Latest London Contemporary Art Auction Roundup

In Art Market | Articles


6 December 2011
Marc Quinn, Microcosmos (Siren) 2008

ondon was the centre of attention during the middle of October with the major auction houses all holding auctions of contemporary art in the English capital in the lead-up to the major November auctions of contemporary art in New York.  Results for individual auction houses varied considerably, as did the results for individual artists, the result of which was a rather confusing series of auctions.  The overall tone was, however, relatively positive thanks to a number of new auction records and the top result achieved by Christie’s with their Contemporary Art Evening Auction.  Works by living artists proved most popular with buyers favouring top quality, value for money pieces, in particular sculptures and large-scale paintings.

Jacob Kassay, Untitled

Kicking off the October round of contemporary art sales in London was Phillips de Pury who held their Evening Sale of Contemporary Art on the 12th of October.  Even though they only managed to sell 22 of the 36 lots on offer, Phillips’ evening auction achieved a relatively respectable total of £8,249,950 /$12,960,671 (including premium) with final figures of 75% sold by value and 66% sold by lot.

Selling the cover lot, Jeff Koons’ Seal Walrus Trashcan, for £2,113,250 was a triumph for Phillips even though the hammer price was well below the £2,000,000-3,000,000 estimate.  Inspired by Popeye, the kitsch sculpture featuring aluminium cast seals made to look like inflatable pool toys was included in Koons’ first UK solo show at the Serpentine Gallery in 2009.  The next two top prices went to Damien Hirst with his Observation – The Crown of Justice selling as guaranteed property for a total of £780,450 against an estimate of £700,000-1,000,000, and 5-Aminouracil, 2007 bringing in £690,850 against an estimate of £600,000-800,000.

Jeff Koons, Seal Walrus Trashcans 2003-2009

The popularity of twenty seven year old New York based artist Jacob Kassay’s series of large silver monochrome panels created using an electroplating process continue to exceed expectations as evinced by the second lot of the Phillips sale which saw the artist’s Untitled 2010 sail way past the £50,000-70,000 estimate for a final price of £163,250.

Bonhams held their first dedicated sale of contemporary art on the 13th of October in what the British company referred to as a “price sensitive” market.  A sale total of £2,042,700 against an estimate of £3,265,000, and a sold by lot rate of 70% (14/20), was an admirable result for their first assault on the contemporary art market. The top price of the sale went to a Glenn Brown painting that only managed a hammer price of £500,000 (£601,250 including premium) – well below the £700,000-900,000 estimate.  Fairing slightly better was Martial Raysse’s Untitled  1963 which managed to elicit a final price of £421,250 against an estimate of £350,000–450,000.

Glenn Brown (b.1966), Little Death, 2000

What would have been an auction record for a drawing by Boetti turned into more of a nightmare for Bonhams who failed to sell the impractically large and not all that appealing two by nine metre, twelve panel  monster.  Had they not failed to sell Boetti’s Anno 1984, estimated to bring in £1,200,000 – 1,800,000 (US$ 1,900,000 – 2,800,000), the sale would have been a much greater success.  Making things worse for Bonhams was the fact that they had a financial interest in the Boetti work.

Cesar Pouce (b. 1921), 1965

Highlights of Bonhams contemporary art day sale, held on the 19th of October, included the £56,450 final price achieved for Cesar’s Pouce sculpture against an estimate of £8,000 – 12,000 and the £66,050 achieved for Banksy’s Girl and Balloon which had an estimate of £8,000 – 12,000.  The cover lot, Damien Hirst’s Beautiful Squidgy Beep Beep Red Nose Painting, sold for £34,850 against an estimate of £20,000 – 30,000.

Sotheby’s October 13th Contemporary Art Evening Sale was a less than exciting affair with buyers opting to bid cautiously.  Although the sale achieved the third highest total for an October sale of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, the results were comparatively unimpressive with 77 per cent sold by lot and 79 per cent sold by value.  Fetching the highest price of the sale was a small 21.6cm by 15.9cm portrait of a boy by Lucien Freud that didn’t do as well as expected, managing only to break the £3,000,000 low estimate by £177,250; deducting the buyers premium takes the final price well below the estimate. An epic 300cm by 200cm mixed media painting

Leon Kossoff,A Street In Willesden,1983

by Spanish artist Miquel Barcelo titled Plura Contracorrent was sold as guaranteed property with at least one irrevocable bid for £1,721,250 against an estimate of £1,400,000 – 1,800,000.  Also offered for sale was another far less impressive and much more minimalist work by Barcelo that was given an estimate of £300,000 – 400,000 and, not surprisingly, failed to find a buyer.

