Contemporary art in London


After an excellent start to London’s season with Christie’s and Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art sales at the end of February/beginning of March, the overall climate for the Contemporary Art sales last week was substantially less foreboding than it was back in March 2016. To maintain the suspense and keep the adrenaline flowing, the relatively short selection of works in this kind of sale has to contain works of the utmost quality that not only feed the market’s current appetite, but also throw in a few surprises…some rare and powerful works capable of spicing up an hour and a half of bidding. The two Contemporary Art sales on 7 and 8 March successfully achieved this delicate balance with Christie’s and Sotheby’s generating a combined average sold rate of 95% and respectively $117.7 million and $144.7 million from two catalogues packed with quality works.

Notable results included $13 million for Mark Rothko’s No. 1 and $12.2 million for Jean Dubuffet’s superb Être et paraître (both at Christie’s). At Sotheby’s, Jean-Michel BASQUIAT’s powerful canvas Untitled (One Eyed Man or Xerox Face) fetched $14.5 million and a major work by Anselm KIEFER entitled “Athanor” (1991) lived up to expectations at its fourth auction appearance since 2001 when it fetched $2.7 million. Having added $1.9 million since 2005, we note Kiefer’s substantial value accretion in recent years.

Peter Doig and Gerhard Richter

Illustrative of the high prices that major collectors are willing to pay for paintings (and particularly large paintings), Peter DOIG’s large format canvases are among the most popular works on the Contemporary art market. For its King Street sale on 7 March, Christie’s produced a separate 78-page catalogue for Doig’s superb canvas Cobourg 3 + 1 More (200 x 250 cm). The evening’s star lot, “Cobourg 3 + 1 More” reached no less than $15.5 million. Never before offered at auction, it was acquired by its former owner in 1994 directly from the Victoria Miro Gallery in London. Back then, Doig big paintings could be purchased for under $200,000, so his current prices represent one of the market’s most spectacular price ascensions: his price index shows an increase of 1,028% since 2000! Although Doig stands out as one of the world’s most expensive living artists (with an auction record at nearly $26 million for Swamped at Christie’s New York on 11 May 2015), he is still in the shadow of another living artist, the grand master of German Contemporary painting, Gerhard RICHTER. Since 10 February 2015, Richter’s auction record has stood at $46.3 million (Abstraktes bild 1986, Sotheby’s London). On 8 March, Sotheby’s sold a Richter masterpiece entitled “Eisberg” (1982) for a few million more than the initial estimate with the hammer falling at $21.5 million. Over the past six years, 22 paintings by Gerhard Richter have sold above the $20 million line and the pace of such results is showing no signs of slowing.

A number of impressive new records…

On 7 March, Christie’s generated ten new auction records including one for the German artist Albert OEHLEN at $3.6 million for a portrait with palette from 2005. This is an important milestone for Oehlen, doubling his previous record ($1.8 million for Self-Portrait on 1 July 2014 at Christie’s London). Indeed, driven by a series of exhibitions around the world and by the support and promotional clout of powerful gallery owner, Larry Gagosian, Oehlen’s prices have enjoyed quite exceptional inflation: $100 invested in 2000 would be worth an average of over $2,800 today. We also note the new record for Cecily BROWN (another artist supported by the Gagosian and Saatchi Galleries), whose The Sick Leaves fetched $2.2 million, as well as a couple of spectacular results for Wolfgang TILLMANS whose new auction record on 7 March for Freischwimmer 186 ($328,000) was beaten the following day at Sotheby’s when Freischwimmer 119 fetched nearly $465,000, at four times its estimate!

One of the most impressive new records was hammered for an artist who is relatively new to the secondary market. Of Nigerian origin, Njideka Akunyili CROSBY (born in 1983) is already well-known to American collectors. She lives and works in California and her works have been exhibited in New York, Los Angeles and Palm Beach. Like Peter Doig, Mrs. Crosby is supported by a first-class gallery, Victoria Miro. Her work, The Beautyful Ones, acquired in 2013 by its former owner from the Luxembourg gallery, Zidoun & Bossuyt, rocketed on 7 March at Christie’s, deftly quadrupling its high estimate to finish at over $3 million. The work had not been kept long… once the young artist’s auction prices showed signs of taking off last year.

Lastly, we note a new record for the Swiss Hyperrealist artist, Franz GERTSCH, after Sotheby’s sold his impressive painting entitled Luciano II for $3.3 million. This is the second million-plus result for an artist who seldom appears on the secondary market. As Sotheby’s indicated, Gertsch produced only 63 major works between 1965 and 2005, the majority of which are held in museum collections, private collections or in the artist’s personal collection.