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​Contemporary art: the latest high-end results…


Last week Sotheby’s and Christie’s hosted their first prestige Contemporary Art sales of the year in London offering works by Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lucio Fontana and Peter Doig among others. Generating a combined total of $343.2 million, the two auction majors have made a good start to the year.

On March 6, Christie’s took $191.6 million with an exceptional quality catalogue including works by Andy Warhol, Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri, Mark Bradford and Peter Doig. The total of $191.6 million will no doubt rank among the year’s Top 10 sales totals worldwide; but there are still many to come, including those of May and November. Among the evening’s most remarkable results, we saw Alberto BURRI’s « Ferro T » sculpture/painting of burnt/oxidized metal on wood fetch $8.1 million, the 4th best-ever result for this Italian artist whose prices are rising fast (+450% since 2010). Mark BRADFORD’s Bear Running from the Shotgun (2014) also generated a strong result at $5.3 million, and fetch $12 million at Phillips two days later, actually his record at auction (Helter Skelter I). After his sensational exhibition at the Venice Biennale’s United States pavilion in 2017, Bradford is today one of the Contemporary art market’s highest climbers.

The evening’s most anticipated lots were two large-format, high-quality works by stellar artists. The first, Andy WARHOL’s Six Self Portraits, consisting of six nuances of a self-portrait measuring 56 cm and hung next to each other in a line (3 metres wide in total)… A ‘monumental’ work by a monumental artist. This was one of his last self-portraits (1986) and presents an absolutely iconic picture taken at the end of his life… a kind of Memento Mori in which the artist’s face emerges from the darkness with extraordinary force. However, despite its power and importance, and although it fetched an exceptional $31.3 million, Six Self Portraits didn’t generate Warhol’s best self-portrait result, a title that belongs to a square presentation of four self-portraits in four shades of blue from the early 1960s which fetched $38.4 million in May 2011 at Christie’s in New York (vs. an estimate of $20-30 million).

The evening’s second rarity was an unusual Concetto spaziale by Lucio FONTANA. Measuring two metres wide, the work has 24 vertical slashes (the highest number Fontana ever used on canvases) conceived as “windows onto the infinite” (Fontana gave a cosmic interpretation to his slashes). It also has another exceptional feature: having fixed the canvas in a black lacquered frame, Fontana added a diagonal crossbar in front of the canvas, thereby enhancing the work’s rhythm, contrast and strangeness. Although it fetched the handsome result of $11.9 million, Christie’s was probably expecting a better result after a Concetto Spaziale of the same magnitude (with 24 slashes, but with red canvas instead of white) fetched $16 million in November 2015 at Sotheby’s in New York. The bidding for this latest Fontana work was therefore somewhat ‘timid’ compared with the 2015 result. However, this was not the case for a work (of similar dimensions) by the younger but equally sought-after Peter Doig, which fetched three million dollars more than the Fontana piece.

Focus on Peter Doig

The work that beat Fontana’s majestic Concetto spaziale on March 6 is Peter DOIG’s Charley’s Space (1991, 183 x 127 cm.). Estimated $8 to 11 million, the bidding went on to $15.1 million. Doig is one of the most iconic artists of our times and one of the hottest signatures on the market. In May 2017, Phillips hammered his latest auction record at $28.8 million for a work titled Rosedale, and for the year 2017 as a whole, Doig took 23th place in our Top 500 with an annual auction turnover of $99.3 million. Demand for his work is currently stronger than demand for works by Magritte, Rothko or Giacometti … Early buyers of Doig’s work have good reason to be happy: $100 invested in 1999 is worth an average of $1,840 (+1,740%) in 2018.

The following day (March 7), Sotheby’s sale generated a total of $151.6 million. The sales catalogue had Doig’s The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (1991, 200 x 250 cm) on its cover, and the painting fetched just under $20 million. One of his best known works, the work gained high-level exposure at London’s Whitechapel Gallery when Doig was awarded the Whitechapel Artist’s Award in 1991. But the work is also well known to art market specialists having been to auction no less than five times in 15 years! Over that period, The Architect’s Home In the Ravine multiplied in value by 42!

Price progression of The Architect’s Home in the Ravine by Peter Doig

  • 2002 > $475,000 (Sotheby’s London)
  • 2007 > $3.6 million (Sotheby’s New York)
  • 2013 > $11.9 million (Christie’s London)
  • 2016 > $16.3 million (Christie’s London)
  • 2018 > $19.9 million (Sotheby’s London)

Analysis of the successive sales of The Architect’s Home in the Ravine illustrates the different price thresholds crossed by the artist. It also illustrates a progressive shortening of the work’s holding period. Before 2010, the holding period was five or six years; after 2010 the periods dropped to two or three years. The resale rhythm has therefore accelerated while still generating profits of several million dollars each time. Such rapid and handsome profits may not last forever… However, on the eve of his 60th year, the Scottish artist has enjoyed an extraordinarily successful career with a steep and linear market progression. Today Doig is compared to the greatest painters in history. In 2015, Christie’s incorporated one of his paintings into its prestigious Looking Forward to the Past sale alongside masterpieces by Picasso, Giacometti, Rothko, Monet and Warhol (among others). It was an accurate reflection of the market’s esteem for Doig’s work which has proved particularly profitable for certain collectors with “investor” profiles.

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