The Art Market: Russians bid big in London

Russian money flowed back into the main impressionist and modern art sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London this week. While neither firm would unveil the nationalities of their buyers, the star lot of the week, Picasso’s sensual 1932 portrait of his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, “La Lecture”, which sold for £25.2m at Sotheby’s on Tuesday evening, was bought on the telephone by UK chairman Mark Poltimore. As he has extensive contacts with Russia and deals with Russian clients, it seems reasonable to conclude his buyer hails from the former Soviet Union.

Then on Wednesday night at Christie’s, the Zurich-based Sandra Nedvetskaia, who looks after the firm’s Russian clients, bid patiently for a glacially slow client on the telephone. However, her buyer eventually bagged the top lot, Bonnard’s 1923 “Terrasse à Vernon”, paying £7.2m for the colourful view of the artist’s Normandy garden – almost twice the estimate and setting a new auction record for Bonnard. She then went after, but failed to win, the semi-abstract “Les Arbres en Fleurs” (1912) by Natalia Goncharova, which sold on its upper estimate for £3.9m to the firm’s Paris-based specialist Thomas Seydoux, whose client was rumoured to be Ukrainian. However, Nedvetskaia did bag a frothy and decorative Van Dongen portrait of the French actress Lili Damita from c1926, paying just over £3m (estimate before commission £1.5m-£2m) and Magritte’s pensive nude “L’aimant” (1941) at £4.7m (within estimate).

Both sales had their failures: two Giacometti sculptures, and Christie’s top lot, an awkward Gauguin “Nature Morte” (1901), which died without any visible bids at £5.8m (estimate £7m-£10m). But the results – £68.8m, with 76 per cent of the lots sold at Sotheby’s, and £84.8m, with 79 per cent sold at Christie’s – indicated a confident market and will certainly encourage buyers in the contemporary art sessions coming this week.

I have often described the Hong Kong art fair, which goes into its fourth edition in May, as the potential “Art Basel of Asia”. I might have been prescient: Art Basel is in talks with the Hong Kong fair. One of its owners, Tim Etchells, managing director of Single Market Events, confirmed that discussions “have been going on for some time”. Buying the Hong Kong fair would certainly be in the interests of Art Basel, as it would give the Swiss organisation access to the Asian market. But Etchells says, “We have had approaches from other people as well and it’s definitely not a done deal.” Art Basel declined to comment.

Sotheby’s chose a moment between its two main London sales to announce a major sell-off by Guy Ullens, the Belgian food baron who founded the non-profit Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing in 2007. He is sending 106 works of contemporary Chinese art, dating from the late 1980s to the 1990s, for sale in Hong Kong in April. Entitled “The Ullens Collection: The Nascence of Avant-Garde China”, the group is estimated at up to $16.7m and includes Zeng Fanzhi’s “Mask Series No. 4” (1994) with a target of $1m-$1.3m. The works were previously kept in store in Europe. “The period of Chinese art [in the sale] is one of the most interesting in the history of recent art, spanning the last days of the opening up which followed Mao’s death to post-June 4 [1989, the Tiananmen Square massacre],” commented China specialist Philip Dodd.

The collection is not part of UCCA’s holdings and the sale will not affect the centre, said Sotheby’s. However, UCCA has cancelled its upcoming, two-part Ai Weiwei show and has currently no other exhibitions scheduled.

There is considerable amusement over the ending of a brief lawsuit in California, a truly David-and-Goliath affair between the artist Jeff Koons and a small San Francisco store called Park Life.

In the run-up to Christmas, Park Life was marketing $55 bookends in the form of balloon dogs when it received a fierce letter from Koons’ lawyers, accusing it of infringing the artist’s copyright and demanding that Park Life cease and desist from selling the bookends. The reason? Koons has created giant, shiny “balloon dog” sculptures that sell in the millions of dollars, but the notion that he – a specialist of appropriating pop culture – could accuse anyone of copying his idea struck Park Life as absurd. The firm went to court with a complaint that started promisingly – “As any clown can attest, no one owns the idea of making a balloon dog” – before tracing the skill back to 1939 when one HJ Bonnert made a balloon model at the Pittsburgh Magicians’ Convention. Just as Park Life’s lawyer was lining up witnesses for the trial, Koons’ legal team deflated and agreed not to pursue any action. Park Life is now happily marketing its bookends and they are doing very nicely. Incidentally, Koons also has a line in fancy goods of his own: small ceramic multiples of “balloon dog” in a limited edition. They resell on the internet and at auction for between $700 and $15,000.

François Pinault, Christie’s owner, has just completed his withdrawal from a small French auction house, Piasa, which he bought in 2000. At the time Pinault was in fierce competition with luxury goods rival Bernard Arnault, with each buying auction houses: Arnault bought Phillips and Tajan, but subsequently sold them after making substantial losses on both. Pinault, who already owned Christie’s, later sold off 60 per cent of Piasa in 2008 to a group of investors including former French prime minister Laurent Fabius and financier Serge Weinberg, ex-chairman of Pinault’s PPR luxury-goods group. Last year Piasa reported sales of €45m, putting it at number four among French auction houses but far behind the top three.

A legal decision just handed down in the US concerns a much-debated “Leonardo” drawing, “La Bella Principessa”. One leading authority on Leonardo, Professor Martin Kemp, is convinced that the drawing is genuine; other scholars are less sure. It has not been included in the National Gallery’s blockbuster exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan this autumn. The drawing on vellum was sold by Christie’s in 1998 for $21,850 as a 19th-century work; the buyer, Kate Ganz, then resold it to a Canadian collector called Peter Silverman. Silverman was convinced that the drawing was a genuine Leonardo and worth some £100m. Last year the original vendor, Jeanne Marchig, took Christie’s to court in the US, claiming over $150m in damages because, she said, the firm failed to recognise the drawing as genuine and sold it “for a small fraction of its actual value.” But this month the US judge dismissed the suit as being “time-barred”, although Marchig is appealing.

What the case has not solved, as a result, is whether the drawing is indeed a $20,000, 19th-century work or an authentic, $150m Leonardo da Vinci.

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

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.