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Things are looking up

28 June '11 by the editors

The mood at Christie’s post-war and contemporary sale hints at a healthier market, with Bacon’s portrait study making £18m.

Christie's post-war and contemporary auction tonight broke the mould: it sold above its high estimate (once premium was included), no longer a regular occurrence in this market. The 65 lots brought in £78.8m (est £55.3m-£76.8m), up considerably from the £45.6m raised at last year’s equivalent sale, and at times the saleroom had atmosphere of the 2007 and 2008 boom years. “I was very impressed,” said dealer Emmanuel Perrotin after the auction.

The good times were most evident in the bidding for the evening's top lot, Francis Bacon's vast, dark Study for a Portrait, 1953, whose unidentified seller was the retiring Swiss businessman, wine-producer and collector Donald Hess. This was estimated to sell “in the region of £11m” and five bidders competed hard—and were for the most part unphased by increments of half-a-million pounds—until it went for £18m, over the telephone to Christie's Sandra Sandra Nedvetskaia, who is based in its Russia office. Bacon's price record was memorably set in New York in May 2008 when the oligarch collector Roman Abramovich bought his Triptych, 1976, for $83.6m.

And just like in the first half of 2008, Bacon's compatriot Lucian Freud proved popular. This was evident at the outset when the opening lots, five intimate and early Freud drawings, from the collection of Kay Saatchi, all sold ahead of estimate. Most notably, his Rabbit on a Chair, 1944, estimated to make between £300,000 and £400,000, sold for £1m to a telephone bidder (who later in the auction also bought Lucian Freud's Woman Smiling, 1958-9, for £4.7m [est £3.5m-£4.5m], a work that had come from another British collection). Saatchi bought contemporary works alongside her ex-husband—mega-collector Charles Saatchi—for several years and tonight sold seven works prior to moving back to the US after living in Britain for 25 years. She watched the sale's action from a private room at Christie's and was “delighted” with the outcome, according to Frances Outred, its head of post-war and contemporary art in Europe. Her works made a total £4m against a pre-sale estimate of £2.1m-£2.8m and the other two works—Paula Rego's Looking back, 1987 and Ron Mueck's Big Baby, 1996 (the first work in the artist's catalogue raisonné) both made auction records for the artists (they sold for £769,250 and £825,250 respectively.)

Works by Anselm Kiefer were also popular in the saleroom: his Das Alwis-Lied (The Song of Alvis), 1980, sold to Dickinson gallery for £433,250 (est £180,000-£220,000) and Dein und mein Alter und das Alter der Welt (Your Age and My Age and the Age of the World), 1992, went to the Israeli dealer-collector Micky Tiroche.

One of the most significant pieces to sell well above estimate was Peter Doig's Red Boat (Imaginary Boys), 2003-4, which went for £6.2m (est £1.4m-£1.8m). This work has been at the centre of an ownership dispute that Christie's says was settled last week. As part of the settlement, its previous owner—Carnegie Museum trustee James Rich—has agreed to give a donation to the Carnegie (where the work had previously hung) and to purchase another Doig for the museum, Christie's says. The work was sold over the telephone by David Linley, a nephew of The Queen and chairman of Christie's.

But all was not upside at the auction and there were also some disappointments, particularly of works less fresh to the market. Of the 65 lots on the block, 12 (18%) didn't sell. These included Thomas Struth's photograph (from an edition of ten), Art Institute of Chicago I, 1990, that had an ambitious £250,000-£350,000 estimate and two works by Chris Ofili: Afro Red Web, 2002-3 (guaranteed by the auction house, est £900,000-£1.2m) and Trump, 1997-8 (est £500,000-£700,000). Outred said that there had been several Ofili's on the market place since his recent record had been set last June (when Orgena, 1998, went for £1.9m at the same auction house). Trump had also been visibly for sale at Zwirner's booth at Frieze last year (for £1m), added Outred. Previous market darlings—including Warhol and Richter—mostly sold around their low estimates, without generating much excitement.

That the market is still selective is a healthy distinction from the 2008 bubble. “There was strong, deep bidding for most of the works, but you won't get it all the way through as not all works are of the same quality,” said Pilar Ordovas, the previous head of post-war and contemporary art at Christie's, who has just opened her own dealership in London. She bought Allen Jones's A Step in the Right Direction, 1966, on behalf of a client, for £337,350 (est £200,000-£300,000).

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