The Art Market: bid to save the planet

The contemporary art auctions in New York got off to a roaring start with Christie’s 11th Hour sale on Monday, organised by film star Leonardo DiCaprio for the benefit of endangered species, particularly the tiger. Estimated at just $13m-$18m, the sale raised a rollicking $38.5m, with most of the 33 lots soaring far over their estimates.

The evening opened with a passionate speech by DiCaprio, who urged the packed saleroom to “bid as if the fate of the planet depends on it”. One person stepping up to the plate was flamboyant Stewart Rahr, billionaire founder of pharmaceutical business Kinray and a party-loving playboy who has been throwing money at philanthropic causes. Rahr bagged an Elizabeth Peyton portrait of DiCaprio – not her best work, but made for the sale – for just over $1m, and Rob Pruitt’s “6:20 pm, Late Summer” for $315,000.

Wildlife benefited handsomely, but business is business. By paying over estimate, buyers could get a special work of art, help the charity and, in some cases, claim a tax deduction. Dealers could boost their artists’ markets too: Larry Gagosian bid an incredible $6.51m for Mark Grotjahn’s “Untitled”, setting a new world record for the artist, who is in his stable. A delighted DiCaprio, who bought an as-yet-unfinished Takashi Murakami painting for $735,000, had just one thing to say at the end: “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

With such a punchy start to the week, you might have expected more pep at Sotheby’s evening sale on Tuesday. This featured three lots estimated at $30m-$40m and two at more than $20m – yet it was a curiously tense and lacklustre evening, despite totalling $293.6m and an 82.8 per cent sell-through rate.

True, Gerhard Richter’s monochrome “Domplatz, Mailand” (1968) set a new record for a living artist at $37.1m, and Barnett Newman’s “Onement VI” (1953), a sublime work being sold by Microsoft founder Paul Allen, made $43.8m.

The Newman has a chequered past. It was one of 62 works bought by Larry Gagosian and billionaire publisher and collector Peter Brant in 1990 by a Texas company they had jointly formed; 58 of the works were sold on the same day to the Swiss dealer Thomas Ammann, leaving the company without the assets to pay capital gains tax of almost $18m. The Newman was one of four “leftover” paintings, and was later sold to Paul Allen. In 2003 the US tax authorities took Gagosian and Brant to court for alleged tax evasion; a year later they paid $9.1m to settle the case. The painting had not been exhibited since 1988, so it is in pristine condition.

Dan Colen's 'TBT' (2013) at the Gagosian stand at Frieze

But none of the top works on offer beat high estimate and Bacon’s “Study for Portrait of PL” (1962) was bought in. Jeff Koons, who is all over Chelsea at the moment with shows at both Gagosian and Zwirner, fared poorly except for one work, an early and unique lightbox portrait “The New Jeff Koons” (1980), which made an eye-popping $9.4m. Peter Brant was thought to have consigned three other Koons to the sale and was present to see two of them fail to find buyers.

Dealers blamed some of the failures on high estimates: “This is a very overheated market,” said New York-based David Nisinson. “The auction houses have to give these high prices to get the consignments.” But while he sees signs of the market peaking, he pointed out that “interest rates are low, the Dow is high and there’s a lot of cash around”.

So, farewell SplitArt. This ambitious but controversial attempt to create the world’s first “stock exchange for art” ended in liquidation in the Luxembourg courts at the end of last year. The project, which at one point employed 18 people, aimed to turn art into a fungible asset by splitting it into “certificates”, which could then be traded on an exchange.

Most of the funding came from an Israeli source, and Deloitte Luxembourg, which has an active art and finance service, helped to promote it but without investing in it. The idea was that the owner of a work of art would put it into SplitArt, which would convert it into “certificates” tradable on an online multinational trading facility. But the project ran aground after a split (!) between investors about its direction. One minority investor said: “The majority wanted to build an IT platform and stock exchange to make money, but the minority saw the project as a way of creating a new transparent, liquid, efficient market.” SplitArt never obtained approval from the Luxembourg financial authorities (Commission de Surveillance du Secteur Financier), and rumour has it that a cool €5m has gone down the drain.

