One day in January, a few weeks before the Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Christie’s in London, a handful of the auction house’s resident specialists gathered in a storage area at the back of the company’s headquarters in St James’s for a ritual known as “hilling”. The Evening Sales, in London and New York, are the biggest event in the calendar for both Christie’s and its archrival Sotheby’s, the Oscars of art, where the works of marquee artists such as Warhol, Picasso, Richter and Bacon are put on display.
Here, though, the prizes are not statuettes but bank transfers in pounds and dollars, euros and roubles – the astronomical figures that power the global arts and antiques market reckoned to be worth some £40bn a year.
The ritual of “hilling” – so called because the floor of the storage area is set on a slight incline – dates to the late 18th century when the company moved to its present premises from the Pall Mall atelier, where the company’s founder James Christie would greet the penurious artists and impecunious aristocrats wishing to put their works up for auction, cast an appraising eye and set a price.
Here, the house’s specialists gather around the works for a forthcoming sale and submit them to a final examination before they are priced and catalogued for sale.
Over the past few weeks, the 65 or so works, or “consignments”, that will be auctioned in the Evening Sale have been arriving from all over the world, sturdily packed and crated, and stored in racks extending from floor to ceiling in the cramped space. Some works – certainly the most prestigious ones – will be familiar to the specialists.
They will already have been examined in the seller’s home, as part of the protracted negotiation which has brought the consignment to Christie’s. They may even have been auctioned by Christie’s before. Others may have been seen only in photographs.
Now the specialists, and a conservator employed by the company will examine the paintings under a UV light, check the measurements and pool their expert knowledge on its condition, provenance and history. (The back of the frame can provide useful intelligence; a fading dealer’s sticker, a label for an auctioneer or a show where the work has been exhibited, is like DNA in building up a picture of the work’s history.) All of this points to one, central question: what estimate should be put on the work?
A handful of works have been taken out of their wooden casings and leaned in a disconcertingly casual manner against cabinets and walls. Katharine Arnold, the head of Evening Sale for Post-War and Contemporary Art, is giving me a tour. Arnold studied at Oxford and the London School of Ecomics, and worked at Merrill Lynch in equity sales before studying art at the Courtauld Institute and joining Christie’s.
As befits an organisation where aesthetics and money elide, everybody who works at Christie’s seems to be beautiful, or stylish, or extremely clever, and often all three.
Here is a Cy Twombly painting, “Untitled (New York City)”, one of the artist’s “blackboard series”, painted in 1970, a series of loops and gestures in what looks like chalk (in fact oil stick on oil paint) across a blackboard. In 2008, in the catalogue accompanying a retrospective of his work at Tate Modern, the museum’s then director Nicholas Serota described Twombly’s art as “elusive and, for many people, even enthusiasts of contemporary art, unfathomable”.
Katherine Arnold, Head of Evening Sale for Post-War and Contemporary Art, with a work from Cy Twombly
Now he’s one of the hottest artists on the contemporary market. Last year, a similar work from the same series, but 20cm larger, sold at Christie’s in New York for £40.5m, far exceeding its estimate of £22m.
The next highest price for a blackboard painting was the work now resting on the wall in the storage room, which achieved £11m three years ago. “A lot of new people entering the market are wanting to buy them, because they are so elegant, so easy to live with,” Arnold says. “And I think very refined.”
Evaluating Twombly’s reputation, his market standing and the quality of the painting – “its desirability” – Arnold and the other specialists have settled on an estimate of around £16m.
Over there is a Gerhard Richter, “Vierwaldstätter See” (Lake Lucerne), one of the artist’s “photo-realist” paintings, from 1969, and one of four Richters in the sale. “It’s a view of the lake looking towards Mount Rigi,” Arnold says. “Artists have looked at this view for a long time. Turner painted it, so did Ruskin.” She pauses. “Isn’t it sublime?”
Like Twombly, Richter is an artist who painted for years without gaining international status. It was not until recently, when there were retrospectives of his work at the Tate Modern (2011) and the Pompidou in Paris (2012) – the equivalent of a shot of adrenaline into the heart of an artist’s reputation – that his prices soared.
