Sotheby’s Contemporary Art auction performs strongly

28th June 2012

The general opinion amongst most about the outcome of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art auction was that it was a reliable and respectable evening.

While that is brilliant news for contemporary art – the strong sales of certain works suggesting that investors and collectors are all attuned to the critical and financial importance of this movement – there was something lacking, a certain hint of distance.

It has to be noted that allusion to a market cooling down is, at best, slender, with nothing too dramatic airing itself in the more traditional financial markets, although, with a major sit-down about to take place amongst eurozone leaders, some reserve is understandable.

There are two lessons that can be learnt from the sale, explained the New York Times’ Souren Melikian: "One is that contemporary art retains its constituency despite the current economic difficulties.

"The other is that speculative-minded consignors are now apt to come to grief. Auction houses may be tempted to cave in to their demands to secure consignments, but in the present circumstances, that course can be self-defeating."

In total, the evening saw 69 of the 79 works on offer sell for a combined total of $108 million (approximately £69.3 million), which is a tremendously credible figure, once again confirming the importance of established artists like Francis Bacon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Frank Auerbach and Gerhard Richter.

"The auction this evening was led by blue-chip artists, such as Bacon, Basquiat, Richter and Lichtenstein, and also witnessed a record price for Glenn Brown whose oil on canvas established the second-highest price tonight. With buyers from 15 different countries, the global demand for this area of the market continues to be underlined," expanded Cheyenne Westphal, Sotheby’s chairman for Contemporary Art Europe.

The demand for a work by English artist Brown was particularly surprising, with his phenomenal and striking 1998 landscape oil painting The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dali (after John Martin) having a number of bidders battling it out competitively.

The dramatic standoff for the three-metre wide reinterpretation of The Great Day of His Wrath, a sort of homage to both Dali and Martin, amalgamating both the style of the English romantics and the surrealists, concluded when it went under the hammer for $8 million (£5.2 million). This was nearly double what it sold for in 2007 (£2.82 million).

Bacon’s late meditation Study For Self-Portrait (1980), which was painted by the artist at the age of 71, full of typical dark material that suggested he had lost none of his youthful force for hard-hitting work, went for $8.1 million (£5.2 million).

Though it was approximately £1 million less than had been expected, it is, within context, still a remarkable sale. A diminutive painting, executed on canvas 35.6 centimetres by 30.5 centimetres, the price established at Sotheby’s auction is exceptional, despite what the naysayers might say to the contrary.

Richter, an artist whose name is pencilled in at the top of every portfolio, was again on fine form, outdoing the expected price, with keen interest in his work boosting his worth within the art industry.

His radiant 1995 photorealist painting Jerusalem, which Sotheby’s described as being "the most significant use of an identified landscape" in his entire body of work, was picked up for $6.6 million (£4.2 million).

The auction’s most expensive sale went to Basquiat’s Warrior (1982), a work that is arguably viewed as being the artist at his optimum best. Like Brown’s The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dali (after John Martin), this proved to be of interest to a number of parties.

It finally went for $8.7 million (£5.6 million), which although within the lot price, brought cheers. It is a big sale as it had previously gone for £2.82 million half a decade ago. Perhaps there’s a market to explore with Basquiat, one that at least warrants a bit of investigation to clarify what has led to its increased value.

Finally, to Damien Hirst, who is currently enjoying a major retrospective at the Tate Modern, a bountiful amount of critique and discussion in the art world, and the usual mass media interest. The conclusion from Sotheby’s auction was mixed at best, which leaves investors unsure about the mood regarding Britain’s enfant terrible.

His Spin Paintings went for a decent amount, neither disappointing nor excessive, yet My Way (1990-91), one of a series of glass-fronted medicine cabinets, failed to sell, which was something of a surprise but not so much so that those with Hirst in their collection will be concerned that they are holding on to diminishing investments.

The drift towards contemporary art, based on another strong performance, suggests that we're entering a fascinating new period. The prices set for some of these works will not only come to dominate the value of other paintings being sold in upcoming shows, but also open up further artistic investigation into why they matter.

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