Lucian Freud and Alberto Burri paintings sold for $5 million each in London last night at a Sotheby’s auction overshadowed by concern about market weakness and a protest by U.S. art handlers over a labor dispute.
Bidders had to pass a group of 20 chanting and whistling demonstrators, including three who had flown from New York and promised more action. While the contemporary and 20th-century Italian sale set six artist records and raised 40 million pounds ($63 million), the top presale estimate at hammer prices was 48.3 million pounds. Some paintings went unsold, such as Peter Doig’s “Bellevarde,” valued at as much as 2 million pounds.
“That would have sold a year ago,” the London-based dealer Edmondo di Robilant said. “The mood has changed. Auction houses entice things with high estimates and in the past they’ve been able to sell them. That wasn’t always the case tonight. A number of lots that sold were knocked down against lowered reserves.”
Dealers said economic worries were weighing on some buyers. Even headline-grabbing pieces such as Marc Quinn’s 18-carat gold sculpture of Kate Moss in a yoga pose attracted just one bid. The 2008 “Microcosmos (SIREN)” was knocked down to a bidder represented by Patti Wong of Sotheby’s Asia for 577,250 pounds.
There was also just one telephone bid for the 1952 close-up portrait “Boy’s Head” by Freud, who died in July, aged 88. It was valued at 3 million pounds and fetched 3.2 million pounds.
With buyers spoiled for choice by the $500 million of art on sale in the U.K. this week, 23 percent of the contemporary lots went unsold. The preceding Italian component was more enthusiastically received.
Names such as Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni and Alighiero Boetti have been reliable performers at auction in recent years, attracting a growing pool of international buyers. Sotheby’s high-estimate total of 21.7 million pounds from 58 lots was a record for its 20th-century Italian department, and 79 percent found buyers.
The sale included 36 works from a private collection in the north of Italy, including Burri’s 1957 scorched and holed canvas “Cobustione legno.” The 3.2 million-pound price, a record for the artist, came from a non-Italian bidder, said Sotheby’s.
Earlier in the day, Bonhams’s revamped contemporary art department held its first “Frieze Week” contemporary sale, raising 2 million pounds against a low estimate of 3.3 million pounds. Six out of the 20 lots failed, including “Anno 1984,” a Boetti collage of 192 drawings of magazine covers that the auction house part-owned. No bidders were prepared to pay the low estimate of 1.2 million pounds.
“The work was so unique,” Anthony McNerney, Bonhams’s head of contemporary art said after the auction. “The Boetti market is still developing. Caution is the watchword at the moment. The financial situation is a worry.”
New York collector Adam Lindemann, who was bidding in the room, paid 601,250 pounds for Glenn Brown’s 2000 thickly painted head “Little Death.” The panel had been valued at 700,000 pounds to 900,000 pounds and the seller had been guaranteed a minimum price, said Bonhams.
(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)