Art Records Tumble as Billionaires Spend $207 Million

"Le Rose du bleu (RE 22)," a 1960 sponge relief by the French conceptual artist Yves Klein. The work, encrusted with nine sea sponges, was sold for an artist record by Christie's International in its June 27 auction of post-war and contemporary artworks in London. Source: Christie's Images Ltd. 2012 via Bloomberg

Paintings by Yves Klein and Jean-Michel Basquiat sold for record prices last night as battling billionaires spent $207 million at the most valuable auction of contemporary artworks held in Europe.

The contest for exceptional works by the most lauded names of postwar and 20th-century art at Christie’s International, London, was topped by the 23.6 million pounds ($36.7 million) for a “sponge” painting by the French conceptualist Klein.

“People are still prepared to pay top prices,” the London-based dealer, Stephen Friedman, said in an interview. “The works have to be fresh, though, and great quality.”

Concern about the euro and economic growth is making buyers more tentative for lesser works. The auction raised 132.8 million pounds with fees against a low estimate of 102.6 million pounds, based on hammer prices. The previous evening, a less trophy-studded auction of contemporary pieces at Sotheby’s made 69.3 million pounds, 40 million pounds down on last year.

Klein’s 1960 painted relief “Le Rose du bleu (RE 22),” encrusted with sea sponges, was valued at as much as 20 million pounds and guaranteed by a third-party bid. It was won by a telephone bid taken by Francis Outred, Christie’s European head of contemporary art.

Three other guaranteed works sold for more than 10 million pounds, with another 21.5 million pounds for the 1964 Francis Bacon “Study for Self-Portrait” against a valuation of as much as 20 million pounds.

Lawsuit Settled

The painting had been previously offered by Christie’s New York in 2008, when it failed to sell. The work had subsequently become the subject of a lawsuit between the auction house and a family trust led by the Connecticut collector George A. Weiss. It was guaranteed by the auction house, rather than a third-party, and was bought by the New York dealer Christophe Van de Weghe, underbid by Manhattan gallerist William Acquavella.

“I was bidding for an international financier who lives in a plane,” Van de Weghe said.

A self-portrait by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold for a record 12.9 million pounds. The 1981 “Untitled” was entered by a collector from the West Coast of the U.S. who bought it for a record $14.6 million at auction in 2007. Brett Gorvy, Christie’s international head of postwar and contemporary art, was the winning bidder for a telephone client.

The 1989 Gerhard Richter abstract “Struktur (2),” was also bought by Gorvy for a client. It was another guaranteed work fresh to the auction market and made 12.7 million pounds.

Guaranteed Works

Other guaranteed lots struggled to attract external bids. Lucian Freud’s 1974 “Naked Portrait II” and Alexander Calder’s 1959-1963 mobile “Rouge triomphant (Triumphant Red)” sold to bids from their guarantors for 4.3 million pounds and 6.2 million pounds respectively.

“The market is turning a bit,” Morgan Long of the London-based Fine Art Fund, said in an interview. “Quite a few things sold for, or below, their low estimates. There isn’t the same depth of demand as a year ago. Buyers are a bit exhausted and estimates were punchy. From now on, people will be concentrating on the blue-chip.”

Jeff Koons’s 1994-2008 steel sculpture “Baroque Egg with Bow (Blue/Turquoise)” was snapped up at a low estimate price. The piece was bought in the room for 2.6 million pounds by the London-based dealer Ivor Braka, who the previous evening at Sotheby’s sold a Glenn Brown painting for 5.2 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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