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Still canvas lifts New York’s Contemporary week

14 November 2011Written by ATG Reporter

A SERIES of key consignments at the latest Contemporary art auctions helped lift the mood of the art market in New York.

Despite the jitters on the stock market throughout the week, the Contemporary series generated an hammer total of $624m (£410.5m) including day sales, well above the $346.3m (£227.8m) from the rather disjointed Impressionist & Modern sales the week before.

Sotheby's evening sale on November 9 took place after a fall of almost 400 points on the Dow Jones Industrial Average, with the company's own share price down by around four per cent across the day's trading.

Nevertheless, the sale made $228m (£182.9m) against a $192m-271m pre-sale estimate - the highest total at Sotheby's for a Contemporary art auction since May 2008.

The selling rate ran at 85 per cent (62 of the 73 lots found buyers), but the main contributing factor to the sale's success was the performance of the group of four paintings by the American abstract expressionist Clyfford Still.

They came from the estate of the artist's wife Patricia and were being sold to help endow the new Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. The top taker was the large oil on canvas 1949-A-No.1, which was chased by five bidders and made a record $55m (£36.2m). Only Bacon, Giacometti, Warhol and Rothko have made more at auction in the Contemporary sector.

Estimated at $25m-35m and generating a round of applause in the saleroom, it was knocked down to an anonymous phone bidder and underbid by New York dealer Chris Eykyn.

Clyfford Still is not an artist who appears regularly at auction and before this sale the highest price was the $19m (£10.5m) seen for 1947-R-no.1, which sold at Christie's New York in November 2006.

This figure was also eclipsed at Sotheby's by 1947-Y-No.2, which made $28m (£18.4m) to a different phone bidder against a $15m-20m estimate, while the later PH-1033 from 1976 made $17.5m (£11.5m) and the smaller PH-351 added another $1.05m (£690,790).

Among the sale's other notable results was the record for Gerhard Richter made when Abstraktes Bild from 1997 rose to $18.5m (£12.2m) against a $9m-12m estimate. Selling to another anonymous telephone bidder, it beat the £9.3m for Kerze (Candle) seen barely a month ago at Christie's in London and showed that the German artist's abstract works are keeping pace with his photorealist canvases.

Another Richter abstract from the same private source was Gudrun from 1987, which overshot a $5.5m-7.5m estimate and sold at $16m (£10.5m) - a price which demonstrated the enormous growth in the artist's commercial standing since it had previously sold at Sotheby's in London in June 2001 for £500,000.

Christie's evening sale on November 8 achieved a lesser hammer total but saw a higher selling rate, as 82 of the 91 lots got away (90 per cent) for a $216.3m (£142.3m) hammer total. This was slightly below the presale estimate of $227m-313m.

The sale opened with 26 lots from the collection of computer programmer Peter Norton which all got away and included a record $4m (£2.63) for Paul McCarthy's bizarre 1994 sculpture Tomato Head (Green).

The top lot for the sale overall was Roy Lichtenstein's I Can See the Whole Room...and There's Nobody in It! from 1961, which made $38.5m (£25.3m) against a $35m-45m estimate.

The oil and graphite on canvas depicting a man looking through a spy-hole, which had been the subject of a third-party guarantee, was knocked down to New York dealer Guy Bennett who saw off underbidding on the phones.

The price just eclipsed the previous record for the artist, which was the $38m (£25m) made by Ohhh...Alright... at Christie's New York in November 2010.

While Andy Warhol's Silver Liz from 1963 and Mark Rothko's White Cloud from 1956 both sold below estimate, for $14.5m (£9.5m) and $16.5m (£10.9m) respectively, another record came for Louise Bourgeois' bronze Spider sculpture, which sold at a US private buyer at $9.5m (£6.25m) against a $4m-6m estimate.

Meanwhile, over at Phillips de Pury, the 44-lot evening sale on November 7 made $61.6m (£40.5m), with 37 of the 44 lots getting away (84%).

The top lot was Cy Twombly's Untitled from 2006, which made a low-estimate $8m (£5.26m).

£1 = $1.52

By Alex Capon

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