Billionaires Choose Apocalypse Over Bacon at U.K. Auction

"The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dali (After John Martin)," a 1998 canvas by Glenn Brown. The painting sold in Sotheby's evening auction of contemporary artworks in London on June 26. Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

Collectors at a $108.4 million sale last night pushed a Glenn Brown painting to three times the artist’s record, while remaining choosy about secondary works by auction stars such as Gerhard Richter and Francis Bacon.

The battle for the less-well-known Brown’s picture of the end of the world came as fears about the euro and fragile economies reduced demand at Sotheby’s in London. The event started a week of auctions that test contemporary-art sales.

“There is fatigue, and look at the financial situation,” the Spanish-based dealer Fernando Mignoni said in an interview. “The results were OK for what they had. Tonight will be more of an indication,” Mignoni said, referring to Christie’s International’s evening sale, estimated to raise more than 100 million pounds ($156 million).

The auctions of more than 1,000 works by established and emerging artists, which also include two sales at Phillips de Pury & Co., are estimated to raise as much as 290 million pounds. They follow the Art Basel fair in Switzerland this month and Sotheby’s 41.4 million-pound auction of the Gunter Sachs collection in London on May 22-23.

“Billionaires want fabulous works by acknowledged masters,” the New York-based art adviser David Nisinson said in an interview. “Not every work is going to sell. There’s a lot on the market. People know it isn’t the last work by this artist they’re going to see.”

Basquiat’s Warrior

The top price was 5.6 million pounds for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 painting “Warrior,” showing a lone black figure brandishing a sword. One of six lots in the auction guaranteed to sell, thanks to a third-party “irrevocable bid,” the work had been acquired by its seller at Sotheby’s, London, in 2007, for 2.8 million pounds.

Five years on, it was revalued at 5 million pounds to 7 million pounds. Competition was muted, the winning telephone bid, taken by Cheyenne Westphal, Sotheby’s European head of contemporary art, adding just 50,000 pounds to the pre-agreed hammer price.

Glenn Brown’s giant landscape “The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dali (After John Martin)” fetched a record 5.2 million pounds to a telephone bid taken by Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s senior international specialist. He beat five other telephone bidders represented by Sotheby’s staff, at least two of whom regularly bid for Russian clients, dealers said.

Also guaranteed for sale, this 1998 work by the keenly-collected U.K. artist, combining science fiction elements with apocalyptic Victorian landscape, had been estimated at 2.2 million pounds to 2.8 million pounds.

Braka’s Smile

It had been included in the recent exhibition of works by the 19th-century painter John Martin at Tate Britain, which identified the owner as Ivor Braka, a London-based private dealer. Braka, who was in the room, smiled at the result.

The previous highest price for Brown was the $2.5 million paid for the 2004 panel painting “Filth” at Phillips in New York in May 2011.

Bacon’s 1980 canvas “Study for Self-Portrait” was also guaranteed and made 4.5 million pounds ($7 million) with fees, attracting just one irrevocable bid from Westphal. It had been estimated at 5 million pounds to 7 million pounds at hammer price.

The Bacon had been purchased by its seller for $1.8 million at Sotheby’s sale of the collection of Stanley J. Seeger in New York in May 2001. An earlier single-panel portrait, dating from 1969, sold for $33.1 million at Sotheby’s, New York, at the height of the last art-market boom in November 2007.

Bacon’s Head

This June sale also included a ghostly “Head” by Bacon, dating from about 1949, which sold to a single telephone bid of 993,250 pounds. The painting had been offered on consignment by the London-based dealer Dickinson for $4 million at the Pavilion of Art and Design London fair in 2010.

The recent bull run of exceptional auction prices for Richter came to an end at the sale. The 1967 photo-inspired painting “Philodendron” failed against a low estimate of 800,000 pounds; the 1995 landscape “Jerusalem,” and an untitled 1989 predominantly black-and-white abstract both sold within estimate for 4.2 million pounds and 2.8 million pounds respectively.

The current Damien Hirst retrospective at Tate Modern tempted collectors to test the market with rare early works by the artist. The medicine cabinet “My Way,” dating from 1990-1991, failed against a low estimate of 1.2 million pounds, while the brightly colored 1992-1995 canvas “Jolly” from the “Visual Candy” series -- precursors of the ubiquitous spot paintings -- sold to an unidentified buyer in the room for 601,250 pounds, more than double the upper estimate.

The sale raised 69.3 million pounds with fees, almost 40 million pounds lower than Sotheby’s equivalent mixed-owner contemporary-art auction last year, with 13 percent of the 79 lots unsuccessful. The presale estimate was 57.5 million pounds to 82.5 million pounds based on hammer prices.

(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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