German artists capture Zeitgeist at Sotheby’s contemporary sale

Records for Wolfgang Tillmans and Georg Baselitz help auction house achieve 70% more than last year

by Anny Shaw  |  9 March 2017
German artists capture Zeitgeist at Sotheby’s contemporary sale
Gerhard Richter's Eisberg (1982) sold to an Asian phone bidder for £15.6m (£17.7m with fees) at Sotheby's (Image: courtesy of Sotheby's)
The contemporary art market has proved itself immune to the perceived threats of Brexit and the election of President Donald Trump, judging by Sotheby’s performance last night. The auction house made £100.7m (£118m with fees), comfortably falling within its pre-sale estimate of £80.9m-£112.6m. The result is 70% up on last year’s sale.

German artists led the way, with more than a quarter of lots by artists hailing from the country. In his first appearance in an evening sale at Sotheby’s, Wolfgang Tillmans smashed his record set by Christie’s only the night before. At least seven bidders propelled the 2005 photographic work, Freischwimmer 119 (free swimmer 119), to £380,000 (£464,750 with fees), tripling its upper estimate. 

The Cologne painter Georg Baselitz also made a record, although in less dramatic fashion. Mit Roter Fahne (with red flag, 1965), one of around 25 “Hero” paintings by the artist, sold after a single phone bid to the guarantor for £6.5m (£7.5m with fees). The work carried a pre-sale estimate of £6.5m-£8.5m.

Gordon VeneKlasen, a partner at Michael Werner gallery, which represented Baselitz from 1963 to 2000 and is showing his work in London (until 6 May), says the result represents a “real bargain compared with what is being spent on younger artists”. He says the gallery did not bid on the work, but that there is a lot of Asian interest in Baselitz. 

Of the hype surrounding post-war German artists at the moment, VeneKlasen says there is a concerted effort to link artists such as Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Jörg Immendorff and Albert Oehlen. “They are a formidable group of the like not seen since the Abstract Expressionists,” he says.

The strategy is paying off for Sotheby’s. The 15 works on the block by German artists sold for a combined £48.1m (with fees) against a low estimate of £26.7m, accounting for 35% of the overall sale total. Richter’s 1982 Eisberg contributed £15.6m (£17.7m with fees), selling to a phone bidder from Asia.

Guarantees were significantly up this year compared with 2016. Of the 61 lots, 15 were guaranteed either by Sotheby’s or a third party making an irrevocable bid. They sold for a total of £55m–46.6% of the overall value of the auction. 

Nonetheless, the London dealer Omer Tiroche believes the market responds better to works that have not been guaranteed. “There is always an added level of excitement bidding for something where you don't know the outcome,” he says.

For many, Tiroche included, the outcome on the night was overwhelmingly positive. “Everyone was in a great mood, I think indicative of an upward shift after a very depressing year,” said the New York art adviser Lisa Schiff as she left the saleroom.

Earlier in the evening Phillips mustered £12.2m (£14.7m with fees) against an estimate of £13.3m-£19.2m.

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