Paintings of U.S. dollar bills that decorated the walls of Sotheby’s salesroom helped the auctioneer rake in 130.4 million pounds ($203.6 million) during its biggest contemporary art sale in London.
Although Wednesday’s uneven auction didn’t reach its target, the result was a 40 percent increase from the equivalent evening event a year ago. The 58-lot sale was led by Andy Warhol’s painting of a dollar bill that fetched 20.9 million pounds. But two Warhol silkscreens were among the nine unsold lots along with such market stalwarts as Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter.
“There’s a little bit of cooling,” said Betsy Bickar, an adviser in postwar and contemporary art at Citi Private Bank Art Advisory & Finance. “It felt like people were being selective and careful.”
Sotheby’s auction was the last major event of an art season marked by record consumption. Chinese and Russian billionaires competed with wealthy Americans for art trophies seen increasingly as a good store of excess cash. In May, $2.7 billion of art changed hands during 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.
As clients arrived Wednesday, they were greeted by a group of protesters outside Sotheby’s on New Bond Street. Some carried signs “Angry Artist.”
Warhol’s hand-painted 1962 “One Dollar Bill (Silver Certificate)” surpassed its high estimate of 18 million pounds and went to a telephone client of Alex Branczik, head of contemporary art in London for Sotheby’s.
The 6-foot-wide work was part of a 10-lot group with a U.S. currency theme. Eight sold, totaling 34.3 million pounds. The two unsold Warhols were jointly estimated at as much as 25 million pounds.
The biggest casualty was Bacon’s painting of a crimson-robed pope estimated at 25 million pounds to 35 million pounds. It didn’t draw a single bid.
“Study for a Pope I” is part of a group of six pope paintings Bacon made in 1961 ahead of his retrospective at the Tate museum in London, according to Sotheby’s.
Two self-portraits by Bacon that have been off the market for decades fared better. A 1975 self-portrait sold for 15.3 million pounds, slightly above its 15 million pound high estimate. A 1980 “Three Studies for Self-Portrait” fetched 14.7 million pounds.
Prices include buyer’s commission charged by the auction house; estimate’s don’t.
A tiny painting by Lucian Freud, depicting four eggs on a plate, fetched 989,000 pounds, after a rush of bids pushed the price above the high estimate of 150,000 pounds.
“Everyone wants the eggs,” said Oliver Barker, the auctioneer who almost ran out of breath catching all the bids.
The 2002 painting -- just 4-inches-tall and 6-inches-wide - - was a gift by the late British artist to his lifelong friend Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, whose estate consigned the work.
“Bidding was crazy,” said Michaela de Pury, a private art dealer who attended the auction. “It was so loud we all turned around. I thought the demonstrators came up.”
Another highlight was Frank Auerbach’s charcoal drawing of his cousin Gerda that soared to 2.2 million pounds, six times its high estimate and the highest auction price for a work on paper by the British artist.
After several seasons of insatiable demand, Richter’s market has reached the saturation point, dealers and advisers said.
At Christie’s on June 30, four of five Richter paintings didn’t sell. Sotheby’s had the best Richter of the week, according to dealers: a classic 1988 abstract canvas, “A B, Brick Tower” It sold for 14.1 million pounds, within the estimate. A 1964 portrait of art dealer Alfred Schmela sold within estimate for 3.3 million pounds. But a 1968 cityscape, estimated at as much as 4 million pounds, flopped.
“Everyone who wanted a Richter bought a Richter,” de Pury said. “For the moment, people are digesting. A bad Richter doesn’t work anymore.”
De Pury said she bought a red 1964 canvas by Lucio Fontana, featuring the Italian artist’s 10 vertical slashes, for a friend. The final price was 4.4 million pounds.
“I had a much larger budget,” she said. “After Basel, everyone finally has had enough. People are packing to go on holidays. It’s a moment when there are opportunities.”