Results of the Contemporary art sales: seriously off the boil



A week of sales in London Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips de Pury & Co tested the resilience of the contemporary art market which has been the most speculative and volatile compartment of the market over the last few years. After beating record after record in 2006, 2007 and the first half of 2008, even the most famous contemporary artists have run out of steam.

Just as The Art Market Confidence Index (AMCI) indicated that a 60% of the voters was still expecting prices to fall in the next 3 months, Sotheby’s inaugurated the contemporary art sales week with a selection of 27 lots, a few days before Christie’s (31 lots) and Phillips de Pury & Co (53 lots).Estimations that had only been slightly revised down failed to tease collectors into bidding for leading names like Mark ROTHKO, Anish KAPOOR, Francis BACON or Jeff KOONS.

Jeff KOONS, the must-have name on the contemporary scene, met with a mixed reception. Two of his works went for over a million pounds, Stacked a sculpture that fetched £2.5m at Sotheby’s on February 5 and the painting Monkeys (Ladder) that sold for £1.2m at Christie’s on February 11. The following day his Encased – Five Rows which was the catalogue cover at Phillips de Pury & Co, met with a stony silence and the piece was withdrawn without a single bid being made. The estimation made by Phillips de Pury & Co. said the work’s value had risen tenfold in less than 5 years. It had in effect been auctioned for the equivalent of £214,000 in May 2004 before selling for £2.2m on February 12 2009.

The previous day, Christie’s suffered a huge disappointment when it failed to sell Francis BACON‘s superb Man in Blue VI (1954). Privately owned for 38 years, the work depicts the muffled tension of the artist’s turbulent relationship with Peter Lacy, the model for the painting. Its low estimate was $4m but it had to be bought in. Since the rout suffered in the October 2008 sales, no Bacon picture has had any success in auction: all four paintings put up for auction between October and February failed to sell. And yet in 2007, Bacon’s popularity was soaring and his price index ended the year 120% higher. His annual sales for that year were $ 245m, second only to Pablo Picasso ($ 319m). In 2008, in spite of a very good first semester, this index registers a -56% fall at the end of the year.

Mark ROTHKO suffered the same fate as Bacon. On February 11, his Green, Blue, Green on Blue (1968), which had a low estimate of £2.5m, was also bought in. The same work had sold for the equivalent of £2.6m on November 13 2007 in New York. In 10 years, the painting had risen ten times in value: it was first put up for auction at Christie’s London in 1996 and fetched £210,000. Another unsold item was an aluminium Anish KAPOOR sculpture (2004) estimated at £ 500,000-700,000 (Christie’s). Yet a piece in a similar vein, but smaller and older, sold for £840,000 at Sotheby’s a few days earlier.

In the circumstances, the first sales in February unsurprisingly posted no new records but at least they avoided disaster. Only 21% of Christie’s items remained unsold, but 52% of lots fetched less than their estimations… Sotheby’s pulled off the best sale of the week by selling 25 lots out of 27 and topping a million pounds for three of them. Apart from Koons, the best results were for Lucio FONTANA‘s Concetto spaziale which fetched £3.9m at Sotheby’s (which was, however, hoping for £5m), Gerhard RICHTER’s Troisdorf (£1.85m -Sotheby’s), Willem DE KOONING’s Women Singing I (1966) which sold within its estimation spread for £700, 000 (Christie’s) and Alberto BURRI’s Combustione Plastica (1956) which went for £700, 000, or £100, 000 below its low estimate. After these sales, estimates will need to be revised down further…