In the same year, Christie’s auctioned one of Richter’s Candle paintings, which he’d been unable to sell when he first exhibited them in 1982. The previous record for a Richter was £8m. Christie’s estimated the Candle painting at £6.5–8.5m. It made £10.5m. It would now be worth in the region of £26m. “Vierwaldsttatter See” is being sold by an individual who bought it from the artist in 1973. Estimate? In the region of £10m.
So what else do we have? That’s a Domenico Gnoli, “Inside of Lady’s Shoe” (1969). Not to everybody’s taste, perhaps, but with an estimate of £1.5–£2m. But who could resist the Francis Bacon painting of Pope Pius XII? Estimate around £9m. Throw in the Lucio Fontana “spatial concept” work on the shelf there, and the Howard Hodgkin painting, “In The Green Room” leaning on the back wall and I reckon I’m within touching distance of some of the most desirable contemporary artwork in the world, with an estimated value of £30m.
In fact, as the Evening Sale will demonstrate, it’s worth much, much more.
The Christie’s reception carries the hushed, yet palpable, aroma of wealth. Uniformed and white-gloved doormen, marble flooring, the grand staircase leading to the salesrooms. On a wall, a screen projects details of upcoming auctions, and properties offered for sale by its real-estate department: a manor in Greenwich, Connecticut (£9.1m); a New York penthouse (£26m); a Palm Beach estate (£40m). A Hermès handbag stands in a glass display case like a prized exhibit in a museum.
Anybody can walk inside and up the stairs to look at the art coming up for auction; it’s a free show that few people seem to take advantage of – and the chances are you will never get the opportunity to see the work again after it vanishes once more back into private hands. There’s a different kind of frisson from walking around the National or the Tate, where you know that nothing is for sale, as if your perspective is somehow sharpened by a sense of possibility, even longing. If I sold the car, the flat, the house, several houses, this could be mine.
From its founding in 1766 through to World War II, Christie’s built its reputation, and its fortune, largely on sales of the work by great artists of the day (Gainsborough, Sargent, Rossetti) and the dispensation of goods and treasures from Britain’s country houses.
Auctioneering was a gentleman’s profession, deals struck and consignments arranged at country house shooting weekends and lunch in St James’s clubs, their provenance largely dependent on what became known as “the three D’s”‚ death, divorce and debt. As the 19th-century art dealer William Buchanan laconically put it: “In troubled waters we catch the most fish.”
“It has its character this famous London saleroom where nothing has changed for more than 100 years,” wrote French art dealer René Gimpel in 1919. “It’s wonderful… Christie’s in England, in the country of comfort and cleanliness, has the audacity to offer sheer discomfort and a parquet floor thick with dust. Pictures worth a few pounds alternate with £100,000 works and are sold along with them, everything ‘just as it comes’ on the walls. Three, four rows, the pictures one above the other, the finest sometimes just perched below the roof.”
Christie’s came to embody the old guard of the auction houses, the Establishment (although Sotheby’s is actually older by 22 years), “an institution somewhere between an executive gentleman’s club and a museum”, as author Philip Hook said. But in the post-war period, Sotheby’s dominated the market, largely through the influence of its chairman, the legendary Peter Wilson. He introduced the idea of the “country house sale”, where rather than being sold off piecemeal, the contents of a stately home would be grandly auctioned in a marquee in the grounds, firmly cementing the notion of aristocratic provenance.
But his greatest coup was the introduction of the Evening Auction, highly orchestrated occasions that brought flair and showmanship to the sale, transforming it into a high-profile media event.
But if Wilson was the architect of the modern auction business, Christie’s has secured the high ground in recent years by aggressively developing the global market, reaching out to new millionaires and billionaires in Asia and the Middle East, establishing outposts in Shanghai, Mumbai and Dubai, and by commanding what is now the most lucrative corner of the market – post-war and contemporary art.
Christie’s has more than 80 different departments in its two London salesrooms, in St James’s and South Kensington, auctioning everything from African and Oceanic art to topographical pictures, gold boxes and objects of vertu to sporting art and guns. In 2014, it clocked up £5.1bn in sales, up 12 per cent on 2013, and the fifth consecutive year Christie’s has beaten the annual art-sales record.
