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Fontana Boosts $62 Million Art Sale as Buyers Go Back to 1960s

"Neger (Nuba)" by artist Gerhard Richter. The work was estimated at 3.5 million pounds to 4.5 million pounds in Sotheby's June 28 auction of contemporary art in London. The composition, based on a found photograph of members of the Nuba tribe from Sudan, sold for 3.7 million pounds. Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

Works by Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana and Gerhard Richter sold at an auction in London as buyers chose classic 1960s works and declined to pay high asking prices.

The three top lots sold within estimates at a Sotheby’s sale last night that raised a total of 41.1 million pounds ($62 million). Dealers said the market recovery for contemporary art was taking a breath after the biggest slump since 1990.

“The estimates were not so tempting,” said the Dusseldorf-based art adviser Jorg-Michael Bertz. “They’ve been adjusted to the new level too quickly. Sotheby’s did sell things, though, and they will react at the next series of auctions.”

Expectations were raised by improved sales earlier this month at the Art Basel fair in Switzerland. Still, continuing uncertainty in the wider economy has made collectors wary about high-value works. Last week at Christie’s International, a Claude Monet water lily painting valued at 30 million pounds failed to sell.

Sotheby’s total with fees was achieved against a low estimate of 38.3 million pounds, based on hammer prices. Eighty-three percent of the 53 lots found buyers. Less than a third of the successful lots sold for hammer prices above forecasts.

Following the financial crisis -- and a 50 percent fall in the prices of some fashionable contemporary names -- the auctions have become increasingly reliant on classic postwar works.

At Sotheby’s, a blue sponge relief by Klein, titled “RE49,” and a green Fontana “La Fine di Dio” (End of God) canvas were the most highly valued works, both carrying low estimates of 4.5 million pounds.

UniCredit’s Sale

The 1961 Klein, entered from the collection of HVB Group, the German banking unit of UniCredit SpA, was bought by one of three telephone bidders for 6.2 million pounds. In February, buyers spent more than 16 million pounds on works by Klein at London auctions.

The 1963 egg-shaped Fontana had appeared at a sale in London in February 2001, when it fetched 465,750 pounds at Christie’s. On this occasion, it raised 4.7 million pounds from another telephone bidder.

“There are too many Kleins and Fontanas in these auctions,” Bertz said. “We need a rest from them.”

A 1964 Richter painting, “Neger (Nuba),” showing members of a tribe from Sudan, sold to a single telephone bid of 3.7 million pounds against a low estimate of 3.5 million pounds. The work had been bought by its seller for 298,500 pounds at Sotheby’s in 1995.

Owners attempting to sell works bought more recently on the market were less successful.

Peter Doig’s 1995 to 1996 mountain landscape, “White Creep,” was offered with a low estimate of 1.4 million pounds, having been bought for that price by the seller at Sotheby’s in February 2008. It failed to attract a bid.

Prince Nurse

Richard Prince’s 2002 painting “Millionaire Nurse” reappeared at Sotheby’s after being sold for $4.7 million in New York in May 2008. Here in London it was knocked down to a lone telephone bid of 2.2 million pounds.

Much presale publicity had been generated by the presence of Bharti Kher’s 2006 life-size sculpture of a dying elephant, “The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own.” One of four unique variants by the Indian artist -- another is owned by the U.K. collector Frank Cohen -- it sold for a record 993,250 pounds against a low estimate of 700,000 pounds to another phone bidder.

Despite the subdued atmosphere in a less than full saleroom, Sotheby’s achieved an average price of 933,905 pounds for successful lots. Last year, at a sale that mustered 25.5 million pounds from 40 lots, the average was 690,000 pounds.

“The contemporary art market has leveled,” the London- based dealer Gerard Faggionato said in an interview. “There were still some good prices: There’s no doubt where we stand.”

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

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