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Richter, Freud, Koons Top $500 Million Week of Art-Market Tests

"Kerze" (Candle) by Gerhard Richter. This modern interpration of an age-old "memento mori" subject was sold by Christie's International in its Oct. 14 auction of contemporary works in London. The price of 10.5 million pounds ($16.6 million) was an auction record for the artist. Source: Christie's via Bloomberg

Jeff Koons, Lucian Freud and Gerhard Richter artworks will be among more than $500 million worth of contemporary pieces on offer this week at auctions and fairs in London. Dealers are hoping that demand holds up from billionaire buyers after stocks dived on worries about government debts.

The evening auctions this week are valued at 56.8 million pounds ($88.4 million), according to Bloomberg calculations. In addition, hundreds of wealthy buyers are in the U.K. for Frieze, Europe’s biggest commercial fair primarily devoted to living artists, which has $350 million of works on offer, according to insurer Hiscox Ltd. Daytime auctions, gallery shows and satellite fairs add to the total.

“There’s still momentum in the market,” said Anders Petterson, founder of the London-based database ArtTactic, which is surveying confidence levels of buyers and sellers. “It could well be business as usual. There’s been a shift in sentiment, though. People think things could get worse in six months, except for some high-end pieces at more than $1 million.”

Optimism about demand has been challenged by economic stagnation in the U.S. and the Eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis. Prices for some artists dropped by 50 percent in the art market crash of 2009. Collectors were hailing a full recovery in June this year when Sotheby’s London contemporary sale fetched a record 108.8 million pounds.

The low estimate for the evening sales mounted by Christie’s International, Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury & Co is the biggest for a Frieze Week since October 2008. The equivalent events last year had a minimum estimate of 32.45 million pounds.

Christie’s Richter

The most valuable lot at Christie’s Oct. 14 sale is a 1982 Richter “Kerze” (Candle) painting, priced at 6 million pounds to 9 million pounds. The estimate, the highest of the week, reflects the record 8 million pounds paid for another of the German artist’s photo-based “memento mori” subjects at Sotheby’s in February 2008. Christie’s owner had been encouraged to sell by the opening of the Richter retrospective at Tate Modern on Oct. 6. The Cologne-based artist himself is baffled by the prices he fetches at auction.

“It’s just as absurd as the banking crisis,” Richter said at the Tate press preview. “It’s impossible to understand, and it’s daft.”

Christie’s 53-lot evening event also includes the 2002 Richard Prince painting “Nurse Forrester’s Secret,” estimated at 2.1 million pounds to 3 million pounds. The European seller has been guaranteed a minimum price by the auction house.

Sotheby’s Freud

The previous evening, Sotheby’s will offer three works by Freud, who died in July, aged 88. The 1952 close-up portrait, “Boy’s Head,” measuring just 6 inches (15 centimeters) high, has been entered by a U.S. collector with a valuation of 3 million pounds to 4 million pounds.

An 18-carat gold sculpture by Marc Quinn of Kate Moss in a provocatively contorted yoga pose is billed in Sotheby’s 47-lot sale as the “epitome of luxury and desirability.” From an edition of four weighing 10 kilograms each, it has a low estimate of 500,000 pounds -- about 20 times its current scrap value.

London’s “Frieze Week” auctions are specifically aimed at the estimated 60,000 visitors to the contemporary-art event. Including day sales and sections of 20th century Italian material, more than 950 lots will be looking for buyers. Works from the last three decades predominate.

“Nearly 1,000 lots is pushing the envelope, particularly given the current economic climate,” said the New York-based art adviser David Nisinson. “Though I think that buy-in rates may be higher than desired and there may even be a few conspicuous failures, I imagine that the auctions will perform reasonably well and some prominent lots will probably bring high prices.”

Phillips's Koons

More than half the 36 lots at Phillips on Oct. 12 were produced in the last 10 years. Koons’s painted aluminum-and-steel “Sea Walrus Trashcans” sculpture from the “Popeye” series -- from an edition of four, begun in 2002 -- has never appeared at auction and is valued at 2 million pounds to 3 million pounds.

“We're hoping the market can absorb this material,” Peter Sumner, Phillips's London-based head of contemporary art, said in an interview. “Last time, it was private debt that caused the problem. Now it's the sovereigns that are in trouble. Some individuals do have a lot of cash at the moment. They see the low returns on bonds and are looking to invest in tangible assets like art.”

A reflective 2010 silver monochrome by New York's Jacob Kassay -- the subject of a show at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, opening on Oct. 12 -- is valued at 50,000 pounds to 70,000 pounds.

Italian Art

Sotheby's and Christie's evening sales will be bolstered by separately cataloged mixed-owner offerings of 20th-century Italian art, an area that has attracted a growing clientele of American and other international buyers in recent years.

A 36-lot private collection at Sotheby's features a 1959 Piero Manzoni “Achrome” and a 1983 Alighiero Boetti “Mappa.” These “Arte Povera” works are each estimated at 700,000 pounds to 1 million pounds.

Boetti also looms large at the first Frieze Week auction of Bonhams's revamped contemporary art department. “1984” -- a 30-foot-wide collage of 192 drawings of magazine covers -- is by far the most valuable work in the company's 20-lot sale on Oct. 13 with a high valuation of 1.8 million pounds. The lot carries a symbol indicating that Bonhams either wholly or part owns, or has an economic interest in the work.

In the meantime, anyone wanting to buy a Volvo decorated by Banksy should contact Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions.

The graffiti-artist's painting “Laugh Now But One Day We’ll Be In Charge” was commissioned in 2000 by the event organizers Turbo Zone for a 17-ton box lorry. The mobile spray mural, presciently adorned with images of rioters, has been authenticated by Banksy's Pest Control office. It is available for sale to private offers over the next six months. Bids should be more than 400,000 pounds, said the London-based auctioneers.

(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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