Contemporary Art Auctions A Case For Recession Proof Investment

As the Summer auction and fair season winds up and galleries mount their group shows, a mainstay of the art calendar Jack Castle takes a look at the staggering results from three of the major sales rooms.

The very special place in art history and unique nature of works such as the Francis Bacon, Study for Self Portrait or Yves Klein’s Le Rose du Bleu is hard to quantify in value. Price knows no barrier if a work has the magic,” said Christie’s Head of Post-War & Contemporary Art Europe Francis Outred. Of course, he would say that: Christies’ Post-War and Contemporary auctions this week realised £148,283,125- the highest ever price for this category ever in Europe. Five new artist records were set, including records for Yves Klein and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Klein was the star of this week’s auctions, achieving the highest price of £23,561,250 for his 1960 “Le Rose du bleu (RE 22)”: a relief of nine sea sponges painted in electric pink sold by “an important private collector” after appearing in the major travelling exhibitions Yves Klein: Corps, couleur, immatériel (2006-2007) and Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers (2010-2011). The 1981 untitled Basquiat realised £12,921,250 after being spotted by ‘a seasoned European collector who had been looking for the right Basquiat for years’ (as Brett Gorvy, chairman of Christie’s post-war and contemporary art worldwide described them).

This year’s auctions saw something of a fashion for Basquiat, with good sales at Christies, Sotheby’s, and the boutique auctioneers Phillips de Pury & Co. “Irony of Negro Policeman,” a 1981 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, reached £8.2 million at Philips de Pury & Co.’s June 28th sale, and a 1982 work in the same scratchy “street-style” entitled “Warrior” pulled in £5,585,250 for Sotheby’s- their highest priced lot.

But on the whole, the Sotheby’s auction was something of an anti-climax, especially compared to the Christies record. Sotheby’s £69,307,050 (against an estimate of £57m-82m) was as expected, but lacked the flare and real masterpieces of the Christie’s auction. Francis Bacon’s “Study for a Self Portrait” (1980) and Glenn Brown’s 1998 “The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dalí (after John Martin)” achieved £4,521,250 and £5,193,250 respectively, the latter an artist’s record. By contrast, Christie’s sold another Bacon “Study for a Self Portrait” (1964) for £21,545,250 after it was  found to be a moulding together of the face of Bacon and his friend the late Lucien Freud’s ‘lean, sculpted limbs and lithe serpentine’ body (as Christies described it).

It is this kind of difference that was, in the end, the difference between the two evenings: Christies had really pulled out all the stops to draw together a tight auction dotted with masterpieces from four continents, whereas Sotheby’s did not quite have the lots to force extraordinary prices. But despite continuing instability in the Eurozone, European collectors were in the majority this summer and showed no loss of appetite for this sector of the art market: 87% of both Sotheby’s and Christie’s lots were sold, with Brett Gorvy (Christie’s) reporting strong buying from Americans and Europeans, with Russia and China taking an unexpected back seat.

What the results of these sales can tell us, however, is perhaps that ‘price knows no barrier if a work has the magic’. Buyers are not willing to speculate any more, and the masterpiece or seminal work has become more important than ever; both in terms of building a collection and ensuring a stable, high value. Gerhard Richter continues to sell at any auction that attempts it. By contrast, one of the (albeit few) works that failed to sell was a Damian Hirst 1990-1991 medicine cabinet entitled “My Way”. Even though there is some consensus that Sotheby’s set their reserves too high in an attempt to draw a few extra hundred thousand pounds from each lot, the presence of this piece at auction does mean that it is not in the major Tate retrospective (as with all the other Hirsts up for sale this week). Are we seeing a slight glimmer of worry at the prospect of this piece not being retrospective-worthy?

One gets the sense from comparing the outcome of these two sales that, although there is still a healthy market for contemporary art, the previous gluttony is gone. But perhaps gone too is the sense of connoisseurship that in the past drove a certain type of risk. Despite the record prices for some, we are seeing a hunt for stability here, which has manifested itself in a hunt for the out-and-out finer things. The three-way bidding war for the Yves Klein seems to bear this out, as does the price of the Christie’s (vs. the Sotheby’s) Francis Bacon. The Klein is both rare and recently heavily exhibited, the Christie’s Bacon is associated also with Lucien Freud. Both can be relatively secure on a good return. Most other lots achieved average prices. The extraordinary work does well, the average does average without the kind of exception that comes from an expensive personal taste. Although, perhaps, this is not due to a reticence on the part of the super-rich, the billionaires, but a shrink of disposable income and ensuing reticence on the part of the merely very-rich.

Words Jack Castle © ArtLyst 2012


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