Magazine article Art Monthly

Enjoying the Ride

Magazine article Art Monthly

Enjoying the Ride

Article excerpt

The contemporary art market looked remarkably stable, unaffected by global economic uncertainties, as nearly [pounds sterling]186m was spent at London's February sales, only [pounds sterling]1.5m short of the equivalent sales last year and comfortably within the pre-sale estimate of [pounds sterling]142/214m (sale prices include the buyer's premium charge, estimates do not).

But getting this kind of result is not as easy as it seems, as Bonhams demonstrated by making a less than auspicious start to the series with a [pounds sterling]1m sale that fell short of its [pounds sterling]1.8/2.7m estimate and in which 11 out of the 20 lots went unsold. These included the highest estimated lot, an Urs Fischer furniture sculpture, which Bonhams had guaranteed with a [pounds sterling]400,000 estimate but could not sell. The most successful sale was a 1960 charcoal portrait of Lucian Freud by Frank Auerbach that sold to London dealer Pilar Ordovas, bidding for a client, for [pounds sterling]481,250 ([pounds sterling]300/500,000). Clearly Bonhams has not yet got the clientele to buy contemporary art at the higher levels, but it is trying.

What it was missing was a few pictures by Gerhard Richter. At the other three salerooms there were 25 of them, mostly colourful abstract paintings of the kind that had sold so well in New York in November, and all but two sold for [pounds sterling]33.8m, easily surpassing the minimum [pounds sterling]20m expected; that's 18.4% of the series spent on just one artist. I can't remember any other contemporary artist, apart from Andy Warhol in New York, dominating proceedings to such an extent.

The highest Richter price was [pounds sterling]9.9m for the largest abstract at Christie's, which had been estimated at [pounds sterling]5/7m. At Sotheby's, six Richter paintings were sold for [pounds sterling]17.6m, the largest topping estimates of [pounds sterling]3/4m to sell for [pounds sterling]4.9m to Carl Hirschmann, a former nightclub owner in Zurich with a dubious track record in the courts.

Although it is these colourful, squeegee-executed works that are most widely sought after, other, less obviously commercial works from his extensive repertoire are also performing well. A painting of a blank piece of paper, curled at the corner for turning, was one of a series of only 11 of this subject made in 1965. When it was last sold in 2002 it was bought by a British collector for [pounds sterling]53,000. Last month, the collector sold it for [pounds sterling]1.5m. Less colourful abstracts are less sought after. A small grey monochrome met with little enthusiasm as it sold for [pounds sterling]385,250 ([pounds sterling]350/450,000), a less dramatic improvement on the [pounds sterling]300,500 the painting fetched at Christie's London in February 2008. To prove Richter's market is not all about abstracts, a 1981 photopainting of icebergs sold for [pounds sterling]4.3m against a [pounds sterling]2/3m estimate - which Sotheby's claimed as a record for a Richter landscape.

Other German art to sell well was AR Penck's 1965 painting Methode, Fertizuwerden, which signalled a revival of interest in the neo-expressionist when selling for a record [pounds sterling]325,250 ([pounds sterling]90/120,000). Also, a large Albert Oehlen 1989 abstract sold for a record [pounds sterling]445,250 ([pounds sterling]200/300,000) with supportive bidding from the Gagosian gallery, which has just taken on representation of the artist.

US art naturally played a lesser role than it does in New York. At Christie's, Jeff Koons was represented with a small Jim Beam - Baggage Car, 1986, no.1 from an edition from which no.3 had sold at Sotheby's London in June 2010 for [pounds sterling]634,550. However, no.1 sold for just [pounds sterling]457,250 ([pounds sterling]350/450,000), again thanks to supportive bidding from Gagosian. A small Warhol self-portrait from 1986, which had cost $1.1m at Christie's New York during the downturn in May 2009, bounced back to sell for [pounds sterling]1. …

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