Another of Jacob Kassay’s silver monochrome panels sent buyers into a frenzy resulting in another impressive final price of £145,250 against an estimate of £50,000-70,000. A new world auction record was set for Leon Kossoff whose 213cm by 208cm A Street in Willesden sold for £690,850 against an estimate of £350,000 – 450,000. Mark Quinn’s famous yet vulgar sculpture of Kate Moss cast using 10 kilograms of 18 carat gold failed to break the £500,000 low estimate with a hammer price of £480,000 (£577,250 including premium) .  If nothing else, the value of the gold alone would return just over half the hammer price.

Lucien Freud, Boy’s Head, 1952

The most spectacular failure of Sotheby’s evening auction went to Peter Doig’s Bellarde which was last sold by Christie’s in 2001 for US$138,000 against an estimate of $140,000-$180,000.  This time around the £1,500,000 – 2,000,000 (2,359,603 – 3,146,138 USD) estimate seems to have been too much for buyers to stomach.
Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Day Sale proved even less encouraging than their evening sale with 69% sold by lot and 72% sold by value.  The standout result again went to Kossoff whose Self portrait II fetched the top price of the sale with a final price of £397,250 ($626,145) against an estimate of £80,000 – 120,000.  Mark Quinn again featured in the top ten with his Pink Sphinx, a larger painted bronze version of his Moss sculpture, selling for £229,250 (US$361,344) against an estimate of £220,000 – 280,000.  The number of works that failed to sell is too long to list but included the likes of Piero Manzoni, Lucio Fontana and Andy Warhol.  Also failing to sell were a number of major works by Chinese artists including Yan Pei Ming and Zhang Xiangang.

Gerhard Richter (b. 1932), Kerze (Candle), 1982

Saving the best for last, Christie’s blitzed the competition with their 14th October Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction selling 47 of the 53 lots on offer for a stellar grand total of £38,070,350, which converts to a 92% sold by value rate.  Nearly a quarter of the total came from Richter’s Kerze (Candle) which sold for £10,457,250 against an estimate of £6,000,000 – 9,000,000 and set a new world auction record for the artist.

Christie’s also set new world auction record for Antony Gormley, whose Angel of the North (Life-Size Maquette) sailed past the £2,000,000 top estimate for a final price of £3,401,250.  Yet another new world auction record was achieved for Iranian born artist Ahmed Alsoudani whose Baghdad I (2008) sold for more than twice the estimate for a final price of £713,250 (US$1,124,082).  All five of Alsoudani’s works that have appeared at auction have sold, with the four paintings offered at auction fetching no less than £180,000 each.  The biggest failure of the auction went to Richard Prince’s Nurse Forrester’s Secret which was given an estimate of £2,100,000 – 3,000,000 and failed to sell.

Antony Gormley (b. 1950), Angel of the North (Life-Size Maquette), 1996

Christie’s Post War and Contemporary Art Day Sale didn’t fare as well with only 152 of the 214 lots offered finding buyers, brinting in a total of £9,414,875, which equates to a sold by value rate of 82%.  The highlight of the sale was Ugo Rondinone’s If there were anywhere but desert. Thursday which sold for £505,250 against an estimate of £250,000 – 350,000.  A good result was also achieved for Zeng Fanzhi whose Mask Series No. 26 was purchased for £337,250 against an estimate of £100,000 – 150,000.

Damien Hirst, Observation – The Crown of Justice, 2006

Overall, the most popular and successful artist of the October round of auctions was undoubtedly Damien Hirst who had twenty five of his works go under the hammer with all but four finding a new home.  Sigmar Polke had a total of eight works spread over the sales – seven of which sold.  George Condo proved popular with eight out of the ten works by the artist going to new homes.  Another standout success was Cecily Brown who had five works on offer, only one of which failed to sell. Banksy was another popular pick with only one of the nine pieces by the artist not selling.  Also in attendance were the usual plethora of Warhol works which proved a tougher sell with seven out of the nineteen lots failing to find buyers.

The October London contemporary art auctions left the market with more questions than answers.   Christie’s took a big risk with their big-dollar, star studded sale – a risk that paid off in the end.  However, the question most people will be asking is whether Christie’s can reproduce their London success in New York at the beginning of November, or whether they peaked too soon with their London sale.

Writing Credits: Nicholas Forrest is a Sydney/London based art market analyst, art consultant and writer. He is the founder of the Art Market Blog ( which offers independent commentaries as well as research and analysis on the current art market, and has recently been published in Fabrik magazine, Verve magazine, Visual Art Beat magazine, Australian Art Collector magazine, Art & Investment magazine and many others. Nic has made several radio appearances (both nationally and internationally) as an art market expert and has received press from the likes of the New York Times, Conde Nast Portfolio and Times of London.

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