Art Market

Christie’s Notches £84 Million Sale Despite No Takers for £60 Million Bacon

Anna Louie Sussman
Oct 7, 2017 1:30PM

Courtesy of Christie’s.

A rare Francis Bacon Pope painting offered by Christie’s at its Frieze Week sale of post-war and contemporary art hadn’t been seen in public for the last 45 years. After a chilly reception on Friday night, it may not be back for a while.

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 Jean-Michel Basquiat painting that fetched £14.5 million, or £16.5 million with fees, the proceeds of which went to the KIPP network of charter schools in the U.S.

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 Grayson Perry, the subject of a recent show at the Serpentine Galleries, Saint Claire 37 wanks across Northern Spain (2003) sold for £160,000, or £200,000 with fees. Howard Hodgkin also set a new record, as well as David Salle, Tony Bevan, and Amy Sillman, all with paintings. Turner Prize nominee Hurvin Anderson blew past his hours-old auction record set at a Phillips sale earlier on Friday night with the £2.2 million sale of Country Club: Chicken Wire (2008), which came to £2.6 million 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.

Peter Doig’s Camp Forestia (1996), an unsettling image of an abandoned cabin in the woods, its image reflected in a lake, fetched £13.5 million, or £15.4 million with the buyer’s premium, below its low estimate of £14 million.

Antony Gormley’s 28-foot-long winged lead sculpture, A Case for an Angel I (1989), was snatched up by none other than auction-house hero of the year Yusaku Maezawa, who was also spotted roaming the Frieze tents. The Japanese e-commerce billionaire made headlines in May when he bought an untitled 1982 Basquiat for a record-setting $110.4 million. The Gormley went for £4.5 million, or £5.2 million after fees, below the £5 million to £7 million it was expected to fetch. It was nonetheless an auction record for Gormley.

In addition to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Red Skull (1982), Christie’s also landed Both Poles (1982) by the current auction darling. Both Poles sold for £3.15 million, or £3.7 million with fees, just above its low estimate of £3 million. Red Skull (1982), which at £14.5 million beat its low estimate of £12 million, is one of about five known major skull paintings executed in 1982, Christie’s said, a key year for the artist. Both Poles was bought at Basquiat’s first-ever show at 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 Andy Warhol, the man he unseated as the highest-priced American artist at auction, sold for £1.4 million or £1.6 million with fees, towards the low end of its £1.2 million to £1.8 million estimate. The nearly eight-foot-tall Keep Frozen (General Electric) was one of around 130 paintings that the two artists created together from 1984 to 1985.

Adrian Ghenie, the young-ish Romanian-born artist whose paintings have consistently performed well at auction in recent seasons, sold Turning Point 1 (2009), a painting that appeared in his first solo show in the United Kingdom, for £2 million, at its low estimate of £2 million to £4 million. The total price came to £2.4 million with fees.

One lot was withdrawn from the sale: Mark Rothko’s 1969 Untitled (Orange and Yellow), painted the year before his death, a period during which he worked mostly on paper and fast-drying acrylic paint on the advice of his doctor. The work was from the collection of Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies and had carried an estimate of £4 million to £6 million.

Christie’s followed the contemporary sale with “Thinking Italian,” which saw a steady succession of solid sales by the likes of Michelangelo Pistoletto, Lucio Fontana, and Alberto Burri; new records were set for Pistoletto and Franco Angeli. It came to £27.2 million without fees, or £32.1 million after buyer’s premium, on 25 lots sold out of 31 offered, for an 81% sell-through rate.

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 Alighiero Boetti, went for £3.1 million, right in the middle of its estimated range, or £3.7 million with fees. It had been in the same collection since 1969.

Marino Marini’s bronze Cavaliere (Rider), cast in 1976, was appearing for the first time on the market, but failed to sell. It had been estimated to sell for between £2 million and £3 million.

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