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Gerhard Richter’s ‘Abstraktes Bild 776-1’ (1992)

After the remarkable totals achieved in last week’s impressionist and modern art sales in London, contemporary art week was awaited with considerable optimism, and the results did not disappoint. The four evening sales between Monday and Thursday featured a mixture of rising stars, such as Lucien Smith and Oscar Murillo, and “safe-bet”, grandly established names, most of them now dead: Warhol, Bacon, Basquiat, Freud, Fontana. The young artists mostly did extraordinarily well, vaulting effortlessly over estimate, while many of the “blue-chip” names stayed closer to expectations.

Phillips kicked off on Monday with a modest £10.9m sale led by a small green-and-blue Gerhard Richter “Abstraktes Bild 776-1” (1992), which was hammered down to the firm’s Russian-based director Svetlana Marich for just over £1.9m. Among the few high moments in an otherwise tame evening was the £194,500 given for Lucien Smith’s “rain painting”, “Feet in the Water” (2012), made by spraying paint from a fire extinguisher. Its pre-sale estimate, before fees, was £40,000-£60,000. At his first solo show in 2012, Smith’s work was priced from just $3,000, according to Bloomberg.

Arte Povera is something of a niche in the market for Italian art but the works using “poor” materials, dating from the 1960s, found an enthusiastic audience at Christie’s on Tuesday night. The sale was preceded by a well-curated exhibition in the firm’s selling space, “Christie’s Mayfair”, and accompanied by a solid catalogue. The 109 items on offer were amassed by an Italian collecting couple, Nerio and Marina Fossati. The sale achieved a punchy £38.4m, on the nose of its high estimate and with just 23 lots bought in. Very active in the room was Italian film-maker Pietro Valsecchi, who picked up four works, including Boetti’s checkerboard-like embroidery “Addition” (1974), which made £1.7m, well over the estimate of £300,000-£400,000. Having successfully disposed of the group, the Fossatis are apparently going to collect younger artists – and have a tidy sum with which to do so.

On Wednesday night Sotheby’s racked up almost £88m and achieved a new high for Cy Twombly, when his grey-hued “Untitled (Rome)” from 1964, which had been in a private collection for 40 years, made almost £12.2m. However, a huge red Richter, rather smoother in execution than many of his abstracts, struggled to achieve expectations of up to £20m and made £17.4m. Another of the currently hot speculative young artists, Oscar Murillo, saw one of his dirt-and-concrete dye canvases double its top estimate at £178,305. After the sale, specialist Alex Rotter underlined the interest in “painterly paintings”, noting that “conceptual works were less in demand”.

Christie’s ended London’s high-octane run on Thursday night with the strongest result of the week. In just over two hours it racked up £124.2m for 40 lots, with just eight works failing to find buyers. Leading the sale was Francis Bacon’s “Portrait of George Dyer Talking” (1966), estimated “on request” at £30m and which made £42.2m. Seven bidders wanted the six-foot-high painting of Bacon’s lover, but the battle soon settled to a long stand-off between Viscount Linley, Christie’s UK chairman, and the firm’s senior honcho Brett Gorvy, both bidding for telephone buyers. The price was the highest ever paid for a single-panel work by the artist.

Last November in New York, Christie’s set the record for any work of art at auction, when Bacon’s three-part “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” (1969) made $142m (£89.3m). That work was subsequently revealed to have been bought by gambling mogul Elaine Wynn, ex-wife of Wynn Resorts’ Steve Wynn. According to Christie’s, the winner of the London work was from the US, and loves Bacon’s work as well as poker, seemingly indicating that the portrait could be taking the same route to Las Vegas.

Asian bidding was strong throughout the evening, with two Chinese-speaking staffers active on works as varied as Rebecca Warren, Pierre Soulages, Gnoli, Tracey Emin and Gordon Matta-Clark. The sale also marked record highs for British artists such as Bridget Riley (£2.9m) and YBAs Gary Hume (£410,000) and Jenny Saville (£2.09m).

Last year was the best ever for sales of fine art, according to online data site Artprice, which tracks auction results. Globally, sales of art at auction hit $12.05bn in 2013, representing growth of 13 per cent over 2012; Artprice’s list has China in the top slot, with $4.078bn in auction sales. However, recent articles have cast doubt on the reliability of figures from that country’s auction market.

The overall size of the art market is much larger, as about half of the sales of art in the world go through dealers (and so cannot be tracked); in addition, Artprice’s figures do not include antiques. According to art economist Clare McAndrew, the total volume, including estimated dealer sales, was just under $60bn in 2012; next month she will publish figures for 2013.

Yet another chapter in the long-running saga of Modigliani specialist Christian Parisot was written in the Roman law courts this month. The estate of Modigliani is one of the most hotly contested in the world, and also among the juiciest, with multimillion-dollar prices paid for his best works.

Parisot had a long association with the estate, having worked with the artist’s now deceased daughter Jeanne and granddaughter Laure Nechtschein-Modigliani, who owns the “moral rights” over his work. Together they wrote a number of catalogues raisonnés. However, more recently, Nechtschein went to court in an attempt to wrest back control of some 6,000 archival documents and three authentication stamps, which had been given to Parisot by Jeanne in 1982. She lost that case, along with an attempt to be “civil party” in the criminal case that has just come before the court in Rome; this attempt was also turned down by the judge. This criminal case centres on allegations that Parisot knowingly authenticated fakes as being works of Modigliani. Parisot denies the charges.

The next hearing is in June and, whatever the outcome, it is unlikely to change the situation with the market for Modigliani: leading auction houses will only accept for sale works in the three catalogues raisonnés by Ambrogio Ceroni, and the presence of numerous fakes in circulation only reinforces their decision.

A new art and antiques fair is planned for this year in Beijing, to be run by Fine Art Asia (FAA), which has been successfully organising fairs in Hong Kong since 2005. The new project comes after a joint Tefaf/Sotheby’s venture was abandoned due to cold feet among potential exhibitors. However, Calvin Hui, co-director of FAA, in London to drum up support for the new event, points out their advantages, saying: “We are the national team.” Still in the early stages of preparation, the fair would be held in the Beijing National Convention Centre in May. “In China a fair can be organised at much shorter notice than one could in the west,” says Floris van der Ven of Vanderven Oriental Art, a regular exhibitor at Tefaf and FAA. “Beijing is pushing actively for a major fair in the capital. And Andy Hei [founder of FAA] straddles the two cultures, east and west. I think it is a very interesting proposition.”

Banksy’s ‘Happy Shopper’ (2009)

Are you an art market researcher – a senior one – an analyst or even an expert? These are the “levels” you can achieve by playing the new online forecaster game at ArtTactic.com. It’s simple – you just forecast prices in the coming art auctions. Get them right, and you get points, and so move up the levels. A confession – I tried it out on the Phillips sale on Monday night and got an abysmal rating, mainly due to my predicting Banksy’s 2009 “Happy Shopper” wouldn’t sell – whereas it made £506,000, over the estimate of £200,000-£300,000.


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

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