Auction series takes art sales to new level

Record crowds packed into Sotheby's and Christie's last week to see London's auction market for Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art soar to truly extraordinary levels.

Sotheby's marathon three-hour £94.9m auction of Impressionist & Modern art on February 5 ranks as the most expensive sale in this category ever held in Europe. A remarkable 30 lots sold for over £1m with Chaïm Soutine reaching yet another new high, the superb c.1921 portrait, L'Homme au Foulard Rouge, selling for £7.8m.

The following evening Christie's weighed in with another three-hour offering of Imps & Mods which achieved £89.9m.

Competition for art - and somewhere to stand to see the art being sold - was even more intense at Sotheby's and Christie's February 7 and 8 contemporary sales.

Sotheby's £45.7m on Wednesday evening set a new high for any contemporary auction in Europe. Twenty-four hours later this record was smashed by the gargantuan £70.4m achieved at Christie's for their 84 lots of contemporary material.

No fewer than 16 works sold for over £1m, topped by the £12.5m paid by the New York dealer Andrew Fabricant in the room for Francis Bacon's 1956, Study for Portrait II, which had reputedly been entered by Sophia Loren. This is the second highest price ever paid for both a post-War and a British work of art. Only two lots failed to find buyers.

On February 6 Phillips de Pury had also been in on the act. Using a temporary selling space in a ballroom in Bloomsbury Square, Simon de Pury knocked down 92 lots of contemporary art, including a single-owner collection of ultra-fashionable Chinese works, for a high estimate £5.3m.

"These sales re-established London's pre-eminence as a hub of the global art market, with an ability to attract collectors from all over the world to compete for top quality lots," said Robin Woodhead, Sotheby's Chief Exective Officer of Sotheby's Europe and Asia after his company notched up an unprecedented total of £186m from their week of sales.

Christie's total was even higher at £200m.

Ever-rising prices, a favourable dollar-sterling exchange rate and the chance of a seven-figure bid from a Russian oligarch make London an increasingly attractive place to sell high-value art.

Though the Bacon fell to a New York dealer on behalf of a North American collector, overall the sales produced a higher-than-usual proportion of European buyers. Remarkably nine out of the 10 most expensive lots at Christie's Imps & Mods sale fell to Europeans.

Among these, Russians - based either in London or Russian, or both - are an increasingly influential factor. The auction houses are understandably keen to protect the anonymity of their buyers, but Christie's Jussi Pylkkänen was prepared to say after King Street's Imps & Mods sale: "Clients from new markets are influencing prices. Russians were among the top ten buyers."

A diminitive Russian-speaker in his 30s was also a prominint buyer at Sotheby's evening contemporary sale. This mystery bidder, speaking into a mobile, produced gasps in the room when he paid a quadruple-estimate and record £5.1m for Peter Doig's dreamlike 1990/1990 canvas, White Canoe, which Sotheby's had recently bought from Charles Saatchi.

This bidder's shopping list included at least three other paintings for a further £1.7m.

A strong night for British painting also saw a record £1.7m paid on the telephone for Frank Auerbach's 1977 canvas, Camden Theatre in the Rain.

A remarkable 19 per cent of the lots at Sotheby's were bought by new collectors, but specialist-in-charge Cheyenne Westphal was keen to allay fears that the market be overheating.

"Everyone feels very relaxed at the moment," she said. "People are confident that the market will carry on like this for a while. Fortunes are being created so quickly and so many new buyers are coming into the market all the time. London is an exciting place to be at the moment."

By Scott Reyburn