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Buoyant demand for trophy lots at London's major art auctions

14 February 2011Written by ATG Reporter

WORKS by some of biggest names in the Modern and Contemporary art market drew serious levels of international competition in London last week.

With spending at the very top end of this sector continuing to generate hefty totals for the auctioneers, paintings by the likes of Pablo Picasso (£22.5m), Francis Bacon (£20.5m) and Salvador Dalí (£12m) all made major sums.

However, without the additional 60-lot white-glove sale of a private collection held at Sotheby's, the overall total of the week would have actually looked rather shy. The sale contributed £82.1m to the overall hammer total for the week, which was just over £250m - an undeniably high total, although less than the £266m raised at the Impressionist & Modern series in June.

Although containing a large proportion of Contemporary works, the evening sale of the private collection on February 10 was the most lucrative auction held during the Impressionist & Modern week. Almost every lot saw notable bidding as reserves were clearly not set at restrictive levels and the estimates were not excessive.

The auctioneers did not reveal the source of the collection, but it was widely reported to be that of George Kostalitz, a Swiss collector who died last year.

The top lot of the unnamed collection was Francis Bacon's triptych Three Studies for a Portrait of Lucian Freud. It was estimated at £7m-9m, but four telephone bidders were prepared to pay over £10m for it. It was eventually knocked down in the room to German dealer Alex Lachmann, who is thought to have bought it for a Russian client.

Important works by Bacon have not appeared much on the market in the last two years and, added to the attractive subject of another seminal name in modern British art, this helped it to significant price for a small-scale triptych.

The sale also witnessed a huge record for Salvador Dalí, whose Portrait of Paul Eluard overshot a £3.5m-5m estimate, drawing six interested parties and seling on the phone to an anonymous buyer at £12m.

A record for any Surrealist picture, it smashed the previous auction high for Dalí seen the day before at Christie's, where Etude pour 'Le miel est plus doux que le sang' made £3.6m, selling to the Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, a private institution that runs the Dalí museum in Figueres, Spain.

With no major prime-period work by the artist having appeared at auction for some time, this painting from 1929 (the year the artist began his long-term companionship with Eluard's wife Gala), last sold at auction in 1989 at Christie's New York for $1.9m (£1.23m).

The collection also saw a substantial record for Julio Gonzales as one of the Spanish artist's powerful iron sculptures, Masque Ombre et Lumière sold on the phone to an anonymous buyer at £4.1m, as well as serious competition for a small unfinished oil-on-copper self portrait by Lucian Freud, which sold in the room to a private US buyer at £2.9m - a picture which had been previously sold at Sotheby's in March 1992 for £80,000.

The top price of the week came at Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern evening sale on February 8 as Pablo Picasso's 1932 painting of Marie-Thérèse Walter, La Lecture, sold at £22.5m to a phone buyer bidding through the deputy chairman of Sotheby's Europe, Mark Poltimore, who is also chairman of the Russian art department.

It significantly boosted the sale total to £60.3m from the 42 lots.

Christie's two-part evening sale on February 9, meanwhile, made £74.3m from 76 lots (including the 31-lot Art of the Surreal offering which made £20.2m), with the top lot being the record £6.4m bid on the phone (again through a Russian specialist) for Pierre Bonnard's Terrasse à Vernon from 1923.

Paul Gauguin's 1901 Nature morte a 'L'Esperance saw no bids against a £7m-10m estimate and was the major casualty of the week.

More big money is expected to be raised this week as the Contemporary art auctions in London are expected to make in excess £100m.

By Alex Capon

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