Richter $16.6 Million Record Leads Auction Boost to Art Market

"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

A Gerhard Richter painting sold for a record $16.6 million last night as Christie’s International boosted confidence in the top end of the contemporary-art market and reassured dealers at the end of a nervous “Frieze Week.”

Christie’s London was rewarded for including museum-quality works in a “mid-season” sale with a total of 38.1 million pounds ($60 million) with fees.

Collectors, concerned about economic stagnation in the U.S. and the Eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis, have been reluctant to commit to big-ticket sums among the $500 million of art on offer this week at auctions and the Frieze Art Fair. Sales are slower and some big American buyers have been absent, said dealers.

“There were pieces to get excited about,” Jonathan Binstock, the New York-based senior contemporary-art adviser at Citibank NA, said in an interview. “The broad heat in the market has gone and what is left is a focus on quality.”

Richter’s 1982 “Kerze” (Candle)’s price of 10.5 million pounds with fees beat its hammer estimate of 6 million pounds to 9 million pounds, making it the week’s most valuable work at auction.

The Scandinavian owner had been encouraged to sell by the opening of the Richter retrospective at Tate Modern on Oct. 6.

The estimate reflected the previous high price of 8 million pounds paid for another of these photo-based “memento mori” subjects at Sotheby’s in February 2008. Three telephone bidders contested the work, with the winner represented by Francis Outred, Christie’s European head of contemporary art.

Sonic Youth

Richter’s candles have been growing in price, with one illustrating the cover of U.S. alternative rock band Sonic Youth’s 1988 album “Daydream Nation.”

The focus on Richter also helped a blue-gray 1992 “Abstraktes Bild” reach an above-estimate 3.6 million pounds, the second-highest price of the sale, to another phone buyer.

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.”

The U.K. sculptor Antony Gormley also reached a new auction high when his 1996 life-size cast-iron maquette for “The Angel of the North” sold on the telephone for 3.4 million pounds. From an edition of five, this had been valued at 1.5 million pounds to 2 million pounds.

The surreal 2008 combat scene “Baghdad I” by Iraq-born painter Ahmed Alsoudani, formerly from the Saatchi Collection, also made an artist record. It more than doubled its low estimate when it reached 713,250 pounds. The artist is currently the subject of an exhibition at Christie’s dealership, Haunch of Venison.

Confidence Factor

“The material was better and it looked good,” the New York- based dealer Christophe van de Weghe said in an interview. “It made people feel more confident.”

Seven works set auction records for artists as the sale beat its low estimate of 27.6 million pounds, while 89 percent of the 53 lots found buyers, predominantly on the telephone. Success rates at evening auctions at Phillips de Pury & Co. and Sotheby’s on Oct. 12 and Oct. 13 were below 80 percent.

Buyers remain selective. The 2002 Richard Prince painting “Nurse Forrester’s Secret,” estimated at 2.1 million pounds to 3 million pounds, was among the six lots that failed. The European seller had been guaranteed a minimum price by the auction house.

Christie’s concluded the evening with 47 lots of 20th-century Italian works. These raised 17.6 million pounds with 70 percent of the material selling. The star of the session was the detailed Domenico Gnoli acrylic and sand painting “Female Bust from the Back.” Dating from 1965, this beat an estimate of 500,000 pounds to 800,000 pounds to sell for a record 2.3 million pounds.

(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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