But by far the largest proportion of the company’s revenue is generated by sales of post-war and contemporary art, which, in 2014, rose 33 per cent to £1.7bn. The rising interest and value in contemporary art is one of the cultural phenomena of the last 20 years. We can see it in Britain, with the heat and light generated by the YBAs in the Eighties and Nineties, and the opening of Tate Modern in 2000, the world’s most popular modern art museum, with around 4.8m visitors a year.
This interest is now truly global: prices in the art market driven ever higher by the emergence of newly minted wealth in China, Russia, Asia and the Middle East.
A sale of post-war and contemporary art at Christies’s in New York in November last year, set a new record for a single auction of £534m ($853m). The artists on sale that evening were a who’s who of marquee names in contemporary art: Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons.
Equally telling, there were buyers from 43 countries bidding across the 82 lots. As much as they are works of art, the paintings and sculptures by these artists are units of currency – a class of assets like commodities, equities and property – to be traded, bartered, used as collateral on loans, hidden not only from public view, but often from private view, stored in climate-controlled warehouses while they accrue value until the time is right to sell them.
Much of the extensive collection of Jose Mugrabi, an Israeli textile importer, and his sons Alberto and David, including works by Renoir, Picasso, Hirst and Koons, as well as the largest collection of Warhols (believed to be some 800) is reportedly stored in two warehouses, one in Newark, New Jersey and the other in a duty-free zone in Zurich.
As Dirk Boll, Christie’s managing director of Continental Europe points out, high prices, are nothing new in the art market. In the 19th century, when French ébénisterie (cabinet making) was the collecting field with the highest values, a Riesener commode would fetch the equivalent of several million today. The fashion for ébénisterie, gave way to one for Old Masters, then 19th century and Impressionist pictures – once they had become historic. What is new is what Boll describes as “the canonisation” process of young artists and their work.
“For the first time, these prices are being paid for unproven work, so to speak. Young art nowadays is in museums, not after 20 years but after two years. The whole system – the market, institutions, art critics – is much more focussed on contemporary art and this has moved the process to a higher speed.” So it is that a work by Jeff Koons, “Balloon Dog (Orange)” was able to acheive $58.4m when it was auctioned at Christie’s New York in 2013, becoming the most expensive work by a living artist sold at auction.
This is partly a consequence of availability. The best Old Masters or Impressionist paintings are, by definition, limited in number, often sequestered in museum collections and seldom come on the market. Living artists continue to produce art. But it is also due to the growth of the global market, and a growing universality in cultural taste. Collectors from the Middle East, for example, are unlikely to want to hang a Holbein Madonna on their wall.
A Chinese collector is less likely to buy an oil painting, because the tradition in that culture is works on paper. A Rothko, a Warhol – a Jeff Koons “Balloon Dog” – is a lingua franca which every nationality, particularly the extremely wealthy of every nationality, can read and understand. As Boll puts it, “Not only is it read in its artistic quality, but in its lifestyle quality. Everyone sees it and understands ‘it is art’. It is by a globally famous artist, and it is expensive.”
It is a principle in the art world – advocated by no-one more fiercely than the auction houses – that an auction is the fairest way to buy an art work. How, it is often asked, particularly in the contemporary art world, can this painting, or sculpture – or bed, or shark – be worth so much money? The simple answer is because somebody is prepared to pay so much money for it. In a private sale, a dealer will charge what he thinks he can get from a buyer. It is the public auction that is held to be the true arbiter of a work’s value.
This is how it works. The seller stipulates the reserve, the minimum price at which the work can be sold, and the auction house will suggest an estimate, say £150,000–£200,000, a guideline for what they calculate it’s worth. This is always lower, of course, than what they hope it will sell for. The reserve cannot be higher than the low estimate. It is at the auctioneer’s discretion where he (or she) starts the bidding. For example, the reserve on an item might be £100,000.
