Elephant Dung Madonna Stars in Christie’s London Auction

"The Holy Virgin Mary" by Chris Ofili. Source: Christie’s via Bloomberg

Chris Ofili’s painting of a black Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung that once caught the ire of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was among the stars at Christie’s auction in London.

The postwar and contemporary art evening sale on Tuesday totaled 95.6 million pounds ($150.3 million). The result fell within the estimated presale range and was a 3.8 percent decrease from the similar auction last year.

Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary,” which sold for 2.9 million pounds, set an auction record for the British artist and was among the top 10 lots of the 76-lot sale. The 10 unsold works, included four paintings by market star Gerhard Richter.

“We are at the tail end of a season,” said Todd Levin, director of Levin Art Group in New York, who advises collectors. “Some people might be a little spent out; others are exhausted.”

The past eight months have been filled with conspicuous art consumption by billionaires who increasingly turn to art for investment and cache. In May, $2.7 billion of art changed hands during record auctions in New York. The shopping spree continued in June at Art Basel, the modern and contemporary art fair in Switzerland where $3.4 billion worth of goods was for sale.

Two Bacons

At Christie’s, the top two lots were paintings by Francis Bacon. A 1967 canvas, “Study for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne and George Dyer,” depicting two of the artist’s favorite subjects, fetched 12.2 million pounds, just above the high estimate. A 1971 work, “Two Men Working in a Field,” sold for 10.7 million pounds, also slightly surpassing the high target. The winner was art dealer Gary Tatintsian, who said he bought it for a Russian client.

Prices include buyer’s commission charged by the auction house; estimates don’t.

Bidding was strong for four works by Jean Dubuffet, whose painting sold for record $24.8 million in May at Christie’s, more than three times the previous auction record.

“Dubuffet is the new, old wunderkind on the block,” said private art dealer Michaela de Pury. “There is a lot of money to be earned.”

The most expensive of the Dubuffet lots was “The Bed I,” a dense 6-foot-tall canvas from 1964. It sold for 2.1 million pounds, more than twice its high estimate. Dubuffet’s 1966 painting “Cup of Tea V (Utopian)” fetched 722,500 pounds, surpassing its high estimate of 450,000 pounds. An earlier and more somber work, “Coming Home” from 1957, sold for 842,500 pounds.

New Orbit

“Dubuffet prices are now entering a new orbit,” Levin said. “I saw a number of frustrated friends in the audience who were throwing their hands up because the prices were going above what they were comfortable with.”

Richter’s paintings, however, sparked little excitement. The sale included five works by the German artist. Only one, “Seascape (With Olive Clouds),” sold. Its 1.5 million pound price fell short of the low estimate of 2 million pounds.

The four unsold Richters were jointly estimated for as much as 13.7 million pounds.

It was a “tough night for Richter, but they were not great examples,” said Mary Hoeveler, a New York-based art adviser. “It seems the days are gone when it all just flies.”

Works by hot emerging artists did well.

Jeff Elrod’s abstract canvas “Echo Painting (B/W),” made in 2013, sold for 218,500 pounds, a record for the artist. Oscar Murillo’s doodles from 2011 also went for the same amount. Prices for both works exceeded the high estimates.

Bright Colors

Historic material of high quality continues to attract buyers, dealers and advisers said. The auction included 10 works from the collection of Lord Anthony and Lady Evelyn Jacobs, who bought many of their key pieces in the 1970s and 1980s, according to Christie’s.

Their 1962 painting by Morris Louis, “Number 36,” fetched 1.5 million pounds, more than twice its high estimate. The couple acquired the work -- a cascade of bright color bands -- for $178,500 at Christie’s in 1995.

The Ofili painting sparked controversy in the 1999 exhibition “Sensation” at the Brooklyn Museum in New York of works by British artists from the collection of Charles Saatchi.

Then-Mayor Giuliani criticized the inclusion of the 1996 painting, saying it desecrated the Catholic Church. A lawsuit ensued but the work remained on view for the duration of the show.

Seller Guarantees

The 8-foot-tall canvas depicts a black Madonna on a gold background. The figure is wrapped in a petal-like robe with one exposed breast made of elephant dung. The work rests on two globes of dung, one spelling “Virgin” and the other “Mary.”

The seller was David Walsh, an Australian collector and professional gambler who is expanding his Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania. Christie’s guaranteed the seller an undisclosed minimum price for the work and ensured it will sell by securing financing by a third party. It was one of 15 lots whose sellers received the guarantees, five of which were backed by third parties.

Ofili’s previous auction record of 1.9 million pounds was set at Christie’s in 2010 for a painting titled “Orgena.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE