Bacon’s Triptych, U2 Basquiat Boost $117 Million Auction

Paintings by Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter and Jean-Michel Basquiat boosted a $117 million auction, the year’s first major test of demand for contemporary art.

Bacon’s “Three Studies for a Self-Portrait” sold for 13.8 million pounds with fees ($21.6 million) and a Basquiat painting once owned by the rock band U2 fetched 6.8 million pounds at last night’s London sale by Sotheby’s.

The U.K. capital’s auction houses, Sotheby’s, Christie’s International and Phillips, are looking this week to maintain the momentum in New York in November when they raised a record $1.1 billion from contemporary sales. While there were some high quality works up for auction, some material was more routine and bidding was less frenzied in London, dealers said.

“The auction houses are finding it more difficult to get top quality material,” said New York-based Jonathan P. Binstock, senior adviser in postwar and contemporary art at Citi Private Bank. “Not a whizz-bang sale. It was solid nonetheless.”

Bacon painted the portrait, one of 11 smaller-scale triptychs, in 1980, a less sought-after period than the 1960s and 1970s. It is the only work for sale all week that carries an eight-figure estimate (10 million pounds to 15 million pounds).

The lot had been entered by a European collector, who acquired it at auction in June 2006 for 3.8 million pounds, and had no guaranteed price. Nadia Abbas of Sotheby’s Cologne office, acting for a client, was successful over another telephone bidder. The current auction high for this type of triple self-portrait is the 17.3 million pounds paid for a 1975 version at Christie’s in 2008.

Richter Sales

This Sotheby’s event included four paintings by Richter, the biggest-selling living artist at auction in 2012, according to the Artnet database in New York. Last year, the German racked up $298.9 million of sales, a 48.8 percent increase on 2011.

“Abstraktes Bild (769-1)” from 1992 and the 1976 photorealist painting “Wolke (Cloud)” were estimated to fetch at least 7.5 million pounds and 7 million pounds respectively. Both sold for hammer prices below these figures.

The large abstract, distinguished by its vertically louvered gradations of blue, yellow and red, was being sold by a European collector and hadn’t been seen at auction before.

It sold for 8.2 million pounds with fees to a telephone bidder, while “Wolke” fell to another phone bid of 7.6 million pounds. It had been bought by its seller for 1 million pounds at this same London auction room in 1999.

Two lots of Richter abstracts -- a single canvas from 1986 and a quartet of small grey compositions from 1990 -- failed to sell against low estimates of 1 million pounds and 600,000 pounds.

“Not all Richters are created equal,” Binstock said. “You can’t always expect extraordinary prices for pictures that have the right kind of date.”

Basquiat Presence

Basquiat has become a mainstay of the Top 10 price lists at contemporary art auctions, thanks to the support of Jose Mugrabi and other New York collectors.

The former graffiti artist’s acrylic, oilstick and collage painting “Untitled (Pecho/Oreja)” was sold by U2 for 5.1 million pounds at Sotheby’s, London, in July 2008.

The 1982-1983 work, featuring one of Basquiat’s mask-like heads, inscribed “chest” and “ear” in Spanish, was re-offered for sale with an estimate of 7 million pounds to 9 million pounds.

Mugrabi’s Purchases

It was bought by Mugrabi, sitting in the second row of the saleroom. The New York collector also paid 5 million pounds for Basquiat’s text-heavy 1983 triptych “Five Fish Species,” estimated at 4.25 million pounds to 6.25 million pounds.

Cautious, within-estimate bidding was the pattern for most of the evening.

“If you’ve got a great thing, you’re going to sell it in the summer rather than February,” said Heinrich zu Hohenlohe, director of the Berlin branch of the dealership Dickinson. “The consignors are dictating the situation.”

Among the few works to generate above-estimate prices from multiple bidders was a quartet of Alexander Calder painted mobiles from a Swedish private collection that hadn’t been seen on the market for at least 40 years. Offered at the beginning of the evening to kick-start the sale, these raised 2.5 million pounds.

About half a dozen bidders pushed the colorful small-scale table piece “Untitled” to a top price of 892,450 pounds against a high estimate of 200,000 pounds. Resembling a tiny merry-go-round, it was bought by Cheyenne Westphal, Sotheby’s European head of contemporary art, representing a telephone bidder, who gave a further 646,050 pounds for Calder’s similarly estimated 1945 mobile “Red Skeleton.”

Sci-Fi Head

By contrast, Glenn Brown’s swirly 2000 painting of a sci-fi head, “Little Death,” had been bought by its seller for 601,250 pounds at Bonhams, London, in 2011. Bidders regarded this as a premature return to the market and it was acquired by a telephone bidder for 577,250 pounds -- representing a loss of at least 120,000 pounds for the owner when auction house fees are deducted.

Sotheby’s total of 74.4 million pounds with fees was slightly below the high estimate of 78 million pounds, based on hammer prices. The result was still the company’s second-highest for a February contemporary-art sale. Of the 54 lots, 81.5 percent were sold. The equivalent event last year raised 50.7 million pounds from 64 lots.

(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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