Basquiat Sells for $29 Million, Contemporary Sales Start

A Jean-Michel Basquiat painting sold last night for $29 million in the first of a series of sales that concludes a hectic schedule of contemporary-art events.

Basquiat’s untitled work of his trademark cartoon-like figures was estimated by Christie’s International to sell for about 16 million pounds ($24.7 million) at hammer prices.

“The market is still selective,” the Brussels-based dealer Paolo Vedovi said in an interview. “People know when things are good, and when they aren’t. They’re also sensitive to price.”

The London sale follows the Venice Biennale, a record 86,000 attendance at Art Basel and $1.1 billion raised at New York auctions. Today, London’s Masterpiece fair opens to VIP visitors and Sotheby’s holds an evening auction, with Phillips tomorrow.

Certain to sell, thanks to finance from a third-party guarantor, the 1982 oilstick-on-panel Basquiat, painted when the former street artist was 21 years old, sold to a phone bidder for 18.8 million pounds including fees -- less than the $48.8 million for another 1982 painting in May, though much more than the $1.7 million the unidentified seller bought it for in 2002.

Risk-averse international collectors concentrate on the most bankable names of postwar and contemporary art. Prime pieces are in increasingly short supply. Peter Doig’s 1994 canvas “Jetty,” showing a figure standing in the middle of a sunset, was deemed to be one of these and sold for 7.3 million pounds to a telephone bidder. Never offered at auction before, it had been valued at 4 million pounds to 6 million pounds.

The guaranteed 1961 Roy Lichtenstein canvas “Cup of Coffee” was bought for 2.8 million pounds by a telephone bidder against a high estimate of 2 million pounds.

Cohen’s Warhol

Andy Warhol’s 1965 “Colored Campbell’s Soup Can” painting failed against a low estimate of 2.25 million pounds. Deemed to have unattractive colors, the painting was owned by Steven S. Cohen, founder and chief executive officer of SAC Capital Advisors LP, and had previously been offered for sale privately, said persons with knowledge of the matter.

There was also tepid demand for Damien Hirst, the darling of the last contemporary art boom. Three Hirsts were offered. A butterfly painting failed to sell and a 1990 medicine cabinet, “My Way,” sold just above the low estimate for 865,875 pounds.

Eduardo Chillida’s 2001 corten-steel sculpture “Looking for Light IV” took 4.1 million pounds, and Enrico Castellani’s white perspectival canvas “Superficie bianca n. 34,” exhibited at the 1966 Venice Biennale, climbed to 1.9 million pounds, three times the upper estimate. Both lots achieved auction records for the artists and were also bought by telephone bidders.

The 64-lot auction raised 70.1 million pounds, just below the high estimate of 72.6 million pounds, with 78 percent of the material sold. The equivalent sale last year raised 132.8 million pounds, a record for a London contemporary-art auction.

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Frederik Balfour on music,

Warwick Thompson on U.K. theater, Richard Vines on food,

Hephzibah Anderson on books and Ryan Sutton on New York dining.