Ai Weiwei Record Leads $28.6 Million Sale at Phillips in London

A group of 12 large bronze animal heads by China’s dissident artist Ai Weiwei led Phillips’s 18.2 million pound ($28.6 million) contemporary art evening auction in London.

“Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” which depicts the signs of the ancient Chinese zodiac, fetched 3.4 million pounds on Monday, within its presale estimate of 3 million pounds to 5 million pounds. It was the sale’s top lot and set an auction record for the artist.

The auction took place as global equities slumped amid concerns over fallout from Greece’s financial crisis. It was the first of three contemporary evening auctions in London this week, which are jointly expected to tally as much as 392 million pounds.

The 50-lot sale’s tally exceeded the low estimate of 17.2 million pounds and was an 84 percent increase from Phillips’s auction a year ago, when 23 lots totaled 9.9 million pounds. The eight unsold lots included works by blue-chip artists Andy Warhol, Lucian Freud and George Condo.

Ai’s animal heads are displayed on individual stands, with the largest piece, a rooster, at 12.5-feet-tall. The 2010 work, which is the first in an edition of six, has been exhibited at the Sao Paulo Biennale in 2010, New York’s Pulitzer Fountain near Central Park in 2011 and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington in 2012.

Smaller Version

Ai’s previous auction record of 2.9 million pounds was set in February, also at Phillips, for a smaller, gold-plated version of the 12 zodiac animals.

Many works sold to absentee bidders or attracted just one or two bids from dealers and Phillips staffers on the phones.

Bruce Nauman’s 1989 wax and wood sculpture, “Hanging Heads #1 (Blue Andrew, Mouth Open/Red Julie with Cap),” fetched 1.8 million pounds, within the estimate range. It was one of 16 lots whose owners had been guaranteed undisclosed minimum prices by the auction house, 10 of which were financed by third parties.

To promote the piece, Phillips displayed it at a dinner for clients during the Art Basel fair at Les Trois Rois hotel in Switzerland.

Mark Bradford’s 2011 painting “Waiting on Forever” fetched 458,500 pounds, slightly surpassing the low estimate. Chris Ofili’s ornate “Homage” (1993-1995) featuring elephant dung sold for 302,500 pounds, barely surpassing the low estimate.

Prices include buyer’s commission charged by the auction house; the estimates don’t.

Three Sailboats

The most competitive lot was Ed Ruscha’s 11-foot-long (3.3 meters) painting, “Ship Talk,” depicting three ink-blue sailboats on a shadowy background. It attracted seven bidders and was one of four works by the Los Angeles-based artist in the sale.

Bidding started at 320,000 pounds and the final price, including fees, was 884,500 pounds, above the high estimate of 600,000 pounds.

This was the fourth time the 1988 painting appeared at auction. It sold for $1.8 million at Christie’s in New York in 2007, the previous art market high.

The work’s latest consignor bought it at Christie’s in February 2012, according to Phillips, when it fetched 769,250 pounds. Less than a year later, it returned to the auction block at Sotheby’s in New York but failed to sell.

Neo Rauch’s 1993 round painting, “Wald,” also inspired active bidding, selling for 278,500 pounds, more than twice its high estimate.

A 2007 painting by Jonas Wood “Fish Tank” sold for 158,500 pounds, more than twice its high estimate of 70,000 pounds. Auction prices for the popular Los Angeles-based artist have surged this year, reaching as high as $610,000 at Sotheby’s in May.

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