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Bacon, Warhol, New Buyers Boost Auctions as Sales Increase 56%

The center painting of the triptych
The center painting of the triptych "Three Studies for a Portrait of Lucian Freud" by Francis Bacon. The work was estimated to sell for between 7 million pounds and 9 million pounds at Sotheby's auction ``Looking Closely: A Private Collection'' in London on Feb. 10, 2011. Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

London’s February series of evening contemporary-art auctions raised 56.2 percent more than last year, boosted by works by Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol, and phone bidding from a widening range of international clients.

The auctions at Sotheby’s, Christie’s International and Phillips de Pury & Co. raised 155.1 million pounds ($251 million), up from 99.3 million pounds last year, according to Bloomberg News calculations.

“There’s a feeling among investment-driven collectors that art has been tested and it’s passed,” Anders Petterson, founder of the London-based research company ArtTactic, said. “People have been surprised how quickly the market has recovered and how blue-chip works have held their value.”

Dealers said the sales were helped by Russian and Asian buyers and the sale of the 43.7 million-pounds of contemporary works from a private collection. These boosted the Sotheby’s total to 88.3 million pounds. Christie’s raised 61.4 million pounds, the most for a contemporary-art auction in the U.K. capital since July 2008, as New York dealer Larry Gagosian paid 10.8 million pounds for a Warhol self portrait. Two years earlier, during the financial crisis, the auction house’s entire sale raised 8.4 million pounds. Phillips added 5.4 million pounds to the tally.

In the summer of 2008, at the peak of the contemporary art market boom, equivalent London sales totaled 205.4 million pounds. Then the catalogs proliferated with works by fashionable favorites such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Richard Prince, whose values declined by up to 50 percent during the crisis. Now classic pieces by Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Gerhard Richter predominate, supported by an ever-changing roster of younger names that appeal to international buyers.

Telephone Bidders

“The whole system has changed,” the London-based dealer Alan Hobart said after seeing most of the lots at Sotheby’s and Christie’s fall to telephone bidders represented by lines of more than 50 employees.

“The auction houses know where the big clients are and they’re becoming more dominant,” said Hobart, who spent 6.3 million pounds on a sculpture and a painting by Alberto Giacometti.

Among living contemporary artists, Richter emerged as the investors’ choice. Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, took the winning phone bid of 7.2 million pounds for the German artist’s 1990 “Abstraktes Bild” on Feb. 15, while at Christie’s, Sandra Nedvetskaia, an auction house employee who looks after Russian clients, handled a double-estimate phone bid of 3.2 million pounds for a smaller abstract from the same year.

Global Context

“We curated the sale with a global context in mind,” Francis Outred, Christie’s European head of contemporary art, said. “Collectors begin with artists from their own country, then move onto international names.”

Sotheby’s and Christie’s made 203.6 million pounds for their evening sales of Impressionist and modern art, an 8.9 percent decline on 2010.

“The contemporary sales were stronger,” Jonathan P. Binstock, a New York-based senior art adviser at Citi Private Bank, said. “There were five or six bidders for most of the lots. Existing collectors feel more confident in the market and they’re willing to buy.”

Bidders who represent Russian collectors were prominent buyers, snapping up a Pablo Picasso work for 25.2 million pounds and a Bacon portrait for 23 million pounds, both at Sotheby’s.

“Russian and Chinese buyers tend to be interested in the top lots,” said Binstock. “It’s still primarily a European and American market, though that is changing. The art market is global for the auction houses. Galleries aren’t having the same international experience.”

(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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