oehlen's Untitled, 1990, made 180,000 [pounds sterling], both within estimates. But Franz Ackermann's Zooropa, 2001,which he had bought for 198,000 [pounds sterling] in 2004, was unsold (120/180,000 [pounds sterling]).

Sotheby's offered fewer lots (72) than Christie's (101) in its main sale, but came close to selling all but six of the works offered for a total of 72.4m [pounds sterling]. …