Warhol’s Mao to Red Richter Lift $146 Million London Sale

Paintings by Gerhard Richter, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat boosted a 87.9 million-pound ($146 million) Sotheby’s auction as wealthy collectors from 40 countries competed for established and emerging art trophies.

Last night’s tally represented an 18 percent increase from Sotheby’s contemporary art auction a year ago and fell within the firm’s estimated range, as 47 of 57 lots were sold.

The top lot was Richter’s fiery abstract painting “Wand (Wall),” which sold for 17.4 million pounds against the presale target of more than 15 million pounds, Sotheby’s said. The auction house guaranteed the seller an undisclosed amount. Two telephone bidders pursued the 1994 canvas, rich in cadmium red and cobalt blue. It went to an undisclosed client of Cheyenne Westphal, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe. The price includes commission; the estimate doesn’t.

Andy Warhol’s red 1973 portrait of Mao Zedong sold for 7.6 million pounds, surpassing the high estimate. Three bidders, including Patti Wong, Sotheby’s chairman of Asia, chased after the work that last appeared at auction in 2000, fetching 421,500 pounds. Samuel Valette, a Sotheby’s senior international specialist, purchased it for a client.

“It shows how far this contemporary art market has come,” said Alexander Branczik, head of contemporary art in London for Sotheby’s.

The auction began with frenzied bidding for the painting “Two Sides of the Same Coin” by 24-year-old artist Lucien Smith. The bids from at least eight hopefuls, mostly Sotheby’s staff members, came so fast that auctioneer Oliver Barker barely had time to turn his head.

Surging Smith

Bidding started at 20,000 pounds and reached 100,000 within seconds. The sale at 224,500 pounds surpassed the price for Smith’s painting two days earlier at Phillips’s auction in London. Less than two years ago, Smith’s paintings went for $3,000 to $12,000.

Bidding was more measured for Oscar Murillo, another young artist in the sale. His large 2012 canvas “Work! #9” fetched 146,500 pounds, surpassing 80,000-pound presale high estimate.

Works that were fresh to the market did well. Cy Twombly’s 1964 canvas “Untitled (Rome),” which has been tucked away in a private collection for some 40 years, attracted at least five clients, Sotheby’s said. The 12.2 million-pound price became the highest amount paid for a Twombly painting at auction, just short of the late artist’s auction record of $21.7 million for a set of drawings.

Another sought-after work that had been off the market for decades was Alberto Burri’s 1963 raw canvas featuring burnt red and clear plastic. It sold for 3.7 million pounds, surpassing the high estimate. The buyer was art dealer David Nahmad, who also bought the record Burri for 4.7 million pounds the previous night at Christie’s.

Burri’s Friend

“I’ve been buying Burri for 50 years,” Nahmad said, exiting the New Bond Street salesroom. “Burri was my friend. We might lend the paintings to the Guggenheim Museum for their upcoming Burri exhibition.”

Olyvia Kwok, whose London-based firm Willstone Management specializes in art-market arbitrage and art lending, bought Basquiat’s 1984 painting “Water-Worshipper” for slightly below the low estimate of 2.5 million pounds. In December 2010, the work had fetched 2.4 million euros ($3.3 million) at Sotheby’s in Paris.

“In 18 months we are looking to double what we paid,” Kwok said.