The auctioneer starts the bidding at £70,000. Somebody bids £80,000. If nobody else enters the bidding, the auctioneer may invent a non-existent bid – “£90,000 at the back of the room against you, sir” – in order to drum up interest and encourage the potential buyer to raise his bid at least to the reserve, or “help the bidder to buy the painting”, as one auctioneer put it to me. This “chandelier bidding”, as it is called, is perfectly legal up to a figure below the level of the low estimate, but not on or beyond it.
In addition to the “hammer price”, the buyer pays a premium to the auction house; at Christie’s it’s 25 per cent of the successful bid up to and including £50,000; 20 per cent above £50,000, and 12 per cent in excess of £1m. The seller also pays a consignor fee. As the competition to consign higher-priced works becomes ever more cut-throat, however, “big ticket” sellers are increasingly insisting they should bypass a consignor fee and receive not only the sale price of the item, but also net a negotiated percentage of the buyer’s premium, too.
When “Balloon Dog (Orange)” was sold in New York, for example, the owner of the work, newsprint magnate Peter M Brant, violated the unspoken rule of silence that usually governs such transactions, by publicly announcing that to secure the work Christie’s had waived the seller’s commission and given him what was described as “a large share” of the buyer’s fees. These kind of deals may considerably reduce the auction house’s margins, but, or so the logic goes, important works by marquee names provide invaluable publicity and attract buyers and sellers of lesser pieces.
Until comparatively recently, the way of doing business was largely based on chance. A collector would decide to sell a work, they would turn up at Christie’s to have it appraised and valued and it would be duly auctioned. At the lower end of the market this is still the case.
But the random collection of work – everything “just as it comes on the walls” as Rene Gimbel put it – is a thing of the distant past. Today, auctions are “curated” as carefully as any museum exhibition, based on the fluctuating fashions of the market, with the requisite mixture of artists-of-the-moment, solid established names and rising stars.
So it is that the consignments for the Evening Sale include Richter, Bacon, Twombly and Warhol, but also Tracey Emin, Anish Kapoor and Thomas Schütte.
“You want to create a sense of the last 60 years and have something from every decade of the post-war period,” says Francis Outred, Christie’s international head of post-war and contemporary art.
“At the same time, it’s a matter of understanding what the market wants and what the top buyers want, and proactively going after a particular type of material to create these contexts. We are a platform. We offer access to the global audience of collecting. We can follow taste, and attempt to arouse taste, but we can’t dictate it.”
In the rivalry between Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the competition to land the big-money consignments is fierce, and depends on building up a store of intelligence on art works and collectors around the world, and cultivating relationships with putative sellers and buyers. Christie’s has a client strategy and business intelligence team numbering 75 people headed by Ben Clark, an affable, expensively-tailored Englishman (everybody at Christie’s is expensively-tailored), who joined in 2000 after working at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Clark’s first job for the firm was valuation specialist, a role that partly entailed travelling around Britain, visiting country houses and pricing the hunting pictures, seascapes and family portraits on their walls. “It was wonderful, to see the art and to see how people live with the art. Some clients would always insist that you’d have to drink a bottle of port before you went to bed, which was a bit tricky, and then play backgammon with them, which was never a good idea...”
When he started, he says, an old hand gave him a useful piece of advice: always park your car facing away from the house. Clark pondered on this: was it a matter of aesthetics? In case of the need to make a quick getaway? Not a bit of it, the old hand explained.
“When at the end of the stay you get in the car, as you and the client are bidding each other goodbye and you slip into reverse, you run the risk of running over his dog.” In those days, landing consignments was largely a matter, as Clark puts it, of “spinning a spider’s web”. Now he says, rather than spinning a web,“we are like a fisherman; we have to create our own fly and tailor it so you can catch the fish.”
Gone are the days when an auction house rubbed its hands, however discreetly, at news of any one of the three Ds – death, debt and divorce – a phrase at which Clark visibly stiffens in disapproval. “It’s not in our lexicon anymore. The three Ds are simply a trigger for reactivity, which is not the way we do business. If we haven’t already been in those conversations with our clients, we’re not doing our job.”
Rather the objective is to build a relationship, sometimes over many years, to become what Clark describes as “a trusted partner” with the collector, be they selling, or buying. This, he says, is “not simply a one-on-one relationship”, but a team endeavour. “If we look at the collectors who buy very high-value works of art – £5m plus – they categorically, and the data and intelligence proves it, buy across five or six different disciplines, be it art, furniture, jewellery. For me, the definition of a collector is not someone focussing on just one area of interest. It’s never that.”
