The sales of contemporary art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in London this week continued their gravity-defying upwards trajectory, both topping their high estimates and handing in high sell-through rates. Christie’s on Tuesday had the stronger catalogue and boasted the star lot of the week: Francis Bacon’s lilac-hued “Portrait of Henrietta Moraes” (1963), with an unpublished estimate of £15m-£20m. It made a chunky £21.3m (estimates don’t include premium; final prices do), the top price in the sale and in the fortnight. A gorgeous green and blue abstract by Gerhard Richter swept to £9.9m (est £5m-£7m) and almost £5m was given for Christopher Wool’s “Untitled” 1990 work reading “Fool”, a new price high for the artist. With a total of £80.6m, the sale nudged the top end of its presale target of £84m and was 89 per cent sold by lot. Only one other Christie’s contemporary art auction in London has done better, and that was in June 2008 – before the world’s economic meltdown.
The boom-time feeling washed over into Sotheby’s evening sale on Wednesday, which turned in a punchy £50.7m, more than pre-sale estimations and with all but six of the 63 lots finding buyers. Again the buzz of the evening was Richter. The top lot, a grey and white abstract, fetched £4.9m, topping the £4m made by a more obviously commercial red abstract. The six Richters on offer totalled £17.6m, well above their upper estimate of £14.18m.
The Chinese artist Zao Wou-Ki, who is immensely popular in China, also scored strongly. A blue and white abstract sailed to £1.8m, well above expectations of just £500,000-£700,000. And someone (presumably Charles Saatchi) was finally able to offload Zhang Huan’s giant sculpture “Ash Head 1” (2007), which was shown in the Saatchi Gallery in 2008-09 but then failed to sell in Hong Kong in October 2009. It sold for £228,304, on its upper estimate of £150,000-£200,000.
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The feel-good factor was absent, however, from Bonhams’ second contemporary art sale in London, held on Monday. It was dire, with just nine of the 20 lots on offer finding buyers. The total of slightly more than £1m was still well short of the lower £1.8m pre-sale target. But despite being pitted against three other auction houses in this super-competitive field, Bonhams says it is planning contemporary art sales in New York in May and London in June. And the firm has bagged a sale of works from a Portuguese collection that it is auctioning in Hong Kong in May during the Hong Kong art fair. The sale, estimated at €3.6m-€5.6m, includes abstracts by Chu Teh-Chun and Zao Wou-Ki as well as 12 works of art, Imperial porcelains and cloisonné pieces.
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The online art market is becoming like a crowded boxing ring. Hardly a day goes by without a new contender, and now two sites have been bolstered with cash injections: Paddle8, which organises guest-curated exhibitions online, and Artspace, which sells limited edition works from museums and galleries. Paddle8 has been successfully co-operating with art fairs such as NADA, allowing visitors sneak previews of the offerings online; now it has got $4m from private investment firm Mousse Partners. The site will be working with The Armory Show – the first time the fair has an online partnership – meaning that visitors can browse and buy for a week before the fair opens on March 8. I asked Paddle8 founder Alexander Gilkes whether this would kill the fair itself in the long run. “No, we’re complementary, not a substitute,” he said. “People can look at what’s available, make offers, put on reserves and then go to the fair itself.”
Limbering up in another corner is Artspace, which has just got $2.5m in funding and is also working with a number of art fairs including the AIPAD Photography Show and Expo Chicago. It is adding to its content with the hire of an editorial director and has upped the value of works on its site: the most expensive is a Jenny Holzer bench at $125,000. Still awaited is Art.sy, which has hefty backers, including Roman Abramovich’s partner Dasha Zhukova, but as yet has failed to give a launch date.
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RIP Art Chicago. The owners have pulled the plug on an event that was once the most important art fair in the US, but which had been struggling for years. But hello Expo Chicago, a new modern and contemporary art fair in the Navy Piers that runs from September 20-23. It will have 100 dealers, including such big-name galleries as David Zwirner and Richard Gray.
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The French couple Florence and Daniel Guerlain (from the perfumery company) are familiar figures at art fairs and galleries, where they hunt out all sorts of works on paper: their foundation awards a €20,000 drawing prize every year. Now they have donated the bulk of their collection – about 1,000 items – to the Centre Pompidou. “We didn’t want to wait until we were in boxes to make this donation,” says Daniel Guerlain. Does this mean that they have stopped buying? Not at all, says Guerlain: “Now that the drawings have gone, we have lots of wall space.” Does he have a budget? “Every year we say we must be reasonable, and every year we aren’t,” he says. “Collecting is a sort of gourmandise.” He is also, as it happens, an excellent chef.
Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper