IF you’re looking for a painting that sums up the problems suffered by the contemporary art market over the last year, then this work by Peter Doig (b.1959) is a pretty good candidate.
Pine House (Rooms for Rent) was offered at Christie's evening sale during London's Frieze week earlier this month. It was met with a blank response from the room and ended up selling under estimate for £1.2m to a single bid on the telephone.
But that wasn't all of it.
It was previously unsold when offered with a $4.5m-6.5m estimate at Christie's New York in November last year. Back then, the auctioneers had given the vendor a hefty guarantee and it was one of the works on which they took a big hit as the contemporary market came crashing down.
After paying out the guarantee, the work became owned (or at least partly owned) by the auctioneers.
A year on, it was shipped over here for the London sale and given a £1.5m-2m estimate, indicating that Christie's were hoping to claw back around half of what they had paid out - a figure roughly achieved when premium was added.
The auctioneers are now no longer issuing guarantees. And, faced with such losses, the drop in prices means vendors are currently unwilling to consign.
Christie's contemporary art evening sale on October 16 offered only 25 lots, while Sotheby's did not even stage an evening sale during Frieze week.
However, with estimates now as much as 50 per cent lower than last year, the selling rates were encouraging.
At Christie's, all but one work sold.
Two works by Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997) consigned by Charles Saatchi met with a decent response. Paris Bar from 1991 sold to a telephone buyer for £2m against underbidding from New York dealer Tony Shafrazi. Estimated at £800,000-1.2m, it was the top lot of the sale.
The other Kippenberger was Kellner Des.. (Waiter Of), also from 1991, which made £950,000, selling to another American dealer (reportedly Jeffrey Deitch). It made a tidy return for Saatchi who had paid £196,000 for it at Sotheby's London in October 2003.
Indeed, half of the lots at Christie's evening sale were bought by North American buyers.
The total was £9.51m hammer, above the £6.78m-9.49m pre-sale estimate but well down on the £28m total for the equivalent sale last year.
Sotheby's contemporary art day sale on October 16, which included an Arab and Iranian art section, made £10.5m hammer with 159 of the 217 lots finding buyers. The top lot was Jean-Michel Basquiat's (1960-1988) Fuego Flores from 1983 that sold for £820,000 to an Asian private buyer (estimate £800,000-1.2m).
Phillips de Pury's joint total for their evening and day sales on October 17 was a premium-inclusive £6.7m.
Although there were reports of some returning confidence to the market, the combined overall hammer total for the Frieze week auctions was £39m. This compared to £60m for the sales last October when the contemporary art boom dramatically turned to bust.
As for the Frieze Art Fair itself, which took place in a tent in Regent's Park for its seventh year from October 15-18, a number of galleries reported strong sales, but the general feeling was that fewer pieces and less money was changing hands.
With 165 galleries from 30 countries, there was a higher turnover of dealers, with 28 exhibitors not returning for this year's outing.
Hauser & Wirth sold a Louise Bourgeois (b.1911) sculpture entitled The Couple to a European collector for $3.5m (£2.33m), and all the works on their stand by Ida Applebroog (b.1929) found takers.
The Lisson Gallery reported 40 sales over the week, with particularly strong demand for works by Anish Kapoor (b.1954), whose much-publicised solo exhibition at the Royal Academy was running at the same time as Frieze.
By Alex Capon