The Art Market: Gathering pace

Sotheby’s rounded off a highly successful fortnight of sales with its highest total ever for a contemporary art auction in London, on Wednesday night. It racked up £108.8m for 88 works, with just nine lots failing to find buyers.

Boosting the result was a group of 34 works of postwar German art being sold by Count Christian Duerckheim, chairman of the German pharmaceutical firm Axiogenesis. The collection, bought in a concentrated burst in the 1970s and 1980 and including Polke, Baselitz and Richter, had created an enormous buzz pre-sale: it had been off the market for 30 years, the works were reasonably estimated and were in impeccable condition, having spent most of their life in storage.

Bidding was feverish, with some buyers even bumping up the bids ahead of the auctioneer, as when Richter’s 1967 “Sisters” came up. It opened at £750,000 but a buyer in the room immediately called out “£1.9m!” The work finally sold for £3.7m, going to collector Jürgen Hall, who said it would be gifted to the Kunstmuseum in Bonn. The collection raised £60.4m, well over expectations, with Polke’s “Jungle” (1967) setting a new record at £5.4m and going to a private European collector.

A much smaller group did well at Christie’s on Tuesday night. Kay Saatchi, the collector’s second wife, was selling seven works by Freud, Paula Rego and Ron Mueck, prior to moving back to her native America. Hidden in a private room, Ms Saatchi saw the works do extremely well, with Freud’s “Rabbit on a Chair” (1944, est £300,000-£400,000) selling for just over £1m; the seven works raised just shy of £4m, well over the pre-sale target. And Christie’s also scored with Bacon’s menacing “Study for a Portrait” (1953), which sold, probably to a Russian, for almost £18m, above its £11m estimate. Overall, the sale made £78.8m, the firm’s second-best result for a London contemporary art auction.

The week also saw a bounce from Phillips de Pury, which abandoned its echoing Victoria space for the cosseted comfort of Claridges’s ballroom for a slim-line evening sale of just 31 lots. Simon de Pury briskly knocked down 27 lots for £11.2m and set a new record for the Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes when her “O Moderno” (2002) sold for £713,250.

According to the French Conseil des ventes, 10 Chinese firms figured in the top 20 auction houses in the world in 2010. The Conseil, an auction advisory body, publishes an annual report based on sale totals worldwide, calculated in euros. Its line-up puts Christie’s and Sotheby’s in the top two slots – no surprise there – and continues with Beijing Poly (€1,057m), China Guardian (€846m), the US Heritage (€518m) and Bonhams (€422m) just ahead of Beijing Hanhai, Beijing Council and Beijing Red Sun, with Phillips de Pury in the number 10 slot. In the “second 10” are Xiling, Beijing Highest, Beijing JiuGe, Shanghai Tianheng and Beijing RongBao, all with turnovers exceeding €100m. France squeaks in to number 20 with Artcurial. It has often been noted that some of these figures should be vewed with caution, and Bonhams says the total for its sales is “inaccurate” (but doesn’t give its own numbers). But even if there is exaggeration, the totals are astonishing: China’s stripling salerooms – under a generation old – are now pushing hard up behind venerable firms founded in the 18th century.

Film star Gwyneth Paltrow is one of the new owners of London’s Arts Club in Dover Street, along with venture capitalist Arjun Waney, backer of Zuma and La Petite Maison, and investor Gary Landesberg (who owns a string of pubs). The Arts Club, established in 1863 by Lord Leighton and Charles Dickens, had been struggling for some time. It is housed in a magnificent Georgian mansion in the centre of Mayfair, with a walled garden at the back. The new owners are making a radical revamp and new works by artists “of global recognition” have been commissioned (names top secret until the August launch). Business development is in the hands of Adoreum, which specialises in luxury and lifestyle brands and says the club is “guaranteed to be the destination for patrons, collectors and the Who’s Who of the arts world”. David D’Almada is the decorator, under the “interior design direction” of Paltrow herself.

Leading New York dealer David Zwirner has teamed up with the film producer and actor Ben Stiller to organise a star-studded charity auction in New York in September, to benefit schools in Haiti. “We are hoping to raise at least $10m,” says Zwirner. “We already have works from 21 leading artists – primary market works for which there are waiting lists.” The project started after collector and actor Steve Martin sent Stiller, who had been involved in building schools in Haiti, to Zwirner’s gallery.

“Haiti is just an hour by plane from Miami, but it’s a different world, there is no sanitation, no running water, no work and no schools,” says Zwirner. Among the artists on board are Marlene Dumas, Paul McCarthy, Raymond Pettibon, Luc Tuymans and Jeff Koons, and Zwirner notes the help he has had from dealers such as Hauser & Wirth, Pace, Matthew Marks and Gagosian. The sale will be on September 22 at Christie’s, which is waiving all its fees.

“And I intend to micromanage the grants, to make sure the money goes to the right places,” says Zwirner.

Pilar Ordovas, who spent 13 years at Christie’s and then had a two-year stint as director with Gagosian in London, has opened a new gallery in Savile Row, right opposite Hauser & Wirth’s mega-space. “This will be the first gallery in London to specialise in secondary market works and to have curated exhibitions,” says Ordovas. The space is already open, but the first show is in October to coincide with Frieze.

Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

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