Evening Sale London
12 February 2014

Sotheby’s Contemporary Art

Colin Gleadell on how paint remains solid

Cy Twombly <em>Untitled (Rome)</em> 1964
Cy Twombly Untitled (Rome) 1964

Sotheby’s first contemporary art sale of the year was a really solid performance, but with only a sprinkling of fireworks. The £88m total was the highest for the company in London since the last peaks of February and June 2008 – so not quite into the new peak syndrome realised in New York in November last year when both Sotheby’s and Christie’s held their biggest contemporary art sales ever.

The sale was dominated, conservatively, by paintings as abstracts by Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, Alberto Burri and Sigmar Polke, and figurative works by Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Lucian Freud, claimed all the top lot spots. There were only two sculptures and three photographic works to choose from otherwise.

The predominance of painting applied to young artists too, which seems to be where the action is at auction. Auctioneer Oliver Barker set off at an electric pace doing a great impersonation of a cattle auctioneer as he took bids from every corner of the room in rapid sequence for a ‘rain’ painting by Lucien Smith. This one did better than the example at Phillips on Monday, selling to a phone bidder for £224,500 against a £40,000 estimate. One word of warning to the buyer, though, it is on unprimed canvas, so make sure that canvas doesn’t get dirty or stained because unprimed canvas is a real devil to clean. And if the condition deteriorates, so also will the value.

As at Phillips, the Dan Colen market looked fragile when two lots sold below estimates, and another chewing-gum artist, Adam McEwen, went unsold. The Oscar Murillo market, however, was more like its old self (last year that is) as a concrete dye and dirt canvas doubled estimates to sell for £146,500. (In the lower value part 2 sale the following afternoon, there was more competition for Colen’s work, and continued demand for Murillo – even for works on paper – and small works by Lucian Smith).

Heading into the blue-chip, postwar work, the Nahmads were at it again, investing in Italian art and pushing the prices up. They bought another Burri – a rare red plastic work from 1963 – above estimate for £3.6m, as well as a couple of million-pound-plus Fontanas. The other driving engine of this market, Jose Mugrabi, was policing the Warhols and Basquiats as ever, snagging a Diamond Dust Shoes canvas from 1980-81 above estimate for £1.2m and a large work on paper by Jean-Michel Basquiat for £1.7m, again above estimate. The seller of the Basquiat will be toasting Mugrabi as he bought the painting in Paris seven years ago for a quarter of the price.

Similar mark ups are not unusual for these artists and Mugrabi is never far from the story. The top Andy Warhol work of the sale, a medium-size red Mao, 1973, had been bought by him 14 years ago for £421,500. According to the Sotheby’s catalogue, it has changed hands since then and it sold yesterday within estimate for £7.6m, boosted by demand from Asia. Another Warhol, after Edvard Munch’s portrait of Eva Mudocci, did even better. Having sold in 1998 for $55,000 it now sold to a phone bidder against, who else, Jose Mugrabi, for £2.3m or $3.8m. So that’s another seller who will be toasting his health.

The other US highlight was a record for a Twombly painting, the classic 1964 Untitled (Roma), which was heavily contested by Larry Gagosian who invested heavily in presenting the artist’s work when he was alive – going so far as to open a gallery in Rome, Twombly’s adopted home. However, even he gave up when the price reached £12.2m or $20m. Still, not an unhappy result for an artist he has a big stake in.

Top price of the sale, however, went to German artist Richter, whose large red abstract, Wall, 1994, which was owned by Pierre Chen CEO of Yageo Corporation in Taiwan, sold for £17.4m including commission. The price was the third highest for Richter, but was still disappointing for Sotheby’s because they had secured it with a guarantee and an estimate of £16m (excluding commission). The other German artist to feature was Polke, whose large painting, ROKOKO, 1994, sold above estimate for £2.5m to a phone buyer bidding against UK collector Muriel Salem in the room.

British art was represented with a portrait of Lady Lampton by Lucian Freud, being sold by the sitter’s children, which went to London dealer Stephen Ongpin within estimate for £3m, and a classic, large Camden Town cityscape, Morning – Mornington Place, 1971-71, by Frank Auerbach which Sotheby’s had found in a slightly grimy state, cleaned up and reframed before selling it to London dealer Alex Corcoran for a double-estimate £1.8m – one of the best prices for Auerbach, who is to be celebrated with a retrospective at Tate next January.

Colin Gleadell is an independent writer on the art markets.

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