But there are disappointments at Phillips de Pury
The contemporary art market season has drawn to its close with a series of three consecutive evening auctions, which confirm that significant works by a broad list of fashionable artists are continuing to attract powerful bidding competition. New auction records were established at Phillips de Pury on 29 June for Franz West, Ugo Rondinone, Wilhelm Sasnal, Grayson Perry, Banks Violette and Elmgreen & Dragset (despite a third of lots not selling). At Christie’s on 30 June records were set for Nicolas de Stael, Michael Andrews, Gilbert & George, Yan Pei-Ming and Karin Mamma Anderson; and at Sotheby’s on 1 July for Domenico Gnoli, Frank Auerbach, Bridget Riley, Martial Raysse, Richard Prince, Marlene Dumas, Antony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread.
The most expensive lot of the three sessions was a 1975 triptych of small self-portrait studies by Francis Bacon, which was offered at Christie’s where it was purchased by an unidentified telephone bidder for £17.3m. In the same sale, an outstanding 1980 portrait of a reclining nude by Lucian Freud fetched £11.8m, the second highest price in the artist’s auction career. In 1990, this picture had been the subject of a court arbitration over the currency (£1.5m or $1.5m) that Cork Street dealer Odette Gilbert had quoted to its purchaser who subsequently sold the canvas for £2.8m at Sotheby’s on 9 December 1998.
At Sotheby’s another telephone bidder paid £13.8m for Bacon’s remarkable small portrait study of George Dyer, 1967, but a full-length nude portrait, generally regarded as a rather unattractive composition, failed to win any interest.
By far the most intriguing situation involved Balloon Flower, 1995-2000, the magenta colourway Celebration sculpture of Jeff Koons which had been consigned to Christie’s by Dallas collectors Howard and Cindy Rachofsky. To have brought this famous sculpture to auction in London, rather than New York, by way of Germany for a fresh polish, and to have installed it under tight security for preview in neighbouring St James’s Square, was a bold decision by the house and underlines London’s status as the preferred shopping destination for the new buying markets of Russia and the Middle East. The winning telephone bid of £12.9m will have covered (just) the cost of the operation and a guarantee to the vendors which the market believes to have been $25 million. The Rachofsky family may have paid $1m for the work in 2000.
Big sculpture also featured at Sotheby’s where telephone bidders acquired a large alabaster block by Anish Kapoor (Untitled, 2003) for £1.9m and Antony Gormley’s 1996 life-scale model for the Angel of the North for £2.3m. An unidentified Asian consortium underbid this lot and the two following lots, Bacon’s portrait of George Dyer, and The Visitor, 1995, by Marlene Dumas which fetched £3.2m.
Phillips de Pury had hoped to steal a march on its rivals by staging its event in what Simon de Pury described as a late afternoon Evening Sale on Sunday 29 June but might have been advised to wait for the momentum created by Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Although London agent Ivor Braka paid £3.5m for the most expensive work in the catalogue, an untitled painting from the final chapter of de Kooning’s career (1984), other valuable consignments failed to perform. There were no bids for either Franz Gertsch’s 1979 portrait of Patti Smith or for a challenging mechanical installation by Paul McCarthy, 1996. From a long catalogue of 91 works of art, 31 lots failed to sell. The third way is proving to be an expensive commitment for Simon de Pury who had offered a total of 39 guarantees in order to win business and there is genuine concern throughout the market that the present business model is not sustainable.