Christie’s Notches £84 Million Sale Despite No Takers for £60 Million Bacon
Courtesy of Christie’s.
The trophy lot of the London evening auctions, Study of Red Pope 1962. 2nd Version 1971 (1971) was being offered for roughly £60 million, or $78 million, an “ambitious” estimate, Christie’s chairman and head of post-war and contemporary art Francis Outred acknowledged, and 10 times the estimate of the most expensive piece in rival Sotheby’s sale this week. Unusually for such an expensive piece, it was offered without a guarantee from a third party. But, despite the flop, Christie’s achieved its highest total for a single sale during Frieze Week, at £84.5 million, or £99.5 million including buyer’s premiums.
“Ambitious” was also how Christie’s chief executive Guillaume Cerutti described the overall sale; that ambition, he said, could be realized thanks to the auction house’s decision to skip a mid-summer sale, which the London houses traditionally hold just after Art Basel in Basel, and focus its attention solely on October’s offerings. That gave the house the time and space to chase blockbuster works such as the Bacon and a
As to whether Christie’s would be repeating the same strategy next year, Cerutti said it was too soon to know. But he noted that the higher-profile works had drawn massive crowds to the viewing rooms. Friday night’s sale was packed to the rafters, with people watching from overflow rooms and a buzzy, festive atmosphere quite unlike the quotidian feel at Sotheby’s the night before.
Nine artists set records on Friday evening: seven in the main post-war and contemporary sale, and two in the “Thinking Italian” sale that followed. So, soggy Bacon aside, it was a decent night for Cerutti’s team.
“The market is saying, ‘Don’t overestimate,’” said Morgan Long, a senior director and head of art investment at London art advisory The Fine Art Group. “The stuff that did really well tonight was estimated quite reasonably, and performed over expectations.”
Among the records: An earthenware vase by British artist Serpentine Galleries, Saint Claire 37 wanks across Northern Spain (2003) sold for £160,000, or £200,000 with fees.
The house’s ambition had its downsides, though, too. The contemporary sale was long, with 65 lots, causing some grumbling amongst bidders as the night stretched on. One person compared the experience to a long-haul flight in coach. And though the fall contemporary sale at Sotheby’s had just 38 sold lots, none of which fetched more than £6.4 million, the house came out slightly ahead when combined with its June results. Across both June and October’s contemporary evening sales, Sotheby’s pulled in a total of £112.6 million. Christie’s, of course, would have eclipsed that sum had the Bacon sold.
The sale brought the week’s total for Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips’s post-war and contemporary evening auctions to £173 million with buyer’s fees. That’s a 74% increase over 2016’s combined October sales.
Regardless of sales totals, it’s difficult to know how profitable an auction is for the house that holds it due to the undisclosed deals and guarantees that may be offered to secure lots, noted Evan Beard, who leads U.S. Trust’s art services division. Sotheby’s, a publicly traded company that must regularly report to shareholders, is generally thought to be more disciplined in how it pursues lots and structures its sales. Privately held Christie’s, by contrast, “seems uninterested in playing ball,” Beard said, giving it “the upper hand in attracting more top lots,” in addition to the extra lead time it had for this sale.
Outred said the unsold Bacon had attracted a lot of interest ahead of the sale, and he knew that three or four collectors in the room were seriously interested. As auctioneer and Christie’s global president Jussi Pylkkänen began throwing out the early figures, starting at £50 million, Outred said he watched the potential buyers fidget and eye one another, waiting for someone to make the first move, like a “gunfight,” he said. Pylkkänen called it quits at £58 million, to audible gasps.
Another Papal portrait by Bacon, Head with Raised Arm (1955), had better luck with more modest expectations, selling at its high estimate of £10 million, or £11.4 million with fees. Last exhibited in 1962 in Turin, the work depicts Pope Pius XII, and has been held in a private European family collection since 1963.
In addition to Larry Gagosian’s Los Angeles gallery in 1982, and has been in the same private collection until now.
A 1985 collaboration painting by Basquiat and
One lot was withdrawn from the sale:
Christie’s followed the contemporary sale with “Thinking Italian,” which saw a steady succession of solid sales by the likes of
Fontana’s Concetto spaziale, In piazza San Marco di notte con Teresita (1961), a large black painting studded with colored glass, led the sale at £8.7 million, or £10 million after fees.
There was still a little appetite for Fontana’s slash paintings, or tagli, several of which are for sale at Frieze Masters. At Christie’s, Concetto spaziale, Attese (1964), a monochrome white canvas with eight slashes, sold for £2.4 million, or £2.8 million with fees, in the realm of its £2 million to £3 million estimate. By contrast, of two on offer at Sotheby’s on Thursday night, one failed to sell, and one went for below its low estimate.
Burri’s Sacco (1953), one of his signature paintings made with humble burlap, went for £6.5 million, or £7.5 million after fees, below a rumored estimate of £8 million to £10 million.
Pistoletto’s 1967 Uomo che guarda un negativo (Man Looking at a Negative), an early mirror painting of his contemporary, the artist
Friday’s sale was the first major contemporary evening sale since Christie’s hiked its buyer’s premium in September. Christie’s new buyer’s premium are as follows: 25% of the hammer price of each lot up to and including £175,000 or $250,000; plus 20% of the hammer price from £175,001 or $250,001 up to and including £3 million or $4 million, and 12.5% above £3,000,001 or $4,000,001. These fees apply to all categories except wine.
Anna Louie Sussman is Artsy’s Art Market Editor.