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London auctions signal the end of boom years for post-war and contemporary art

Phillips and Sotheby’s sales come in short of estimates—but those in the trade call it a healthy correction

by Anny Shaw  |  11 February 2016
London auctions signal the end of boom years for post-war and contemporary art
Exceptions to the rule: Some the few works to go over estimate were Lucian Freud’s painting of his pregnant teenage lover (left) and a large painting after Van Gogh’s sunflowers by the young Romanian artist, Adrian Ghenie (centre)
Against a backdrop of global stock market woes and tumbling oil prices, the first two auctions in London this week signalled that the post-war and contemporary art market has—for the most part—lost its sizzle.  

Phillips first auction of 20th-century and contemporary art in London on 9 February was a bumpy ride, with 65% of works sold either failing to meet or just scraping their low estimates. The grand total also fell short of its £25.9m low estimate, making £20.8m or £24.6m with buyer’s premium. The sell-through rate was 79%.

The chief executive of Phillips, Ed Dolman, was quick to downplay the size of the correction. “This doesn’t feel like a crash; this is actually a more discerning market,” he said.

Indeed, high quality and keenly priced works by artists including Dubuffet, Fontana and Mimo Rotella—whose kitsch collage sold for a record £900,000 (£1.1m with premium; est £400,000-£600,000)—did well with canny collectors.

Others were visibly pleased with a less frothy market. The Milanese dealer Nicolo Cardi, who underbid on the Fontana and won a painting by Pier Paulo Calzolari for its low estimate of £150,000 (£182,500 with premium), said as he left the saleroom: “I got a very good deal; the retail price is much higher.”

Despite getting off to a flying start reminiscent of the heady old days, Sotheby’s contemporary sale on 10 February also fell short of expectations, bringing in £59.4m or £69.5m with premium (est £60.2m-£86.1m). The sell-through rate was 78%. Of the works sold, 49% either failed to meet or just touched their low estimates.

The result, almost half last year’s total, was marred by the last-minute withdrawal of the cover lot: a grey squeegee painting by Gerhard Richter that had been consigned by the Iranian collectors Eskandar and Fatima Maleki. The work, which was removed at the owners’ request, had been estimated to sell for £14m-£20m. A painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat with an estimate of £6m-£8m was among the other lots withdrawn.

A large painting after Van Gogh’s sunflowers by the young Romanian artist, Adrian Ghenie, was one of a few works to fly over estimate. It sparked a bidding war among ten hopefuls including Michaela de Pury, Hugh Gibson and Thaddaeus Ropac, eventually selling over the phone to an Asian bidder for a record £2.65m, or £3.1m with premium (est £400,000-£600,000). Meanwhile, Lucian Freud’s painting of his pregnant teenage lover from 1960-61 attracted nine bidders, going for £14.2m, £16.1m with premium (est £7m-£10m).

The art adviser Lisa Schiff said the Sotheby’s sale indicated “that no bubble is bursting but healthy adjustments are being made”. She added: “Where estimates were not bullish, works sold very well; but where sellers had unrealistic expectations, particularly for young artists, the works sold poorly.”

Post-war and contemporary sales continue today (11 February) at Bonhams and Christie’s, where the pre-sale estimates are £8.5m-£12.3m and £50.4m-£75.2m respectively.


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