Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

Top 10 Lots Fetch $177 Million at London’s Postwar and Contemporary Art Evening Sales

No real surprises as best-selling artists dominate

It's easy to get jaded when you follow postwar and contemporary art auctions. ("Disappointing," a dealer muttered last November when a painting sold for $600,000 at Phillips in New York—three times the average annual salary of a U.S. pediatrician.) The top prices at this year's London evening auctions at both Sotheby's and Christie's, however, were enough to jolt even the most complacent art observer. One hundred twenty-two artworks fetched about $366.7 million in sales.

The biggest sale of the week was at Sotheby's, when a painting by Gerhard Richter sold for $46.3 million. At times, bidding for the almost 10-foot-tall Abstraktes Bild felt more like a tennis match than an art auction, as people literally gasped, oohed, and, finally, clapped.

The auctioneer started bidding at 14 million pounds, raising it in 250,000-pound increments, and then clearly one phone bidder got impatient, because the price jumped 2 million pounds. But the other bidder matched it (“oooh”), and the numbers continued to rise in 1 million- and 2 million-pound increments ("ahhh"), until it settled at a hammer price of 27 million pounds (excluding the buyer's premium, which tacked on another 3.3 million pounds or so).

There was concern going into the sales that they were largely two-dimensional, with just a few big names crowding all of the top lots. Saturation was a worry.

In a sense, that's true: Three of the top 10 paintings this week were by Gerhard Richter, two were by Francis Bacon, and two were by Jean-Michel Basquiat, but it turns out there was no need to fret. Intense bidding by a variety of collectors showed there was a real depth to the market, which is a nice way of saying that a lot more people want top lots than there are top lots available. (There were apparently 12 telephone bidders for a red painting by Lucio Fontana that sold for $2.7 million at Christie’s.)

Here are the top 10 lots—alone totaling $177 million in sales—that attracted the attention of collectors this week in London:

1. Richter, Abstraktes Bild — $46,303,719

Gerhard Richter,
Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (1990)
Source: Christie's via Bloomberg

Gerhard Richter became truly famous for his early works, a series of hazy black-and-white paintings that looked like blurred photographs. But it's his later abstract works like this one that make collectors salivate.

2. Twombly, Untitled (New York City) — $29,976,448

Cy Twombly,
Cy Twombly, Untitled (New York City) (1970)
Source: Christie's via Bloomberg

This was the biggest sale of the night for Christie's. Unlike a few other works by Twombly this week that sold for much less, this is one instantly recognizable as his. That signature, brand-name recognizability was clearly worth it to collectors this evening, who pushed it up well past its high estimate to a hammer price of 17.5 million pounds.

3. Richter, Vierwaldstaetter See (Lake Lucerne) — $24,006,288

Gerhard Richter,
Gerhard Richter, Vierwaldstätter See (Lake Lucerne) (1969)
Source: Christie's via Bloomberg

Though, of course, Richter's early paintings do A–OK, too. This one was in the same collection for more than 40 years before going on the block.

4. Bacon, Two Studies for a Self-Portrait — $22,412,103

Francis Bacon,
Francis Bacon, Two Studies for a Self-Portrait (1977)
Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

Many collectors tend to buy art that they actually like. Any painting by Bacon is probably going to sell for millions (a triptych by the artist holds the record for the most expensive painting sold at auction), but the fact that this painting, which probably no one could describe as cheery, sold for just above its low estimate might indicate that some collectors didn’t want it on their living room wall.

5. Bacon, Study for a Head — $15,306,912

Francis Bacon,
Francis Bacon, Study for a Head (1955)
Source: Christie's via Bloomberg

One of Bacon's 53 papal paintings, the work has had 12 (now 13) owners in the past 60 years. That didn't stop it from hitting Christie's 10 million-pound estimate squarely on the head.

6. Richter, Karmin (Carmine) — $14,624,608

Gerhard Richter,
Gerhard Richter, Karmin (Carmine) (1994)
Source: Christie's via Bloomberg

Surprise, yet another Richter. It hammered at 8.5 million pounds, which was actually below its low estimate of 9 million pounds. Obviously there wasn't a ton of interest, but it's worth pointing out that Christie's estimated its lots aggressively, so when a work didn’t meet its estimate, it was often a reflection of that estimate, not the strength of the artist's market.

7. Fontana, Concetto Spaziale Attese — $12,770,130

Fontana, Concetto Spaziale, Attese (1965)
Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

Lucio Fontana's enjoying something of a renaissance with some of his famous slash paintings recently on view at the Guggenheim's Zero: Countdown to Tomorrow exhibition in New York City.

8. Klein, Untitled Blue Monochrome (IKB 92) — $9,271,715

Yves Klein,
Yves Klein, Untitled Blue Monochrome (IKB 92)
Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

Yves Klein is also experiencing something close to a boom with three works in Sotheby’s evening auction and three in Christie’s—all of them sold for within or above their estimates.

9. Basquiat, Campaign — $6,711,899

Jean-Michel Basquiat,
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Campaign (1984)
Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg


This 1984 work (painted when Basquiat was 24, four years before he died) sold above Sotheby's high estimate of 4 million pounds. Not bad for the work's first time at auction.

10. Basquiat, Three Delegates — $6,692,824

Jean-Michel Basquiat,
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Three Delegates (1982)
Source: Christie's via Bloomberg

This work, in contrast, did miserably. The auctioneer at Christie's practically begged for the bid of 3.85 million pounds, well below its low estimate of 5 million pounds.

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