Review of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Auction

Sotheby’s contemporary art evening auction was deemed an unprecedented success last night (Tuesday 26th June, 2012), after playing host to a series of record-breaking sales, obtained from a particularly fresh crowd. Masterfully led by Tobias Meyer, the auction achieved a more than respectable sale total of £69,307,050/$108,028,899/86,675,518 including buyers premium, against the estimate of £57m-£82m/$89m–$128m/71m-103m, sans premium. This most recent auction, held in London, brings the total for Sotherby’s Worldwide Contemporary Art Auctions to a remarkable £402.7m/$638.2m/501.4m, substantiating a growth of more than 25% compared to this same time last year. These encouraging figures are echoed in the exceptional sell-through rates of last night’s auction, which hold testimony to the promising buoyancy of the current contemporary art market.

A meager 12.7% of lots failed to sell with 93.4% of sold lots selling at value.  Such outstanding sell through rates have been seen internationally this month as Christie’s contemporary art auction, held in Paris, achieved sell through rates of 81% sold by lot and 93% sold by value. Although slightly lower than last night’s rates, it was in no means considered a failure and paired together these auctions give evidence of the growing market surrounding contemporary art. Although not yet stable, the market seems to have all but fully recovered from the worrying contraction it suffered in 2008 and 2009, a remarkable feat considering the instability and recession of financial markets worldwide.

Sotheby’s evening auction also gained welcome attention from newcomers last night, as 8% of the lots were sold to buyers yet to engage with the auction house, further exemplifying the constant, renewed demand for contemporary art. The auction also supported evidence that such demand is global, with buyers from no less than 15 countries participating in the sale.

Disappointingly, I felt the first lot of the evening, a sculpture by Yves Klein, whose artist ranking has plummeted in recent years, was a fairly safe but weak offering by Sotherby’s. Many of Klein’s lots have gone unsold in recent auctions or have failed to meet even the lower end of the estimate. His turnover shrank by a colossal 91% between 2010 and 2011 and I expected more vigor and excitement from the opening lot of such a prestigious auction.   The installation, ‘Untitled’, was met with a half-hearted response. Estimated at between £250,000-£300,000 the sale was closed at £260,000, only just making the lower end of the estimate.

Interest picked up somewhat with the subsequent lot as self-confessed Yves Klein enthusiast Piero Manzoni followed. Manzoni’s richly textured ‘Achrome’ was immeasurably influenced by the conceptual work of Klein, in particular his ‘Epoca Blu’ exhibit. The piece fetched £500,000, reaching the midpoint of its estimate range, perhaps suggesting a decline in the demand for nouveau realism.

Thankfully, this spoke little for the tone of the evening overall, as these lots were closely followed by the runaway success of Jean Dubuffet’s vivacious ‘Cherubin Oiuistiti’, from his most critically acclaimed series ‘Paris Circus’, borne out of celebration for the newly dynamic cosmopolitan city. Dubuffet’s turnover increased to more than £14 million between in 2011, a growth of 88% from 2010. His success has continued into 2012 and several keen bidders fought for the painting, which had been on loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. since 1995. The hammer finally fell at the astonishing price of £850,000, more than doubling the upper estimate of £400,000. 

Prices continued to soar as the £1 million mark was broken just 4 lots in, with Alexander Calder’s dynamic sculpture installation ‘Untitled’. The piece was accompanied by an illuminating drawing, allowing the viewer an insight into Calder’s discourse and journey between planning and execution. Calder’s annual auction turnover is higher than ever before, as is his annual number of lots sold, and although his pieces rarely fetch over £125,000 (around 10%) the unusual combination of both sculpture and drawing enabled a channel of communication to be established, which bidders found highly appealing. The lot was sold for £1.3 million, almost doubling it’s lower estimate of £700,000. 

Despite a series of impressive lots, lot 23 was the star of the show last night as Glenn Brown’s epic ‘The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dali (After John Martin)’ more than doubled it’s already confident estimate of £2.2m-£2.8m. The oil on canvas attracted the attention of several international bidders leading to a tense and memorable bidding war, finally concluding at an astonishing price of £4.6 million. The figure smashed the artist’s previous auction record of £1.25m for ‘Declining Nude’ sold in 2011, also by Sotherby’s, by more than £3million. Despite this phenomenal success, Brown only briefly held the auction record.    Little over half way and the auction reached its peak in price with neo-expressionist luminary Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ‘Warrior’ drawing the attention of four determined bidders, finally selling for £5,585,250. Produced in 1982 in the midst of his most coveted period of 1981-83 the primitivist masterpiece easily met its sanguine estimate of £5-£7 million. The piece sold for almost double that of what it made last time it appeared in auction in 2007, also at Sotherby’s. Basquiat has risen over 600 points on the price index since 2007 and is currently at his all-time peak of 1013 points. Basquiat’s artistic reputation, as well as worth, is soaring and he has now been elevated above the status of ‘major contemporary artist’. Although his works are not yet matching the likes of Warhol in price, they seem to be regarded with the same revere. Perhaps this is due to the current financial crisis, Basquiat’s work is a sound investment and affordable for serious investors.

