‘Buyer Fatigue’ Blights Auction as Art Market’s Recovery Stalls

The recovery in the market for contemporary art suffered a relapse last night as almost half the lots at an auction in London failed to find buyers.

Phillips de Pury & Co.’s 45-lot evening sale of contemporary works raised 4 million pounds ($6 million) with fees, missing a low estimate of 6.1 million pounds, based on hammer prices. Forty-seven percent of the material was rejected. Last year, during the financial crisis, the equivalent auction totaled 5.1 million pounds.

“It’s been a long period off Art Basel and the auctions in May,” Michael McGinnis, Phillips’s worldwide head of contemporary art, said in an interview after the sale. “There’s buyer fatigue out there.”

Buyers’ confidence had been affected by the subdued response to three Impressionist and modern works offered last week for more than 20 million pounds each at Sotheby’s and Christie’s International, auctioneer and chairman Simon de Pury said in an interview.

“If the Impressionist sales had been stronger, it would have carried through,” said de Pury.

The New York-based company’s June contemporary auction contained no works valued at more than 1 million pounds. Failures included Roy Lichtenstein’s 1969 spot painting, “Prop for a Film,” the most highly estimated lot at 500,000 pounds to 700,000 pounds. It had failed to sell against a low estimate of 30,000 pounds at a Sotheby’s day auction in London in 1995.

Estimates, Attendance

“This wasn’t a barometer of the market,” said London- based collector Amir Shariat, who bought the 1971 Gerhard Richter gray abstract “Graues Bild I” for a within-estimate 91,250 pounds. “The estimates were too high, the financial markets were down today and Spain playing Portugal in the World Cup,” reducing attendance at the sale, Shariat said. Only one lot sold for a hammer price of more than the estimate.

Most of the lots included in the auction were middling- quality pieces in the 50,000-pound to 200,000-pound range that were vulnerable to selective bidding, said dealers.

The 1958 mixed media piece, “Trapped Canvas,” by the Italian-American artist Salvatore Scarpitta and the 6-foot-high ceramic “Doppelkopf (Double Head)” by the German sculptor Thomas Schuette were among the few stand-out works on offer. Neither had appeared at auction before, said Phillips.

The Scarpitta, executed in Rome when the artist was influenced by Alberto Burri, sold for a record 409,250 pounds and the unique 1994 Schuette sculpture for 481,250 pounds, the top price of the auction. Both sold to telephone bidders for prices within presale estimates.

For most contemporary works, auction prices have yet to return to the levels achieved during the recent boom. In 2008, a silver foil relief by the much-traded German artist Anselm Reyle sold at Phillips for 157,250 pounds. Last night an identically sized silver relief, dated 2006, sold to the New York-based adviser Kim Heirston for 99,650 pounds.

The London auctions follow Art Basel, the world’s largest modern and contemporary art fair, which ended June 20 in Basel, Switzerland.

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Scott Reyburn in London at sreyburn@hotmail.com.

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