Even seasoned auction-goers admitted to being stunned by the amount of money splurged at sales of contemporary art in New York this week. In the evening sales alone, over $630m was spent on classic contemporary, pop art and minimalism, with estimates left in the dust and a whole raft of new artist records set.
The climax of a buoyant week was at Sotheby’s on Wednesday, when four rare paintings by early abstract expressionist Clyfford Still fetched $114.1m, well over their target of $51m-$71.5m. The most expensive work, “1949-A-No. 1A”, a velvety black-and-dark-red abstract, triggered a prolonged bidding battle between the New York-based dealer Chris Eykyn and a telephone bidder who finally won at $61.7m. Dealer sources in the room tentatively named the anonymous bidder as hedge fund boss Israel Englander.
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Almost as sought-after at Sotheby’s was a group of eight abstract paintings by German artist Gerhard Richter: these trounced pre-sale expectations of $27m, making a total of $74m. The most expensive work sold for $20.8m, setting a new record for the artist. Overall the sale made $315.8m, the firm’s third-highest total for a contemporary auction.
Christie’s did well too, making $247.6m in its evening sale, with its top lot being a rare pop art work by Roy Lichtenstein, “I can see the whole room! … and there’s nobody in it!” (1961). It sold to private dealer Guy Bennett for $43.2m (est. $35m-$45m), again setting a new artist record.
“There’s an awful lot of money being spent, and the trophy works did well,” said art adviser Allan Schwartzman after Christie’s sale, while dealer Christophe van der Weghe commented: “People want to take their money out of Wall Street and put it into hard assets such as art.”
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It may seem surprising, coming straight after the buoyant art sales of the past fortnight, that Sotheby’s made a loss in the third quarter of this year (a period that ended just before the sales). The third quarter is traditionally weak, but the $29.7m loss that the auction house recorded this year is sharply higher than its $19.7m deficit in the same period in 2010. To blame is the highly competitive auction environment, leading to lower commission revenues as the big two slug it out for consignments. Not helping things this year was the $8.3m writedown of the Noortman inventory. Sotheby’s bought the Dutch Old Master dealer in 2006 but now finds itself with a large number of difficult-to-shift mid-level works. Now they are being knocked out in various (unspecified) auction houses. “It is painful, but we have taken our medicine and are moving on,” said Bill Sheridan, the firm’s chief financial officer.
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The first Paris Tableau, a boutique fair with just 20 Old Master paintings dealers, ended on a sour note last week. Although the event was a commercial success, one London dealer won’t be taking an exhibit back, because it has been refused re-export by the French authorities. The painting is a huge “Christ Carrying the Cross” by 17th-century painter Nicolas Tournier, which “disappeared” from the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse in 1818. Since then it has been sold and resold a number of times, and was exhibited this year at Maastricht by Paris dealer Hervé Aaron, tagged at €675,000. He offered it to the museum, but director Axel Hémery decided, on the basis of a photograph, that it was not by Tournier – though he now admits he was wrong.
So Aaron sold the work to London dealer Mark Weiss. Weiss also contacted the museum and was told there was no legal bar to bringing it back into France. But works of art in French public collections are “inaliénable”, meaning they can never be sold, by law: even an 1818 disappearance comes under this rule. So for the moment, the French ministry of culture has forbidden Weiss to take the work back home with him. “Negotiations continue, but [they’re] likely to be long,” says a spokesperson for the fair.
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Back in London, a new gallery opens this week, specialising in contemporary and modern ceramics. It is a rebirth, in a way, of the former Galerie Besson, as it remains in the same location in Royal Arcade. Now called Erskine, Hall & Coe, the new venture brings together Matthew Hall, for many years director of Galerie Besson, and two Australian investor-collectors, James Erskine and David Coe. The first show, opening on November 16, features work by Japanese potter Shozo Michikawa.
Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper