Pregnant Girl, Basquiat `Madman' Top Sotheby's Auction Down 44%

  • Sales total $101 million of contemporary art, hitting target
  • London auctions are the market's first big test of 2016

The blockbuster art auctions are shrinking.

Sotheby’s contemporary art evening sale in London on Wednesday tallied 69.5 million pounds ($101 million), within the estimated range but down 44 percent from the equivalent event in 2015. Auctions of Impressionist and modern art at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s last week were also significantly lower than a year ago.

Following five years of booming sales, the art market may be entering a slower stage. There are fewer lots on offer, a dearth of masterpieces and a higher rate of unsold works than a year ago. And buyers are getting more selective.

Pregnant Girl by Lucian Freud

Source: Sotheby’s

At Sotheby’s, 12 of the 55 offered lots failed to find buyers. There were no takers for works by some young artists whose prices skyrocketed in the past two to three years, including Tauba Auerbach’s trompe-l’oeil painting resembling a crumpled piece of cloth. Estimated at 1 million pounds to 1.5 million pounds, the work was one of three lots in the sale guaranteed by Sotheby’s. Joe Bradley’s messy, minimal abstraction, estimated at as much as 600,000 pounds, was another casualty.

A drawing of a skeletal head by Jean-Michel Basquiat fetched 6.2 million pounds, a 25 percent decline in price in two years. Estimated at 4.5 million pounds to 6.5 million pounds, the piece attracted three bidders. It was bought by the Nahmad art dealing family for a client, dealer Joseph Nahmad said.

Record Sunflowers

Head of a Madman by Basquiat

Source: Sotheby’s

The 1982 artwork, “Untitled (Head of Madman),” was purchased by the seller for $12 million at Christie’s in November 2013.

The auction’s bright spots included a large 2014 painting of sunflowers by 38-year-old Romanian artist Adrian Ghenie that was pursued by nine bidders. It sold for 3.1 million pounds, more than five times its high estimate and more than doubling the artist’s previous auction record of 1.4 million pounds.

The top lot, Lucian Freud’s “Pregnant Girl" painting, sold for 16.1 million pounds, surpassing the high estimate of 10 million pounds. The prices include buyer’s commission charged by the auction house; the estimates don’t.

Alberto Burri’s 1959 painting “Sacco e Rosso,” contrasting a dazzling field of red with roughly patched piece of burlap, went for 9.1 million pounds. The price set an auction record for the postwar Italian artist who was recently the subject of a major retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Even Andy Warhol, whose prices are seen as a proxy for the contemporary art market, isn’t immune any longer. Two of the artist’s four paintings in the sale -- a black-and-white “Little Electric Chair” and a signature square canvas with four flowers -- didn’t find takers.

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