Rothko Boosts $611 Million Auctions as Price Rises Lure Sellers

"Untitled'' (1955) by Mark Rothko. The work was withdrawn from sale shortly before an auction in London. Source: Christie's via Bloomberg

Mark Rothko, Gerhard Richter and Francis Bacon paintings will boost auctions this month that may raise more than $611 million as sellers are spurred by rising prices for museum-quality works.

Evening modern-art sales at Christie’s International and Sotheby’s starting today in London may make as much as 240.4 million pounds ($380.6 million), 28 percent higher than last February. Combined upper valuations on the equivalent sales of contemporary works have grown 33 percent to 145.8 million pounds, according to calculations by Bloomberg News.

New lots are coming to market as owners see auction records for artists such as Richter, Clyfford Still and Roy Lichtenstein. Wealthy individuals are turning to art as an alternative asset class because of economic volatility and decreased returns on financial investments, said dealers.

“People see the headlines in newspapers after the auctions and think, ‘I want to get in on this,’” the London-based art adviser, Tania Buckrell Pos, said. “A lot more buyers with an investment point of view are coming into the market.”

A 1963 Bacon nude and a 1955 Rothko abstract, estimated at about 18 million pounds and 9 million pounds to 12 million pounds respectively, have been entered by New York-based owners into Christie’s Feb. 14 sale.

Safra’s Record

The record $20.8 million paid by the London-based collector Lily Safra for a 1997 “Abstraktes Bild” in New York on Nov. 9 has encouraged sellers to offer 10 Richters in the sales. The German artist was recently the subject of a retrospective at Tate Modern.

Christie’s catalog includes a 1994 green, blue and pink Richter abstract with an estimate of 5 million pounds to 7 million pounds. A 1992 black and white canvas with bold vertical stripes, estimated at 3 million pounds to 4 million pounds, is the most valuable Richter at Sotheby’s on Feb. 15.

“Since the Tate retrospective, the Richter market has gone up 40 percent,” the New York-based dealer Christophe Van de Weghe said in an interview. Christie’s sale carries a high valuation of 96 million pounds, while Sotheby’s material is estimated to raise as much as 49.8 million pounds. Both houses are offering 66 lots.

Phillips de Pury & Co. will be offering 27 works by established and emerging names in London on Feb. 16. Lucio Fontana’s 1960 cream six-cut “Concetto spaziale, Attese,” valued at 1 million pounds to 1.5 million pounds, will be one of seven highlights on view at the company’s gallery in Claridge’s hotel from Feb. 1 to Feb. 6.

New Money

“A lot of new money has come into the market in the last six months,” Michael McGinnis, Phillips’s head of contemporary art, said in an interview. “In October, a client we’d never met before saw a work on view at Claridge’s and then went on to buy it in New York in November for more than $5 million.”

Impressionist and modern sales continue to be the most highly valued. Last year, Paul Cezanne’s painting “The Card Players” was bought by the emirate of Qatar for $250 million, the most ever paid for a work of art, Vanity Fair magazine reported on Feb. 2.

“The best Impressionist and modern works have all but disappeared and Russians have pushed up the prices of what does come to auction,” said Alan Hobart, director of London's Pyms Gallery, calling the Cezanne price a one-time event. “It does make sense for people to move into classic contemporary.”

Rediscovered Klimt

Gustav Klimt’s recently rediscovered 1901 canvas, “Lakeshore with Birches,” is the star of Sotheby’s auction of 53 works tomorrow evening, estimated to raise between 79 million pounds and 113.3 million pounds.

Klimt’s moody painting of the shores of the Attersee at dusk has not appeared at auction before, having been acquired by German banker Richard Koenigs in 1902 and have remained in the same family ever since. It is estimated at 6 million pounds to 8 million pounds.

Elizabeth Taylor, who died last year, is the best known of half a dozen named collections that have provided works for Christie’s Impressionist sale this evening. The 90 lots carry a high estimate of 127.1 million pounds.

Taylor’s 1889 Van Gogh landscape, “Vue de l’asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Remy,” is valued at 5 million pounds to 7 million pounds. Pictures are the last of the Oscar-winning actress’s possessions to be sold by Christie’s. The rest of her collection was sold for $157 million in New York in December.

Christie's will also be offering an eclectic mix of 53 works from an unidentified European private collection on the evening of Feb. 9.

The sale, which includes pieces by modern and contemporary names such as Picasso, Miro and Chillida, combined with Old Masters by Luis Melendez and medieval works of art, is estimated to raise between 22.75 million pounds and 34.3 million pounds. The seller is based in Spain, said dealers.

(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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