Securing consignments then – rather like fishing – is a matter of patience. Positioning yourself so that when a collector decides to sell it is to you that he turns; advising him, or her, that given market conditions now might be just the right time to divest themselves of that Yves Klein, that Murillo, that Basquiat. Central to the process, of course, is the pitch, when a team of specialists will meet with the client to discuss exactly how the work would be marketed and sold. The pitch to the owner of Koons’s “Balloon Dog” included a hefty hardback book, in a presentation box, discussing the modern masterpiece market and giving an academic appraisal of Koons and his oeuvre, as well as Christie’s history with the artist, along with a dummy catalogue for the sale, featuring the work on its cover. “It’s a conversation piece,” Clark says. “Making our vision concrete for the client.”
The assumption is, of course, that Sotheby’s are doing exactly the same thing. When, in 2004, Japanese electronics manufacturer Maspro Denkoh decided to sell its corporate collection of Impressionist paintings, including works by Cezanne and Van Gogh, both Christie’s and Sotheby’s submitted proposals for the consignment.
Unable to decide between them, the company’s president Takashi Hashiyama, asked the arch rivals to decide between themselves. Not surprisingly, they declined. To settle the matter, Mr Hashiyama proposed a game of “rock, paper and scissors” to be played in Maspro’s Tokyo office. The representative from Sotheby’s chose paper. The representative from Christie’s chose scissors – a decision that netted the company around $1.9m in commision when, in May 2005, the collection was sold for $17.8m.
Of the paintings in the February Evening Sale, Francis Outred estimates that half came unsolicited and half as a result of a long-term ongoing dialogue between the auction house and the owner. Much of Outred’s time is spent flying around the world meeting collectors. “What I love about this business is the hunt. I love trying to find great material to bring to auction and to market it in a way to maximise the price.”
Christie's expert Francis Outred checks the lighting on "Vierwaldstätter See" by Gerhard Richter
The son of an antiques dealer, who learned the trade by working at weekends in his father’s shop, Outred is, as he puts it, “a bit of a geek” about Francis Bacon, a passion that began at the age of 15 when he was given the catalogue for a retrospective of the painter’s work in Washington. As a trainee at Sotheby’s, where he worked until joining Christie’s in 2009, Outred began to build his own dossier on Bacon, plotting the whereabouts and movement of his work around the world — “if you showed me a painting I’d probably know where it is” — and cultivating relationships with as many owners of Bacon’s work as possible.
Perhaps Outred’s greatest coup was his part in securing the consignment of Bacon’s triptych, “Three Studies of Lucien Freud”, which sold at Christie’s Post-war and Contemporary Evening Sale in New York in November 2013. The work was painted in 1969, and originally exhibited at Galleria Galatea in Turin, but did not find a buyer for the complete triptych. Instead, it was divided, with one panel going to an Italian hotelier, and the other two to a French collector.
Some time later, a collector, Mr A, then bought the hotel, in order to acquire the Bacon painting, and set about pursuing the remaining two panels. In the late Seventies, Mr A acquired one, through a dealer, from the French collector, who was in need of funds.
In the early Eighties, once more in need of funds, the Frenchman offered the painting to Mr A, but at an exorbitant price. Mr A declined. Instead, the remaining panel was sold through an intermediary to a Japanese collector. Ten years later, the Japanese, now in need of funds himself, sold the work, through the same intermediary, to Mr A, at an “affordable” (these things are relative...) price, bringing together the three paintings for the first time in more than 20 years.
Outred had first earmarked the painting 12 years ago, and started working towards positioning Christie’s for the consignment should Mr A ever wish to sell, but it was not until five years ago that he saw the three panels together for the first time. “I’d seen it reproduced in books over the years, fantasising...” he says. “When I actually saw it, I literally had shivers down my back.”
