Works by Francis Bacon, Peter Doig and Lucian Freud helped Christie’s International raise 78.8 million pounds ($126 million) at an auction in London last night. It was the company’s highest total for a sale of contemporary works in the U.K. capital since June 2008.
The top seller was Bacon’s “Study for a Portrait,” a precursor of the Irish-born artist’s “Pope” paintings, offered by the Swiss entrepreneur and collector Donald M. Hess. The painting sold to a telephone bidder represented by Christie’s specialist Sandra Nedvetskaia, who deals with Russian clients, for 18 million pounds, against two other telephone bidders. The 1953 work was estimated at about 11 million pounds.
The above-estimate price contrasted with the failure of Bacon’s similar 1954 painting, “Man in Blue VI,” estimated at 4 million pounds to 5 million pounds, at Christie’s in February 2009 during the financial crisis.
“Bacon is back,” Offer Waterman, a London-based dealer, said. “The market is strong, though with problems like Greece, it could fall out of bed in two minutes. At the moment, there are people with plenty of cash who are investing in art as an asset class.”
Christie’s 65-lot offering had carried an estimate of 55.3 million pounds to 76.8 million pounds and was part of a series of evening sales in London that is estimated to raise as much as 195 million pounds, reflecting renewed confidence among sellers of high-value contemporary works.
While the mood in the market was lifted by dealers reporting plentiful sales in the $200,000 to $2 million-range earlier this month at the Art Basel fair in Switzerland, auctions remain the arena where international collectors are most prepared to spend multimillion sums.
The surprise of the evening was the 6.2 million pounds paid by another telephone bidder, represented by Christie’s U.K. chairman David Linley, for Doig’s 2003 to 2004 West Indian landscape, “Red Boat” (Imaginary Boys),” estimated at 1.4 million pounds to 1.8 million pounds.
The subject of a recently-resolved dispute between Carnegie Museum trustee James H. Rich and the New York and Germany based Michael Werner Gallery, it had been bought by Rich for $162,000 seven years ago. The painting was underbid in the room by London dealer Jay Jopling.
Another telephone bidder, competing against a third-party guarantor, gave 7 million pounds for Andy Warhol’s 1973 silkscreen painting, “Mao,” a work estimated at 6 million pounds to 8 million pounds.
A 1958-1959 Freud portrait of his lover Suzy Boyt sold for 4.7 million pounds against an estimate of 3.5 million pounds to 4.5 million pounds. Entered by a descendant of the late Simon Sainsbury, “Woman Smiling” was bought by a telephone bidder.
The same buyer paid 1 million pounds -- more than double the 400,000-pound upper estimate -- for a 1944 Freud colored drawing of dead rabbit on a chair. The work was one of seven from the collection of Kay Saatchi, the ex-wife of the collector Charles Saatchi, that raised 4 million pounds.
“Freud drawings are rare,” said London-based dealer Stephen Ongpin, who paid 193,250 pounds for an ex-Saatchi 1944 sketch by the artist of a cat. “They've been undervalued in the past simply because you don't see them.”
Saatchi’s “Big Baby,” a 3-foot-high 1996 sculpture by the Australian-born artist Ron Mueck, was one of the night’s five artist records. It sold on the telephone for 825,250 pounds against an estimate of 600,000 pounds to 800,000 pounds.
The piece was one of seven hyper-realist sculptures by Mueck owned by the Saatchis, who co-curated the “Sensation” show of young artists at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1997.
Christie’s total with fees exceeded the sale’s high estimate of 76.8 million pounds, based on hammer prices. Eighteen percent of the lots were rejected, usually because they'd recently been seen in dealers' galleries.
Two canvases by Chris Ofili failed against low estimates of 900,000 pounds and 500,000 pounds respectively. The more expensive of the two, the 2002 work ``Afro Red Web,'' had been guaranteed by Christie's itself.
``There were some works that had recently been with dealers, and people knew this,'' the Dusseldorf gallerist Paul Schoenewald said. ``The fresh material did well.''
The equivalent event last year raised 45.6 million pounds from 52 lots with a selling rate of 84 percent.
Earlier, buyers also cherry-picked the private lots when Christie’s offered 99 works of art from the personal collection of the author Jeffrey Archer, as well as pieces from the recently closed Neffe Degandt Gallery, Mayfair, with whom the author had a business partnership. Half the material sold, raising a total of 5.1 million pounds.
The most successful lot was Archer’s 1878 Claude Monet painting, “La Seine pres de Vetheuil, temps orageux,” which reached 3.1 million pounds against an estimate of as much as 1.7 million pounds.
(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)