The second edition of New York’s Frieze Art Fair ended on Monday with the verdict that the organisers have now magnificently converted their good try. The first year saw all the infrastructure in place – the venue, the tent, the food – but many observers found the art on offer a little safe, and sales were patchy.

Taner Ceylan's 'Birth of Hope' (2013)

This year saw a big improvement in the offering, with much more varied, interesting and challenging pieces on display. “This year the fair has established its own identity and we’ve seen a barrage of really good clients,” said Matt Carey-Williams of White Cube. Smiling faces were everywhere, with dealers reporting good sales.

Paul Kasmin was deciding which of two buyers would get “Birth of Hope” (2013) by its newly represented Turkish artist Taner Ceylan; Lisson was very pleased at having sold all its Rodney Graham’s lightboxes as well as a large Anish Kapoor. The gallery’s Alex Logsdail said: “We did very well, but did notice some price resistance at the higher levels. I think Frieze is perceived as a place to find younger, edgy artists.” There being exceptions to every rule: Paul McCarthy’s giant inflatable “Balloon Dog”, which towered over the tent outside, was apparently sold in the region of $950,000 by Hauser & Wirth at the end of the fair.

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

Upcoming sales

American Art

Sotheby’s, New York

May 22

John Singer Sargent’s “Marionettes”, valued at $5m-$7m, leads Sotheby’s auction of 19th- and 20th-century American art. Painted in 1903 at the height of Sargent’s fame, it depicts a group of Italian-Americans performing Sicilian puppet theatre. So attached was the artist to the picture that it was kept in his private collection until his death in 1925.

British & Irish Art

Sotheby’s, London

May 23

Two delicately crafted Burne-Jones illustrations open the auction at this sale of British and Irish art from the 19th and 20th centuries. Neither is expected to fetch more than a few thousand pounds, though the second, a study for the head of Medusa, was an important building block in the artist’s creation of his memorable “Perseus” series. Another Pre-Raphaelite article on sale is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Io Sono in Pace” (1875). A chalk drawing of two red-headed maidens, Sotheby’s hopes it will fetch £300,000.

Modern Art

Shinwa Art, Tokyo

May 25

Now in its 18th year of selling, Shinwa remains the largest auction house in Japan. Its particular strength is in modern Japanese paintings and ceramics, though this year works by Chagall, Miró and Picasso are also present.

Asian 20th-century and Contemporary Art

Christie’s, Hong Kong

May 25-26

Despite competition from China Guardian – the leading Chinese auctioneer raised Rmb2.57bn (£217m) from its spring sales – international goliaths Christie’s and Sotheby’s continue to perform well in the east. Christie’s achieved HK$2.6bn (£220m) in its autumn week and looks set to do just as well this spring. One lot of particular interest is Zao Wou-Ki’s “Water Music” (1956-57), a moody oil work redolent of both Rothko and Klee. Christie’s estimates that the painting may fetch as much as HK$18m.

Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art

Bonhams, Hong Kong

May 26

The price of Chinese ceramics continues to soar. In Sotheby’s April sale, a small lotus-patterned bowl from the 17th-century Kangxi period realised HK$74m (£6.3m) following a furious Hong Kong bidding war. There is no item so hotly touted at Bonhams’ Hong Kong sale, though a handsome 16th-century wucai jar (lot 281) is expected to fetch up to HK$16m. Enamelled with a scene of frolicking carp, Jiajing jars of its type are among the most prized Ming porcelains.

Modern and Contemporary Asian Art

Ravenel Art, Taipei

June 2

The most lucrative pieces on offer at this auction in Taiwan are a set of arrestingly colourful pictures by Chinese-American artist Walasse Ting, who died in 2010. “Love me, Love me”, the most valuable of the set, here valued at up to T$1.7m (£37,000), showcases all the features for which Ting’s work is most admired: strong lines, flecked paint, and a gutsy colour palette.

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