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Bacon and Basquiat boost London's Contemporary art sales

27 June 2013Written by Alex Capon

The latest Contemporary art sales in London were not the most lucrative seen in recent times, but there was still plenty of interest on certain works and an even greater spread of international bidding than in the equivalent series last year.

Christie's witnessed greater interest from Asia, as was the case with their Impressionist & Modern sale last week, while Sotheby's reported bidders from 38 countries at their evening sale on June 26, the most so far for one of their sales in this category in the Capital.

In terms of demand, there was a slight sense of fatigue as the current series came at the end of a busy season which saw record sums spent at the New York Contemporary auctions in May and a bumper Art Basel fair in June. In terms of supply, some material on offer here was a bit second rate and the market's reaction for such works was generally lacklustre especially by recent standards.

Hirst and Warhol both had patchy weeks, while even a number of works by the market's current darling Jean-Michel Basquiat floundered and were left unsold.

The selling rates at the evening sales were pretty respectable (78% at Sotheby's, 80% at Christie's) but the hammer totals came in towards the lower end of their presale estimates (in Sotheby's case it was below estimate).

Leading Basquiat

The top lot of the week was Jean-Michel Basquiat's (1960-1988) Untitled from 1982 which appeared at Christie's (25/20/12% buyer's premium) evening sale on June 25. It had an estimate on request (thought to be in the region of £16m) and was always bound to sell on the night thanks to a third party guarantee.

At the sale, it drew a number of bidders before selling on the telephone at £16.7m. Although the vendor made a substantial profit on the $1.7m they had paid for it at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg in November 2002, the price was substantially less than the $43.5m (£29.4m) seen for the artist's Dustheads which made a record for Basquiat at Christie's New York in May.

Both these works were trademark large-scale pictures from 1982 with two graffiti-style figures painted in acrylic and oilstick. However the picture in London was painted on two panels (rather than a single canvas) and was deemed marginally less focused according to members of the trade.

Doig Demand

Drawing a stronger competition was a painting by Peter Doig (b. 1959), one of the names whose works have generated dramatic growth over the last few years especially his large-scale Canadian landscapes from the 1990s.

However, with fewer of such pictures now becoming available, the 6ft 7in x 8ft 3in (2m x 2.5m) oil on canvas from 1994 entitled Jetty drew four bidders against a £4m-6m estimate and was knocked down to a telephone buyer at £6.5m.

Depicting a single figure, canoe and an empty lake, the picture had the dreamlike quality that buyers look for, and the final price was only behind the £6.8m seen for The Architect's Home in the Ravine sold at Christie's in London in February this year.

Great and Small

Also at Christie's was an enormous 26ft (8m) high steel sculpture from 2001 which set a record for Eduardo Chillida (1924-2002) at £3.6m, again selling on the phone. It had previously been situated outside the Bilbao Guggenheim gallery.

Conversely, a diminutive Lucian Freud (1922-2011) drawing at the same sale also drew strong competition, easily outscoring its £120,000-180,000 estimate and selling for £420,000. A Walk to the Office was a 9 x 5½in. (22 x 14cm) crayon on paper from 1948, meaning it was an attractive early work dating from only four years after his first solo exhibition.

Overall, Christie's sale saw 51 of the 64 lots get away. The hammer total was £60.8m against presale estimate of £56.1m-72.6m.

Bacon at Sotheby's

Meanwhile, Sotheby's (25/20/12% buyer's premium) sale the following night was led by two works by Francis Bacon (1909-1992).

Uppermost amongst them was Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne, a triptych from 1966 which was estimated at £10m-15m and was knocked down at £10m to Alex Corcoran of the Lefevre Gallery who was bidding in the room. It had last sold at auction at Christie's in London in June 2004 for £2.4m.

Isabel Rawsthorne was an artist who, like Bacon, had exhibited their early works at London's Hanover Gallery and, indeed, the first work which Bacon ever sold there was also on offer at the current Sotheby's sale.

Head III had featured in the artist's first commercial show where it sold for a mere £150. Depicting a bespeckled man whose face emerges from a grey background, the 2ft 8in x 2ft 2in (81 x 66cm) oil on canvas had been bought by the vendor in 1997 from London dealers Thomas Gibson.

Here, it was estimated at £5m-7m but saw at least five bidders pursued it until it was finally knocked down to an American private buyer at £9.25m.

Hockney's Sunbather

Along with the earlier Bacon, one of the strongest bidding battles at Sotheby's came for another British artist. David Hockney's (b.1937) A Small Sunbather was painted in Los Angeles in 1967 and was a gift to the artist's former boyfriend Peter Schlesinger.

Consigned from the estate Stanley J. Seeger who had bought it at Christie's New York in May 2000 for $270,000, it was estimated here at £300,000-500,000.

It was eventually knocked down to a telephone buyer at £960,000 after drawing four bidders.

Making a higher sum and selling for a top-estimate £3m was Hockney's large and colourful Double East Yorkshire from 1998. Interestingly, this was one of the lots that was knocked down to an Asian private buyer on the phone.

Overall the Sotheby's sale saw 53 of the 68 lots get away for a hammer total of £65.3m, marginally under the £65.6m-93.9m presale estimate.

Phillips (25/20/12% buyer's premium) also staged a Contemporary art evening sale on June 27. Offering 27 lots of which 25 sold (92%), it posted a premium-inclusive total of £12.3m.

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