Attention was universally drawn by the work of German painter Frank Auerbach, who is currently enjoying a peak in popularity, having recovered from a dip in price index in 2010. Auerbach’s work was subject to a growth of more than 92% year. Bidders were spoilt for choice as an outstanding collection of 8 portraits were made available last night and unwavering interest was expressed. Sold separately, each portrait depicted Ruth Bromberg, but were painted over a period of 17 years, illustrating Auerbach’s gradual stylistic changes. ‘Ruth Bromberg Seated’ painted in 1992, attracted the highest bid and sold for £450,000. The octet of paintings was sold alongside an etching by Lucien Freud; ‘Bella in her Pluto T-Shirt’ sold for £48,000, comfortably making its £40,000-£50,000 estimate. His turnover of £21,279,077 in 2011 marks an astonishing growth rate of 256%. The collective were sold on behalf of The Executor of Ruth and Joseph Bromberg’s Estate. The collection of 9 pieces managed a combined total of 2,476,000 including buyers premium which were sold by way of donation to the British Friends of the Art Museums of Israel The proceeds from all 9 sales will advantage The Prints And Drawings Department of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

In addition to providing a visible portrayal of a 17-year stretch of Auerbach’s career, last night’s auction included three consecutive lots by Louise Bourgeois that expertly communicated her career as an artist.  Each lot exceeded the upper end of their estimate, although these were comparatively low considering Bourgeois’ astonishing turnover growth rate of over 240% from 2010 to 2011. With a turnover value of £12,102,591 in 2011 the estimates could certainly have been more ambitious.  The 3 pieces sold for £2 million in total, including buyer’s premium, against a surprisingly low estimate of £900,000 – £1.3 million. Bourgeois’ cast ‘Untitled (The Wedges)’ was the most successful of the trio, surpassing its estimate of £500,000 – £700,000 by £250,000 and selling for an impressive £950,000.

 As the auction came to a close the general consensus was that of renewed confidence in the contemporary art market. Although many lots exceeded all expectations and performed remarkably well, it must not be ignored that there were some disappointing results during the course of the evening. Raqib Shaw’s colourful celebration of hedonism ‘The Garden of Earthly Delight VIII’ failed to reach it’s optimistic estimate of £400,000-£600,000 and Glenn Brown unfortunately failed to match his previous success of ‘The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dali (After John Martin) with ‘ Atom Age Vampire’ – both remain unsold. Inspired by Frank Auerbach, ‘Atom Age Vampire’ also failed to mirror Auerbach’s success in the auction and could not meet its high estimate of £600,000 – £800,000.

More positively, Basquiat’s ‘Warrior’ and Brown’s ‘The Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dali (After John Martin)’ now hold the top two hammer prices for contemporary artists sold in Europe since 1st July 2011, respectively. Brown’s record-breaking oil on canvas is a prime example of the growing popularity surrounding ‘The Russian Doll Effect’ where art is inspired by art. Sotherby’s curated the auction with masterful subtlety, and allusions of ‘The Russian Doll Effect’ were often detectable.

The auction was skillfully curated with an eclectic range of contemporary art on offer. The selection also provided an accurate and stimulating representation of the diverse nature of contemporary art, supplying a refreshing blend of styles and medium spanning many sub categories of contemporary art. The auction held testimony as to why contemporary art remains popular with UK buyers and continues to attract growing attention from overseas collectors. Over the course of the evening 21 works went on to sell for over £1 million and 4 works went on to sell for over £4 million, defying the current austerity of the financial market.

All sold prices are recorded without the inclusion of buyer’s premium, and all estimates recorded with the inclusion of buyer’s premium, unless otherwise stated.

Bibliography (2011) – The World Leader in Art Market Information. [online]. Available at [Accessed: 13 Nov 2012]

Christie’ (1997) Christie’s – Fine Art Auctions and Private  Sales [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 14 Nov 2012]

Horowitz, N. 2011. Art of The Deal: Contemporary Art in A Global Financial Market. New Jersey: Princeton.

Goodwin, J. 2010. The International Art Markets. USA: Kogan Page

Sotherby’ (1996) Sotherby’s – English [online]. Available at [Accessed: 13 Nov 2012]

Stallabrass, J. 2006. Contemporary Art: A Short Introduction. UK: Oxford Press


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