After what Outred describes as “a very long, complex process” of negotiation involving the owner, members of his family and numerous intermediaries, Christie’s eventually secured the consignment. As part of their marketing strategy, the firm prepared what is known in the trade as a vanity catalogue, a lavishly illustrated book containing essays about the work that was circulated to some 500 prominent collectors around the world. An estimate of $85m (£55.1m) was put on the painting when it came to auction in New York in November 2013.
“The first thing that happened in the room was a 26-year-old Asian put his hand up,” Outred remembers. “Neither I nor any of the team had any idea who he was. He bid $85m. Then suddenly there was a rally of phone bidders, and this guy stopped. And at $125m [£81m] he suddenly came back in. I was thinking, my God, who is he?”
It transpired he was a book dealer, who had fallen in love with the painting after seeing a copy of the vanity catalogue. In the end, he was outbid. “Three Studies of Lucien Freud” was sold for $142.4m (£92.1m), the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction.
So where will it end? How long can we expect to see the prices of contemporary art soaring and, presumably Christie’s profits soaring with them? Francis Outred is confident the bubble is not about to burst, or at least not yet.
He talks of the “gigantic global thirst” for modern art which shows no sign of abating. The buyers from 43 different countries at the Evening Sale in New York in 2014 were bidding on lots with an average value of $10m (£6.5m) plus. “If you think that in each of those countries there’s just one individual buying at that level, then probably 10 of his friends and colleagues are being inspired – so suddenly you’ve 43 times 10, which is a good growing population of bidders. The population of billionaires in the world has doubled in the last five years. And if the wealth is growing in individuals, their disposable income is also growing.”
Dirk Boll too evinces confidence: “The high prices in the market not only talk about appreciation of art, or investment into art; art has become part of general social and economic development, not only price-wise but in the sense of assets and buying and selling. Very often, it’s not collecting in the traditional sense; it’s getting it and then letting it go. That’s a different attitude.”
Whether people buy art for aesthetic reasons to hang on their wall, he suggests, or simply as an investment, to be stored until the time is right to sell is neither here nor there. “To be frank, to the public it doesn’t make the slightest difference whether the owners of a painting have it above their mantlepiece, or keep it in storage,” he says. “It might even be better for the works of art to be stored in a safe environment with low temperatures, no sunlight etc, rather than having it in a Fifth Ave apartment.
“Since I believe in art and am the owner of art, I would say that every investor who buys a work of art rather than a sports car or a boat not only helps the art market and the artist, but maybe the artwork does something to these people and they discover that although they bought it as an asset it actually adds more to their life than another asset could do.” He laughs. “Therefore, I welcome every single investor on the market.”
The author Bruce Chatwin, who as a young man worked in the Antiquities and Impressionist Art departments at Sotheby’s, once cynically likened the faces of bidders at an auction to “old men in nightclubs deciding whether they can really afford to pay that much for a whore.” In fact, the atmosphere is more like a cross between a theatre and a stock exchange, peopled with well-heeled men and sleek women keenly looking on as prices and reputations rise or fall. Only a small proportion, it quickly becomes apparent, have come to buy. An Evening Sale is one of the best free shows in town.
The auctioneer, Christie’s global president Jussi Pylkkänen, stands on a rostrum at the end of the room, the prize items – the Bacon, the Richter lake, the Twombly blackboard – displayed on the walls around him. To either side, some 40 Christie’s staffers are packed behind wooden counters, phones in hand to monitor telephone bids. An image of each lot is projected on a large screen behind him, the rising bids shown in pounds, dollars, Euros, Swiss francs and roubles.
Pylkkänen cuts a surprisingly jaunty, even playful figure, his smiling face sweeping the room like a searchlight, as the paddles held by prospective buyers rise and fall with a barely perceptible twitch. “Are you in, madam? No? Are you sure?” His tone suggests, don’t worry, what’s a few hundred thousand to someone as clearly discerning – and as clearly rich – as you. “It could be your lucky evening, sir!”
Possibly two-thirds of the bids seem to be coming from telephone bidders. When an Andy Warhol self-portrait comes up, a middle-aged woman dressed all in black, sitting in the well of the room, whispers into a telephone as the bids rise towards its high estimate of £3.5m. Her expression when she secures it for £3.6m is totally deadpan.
The pace is surprisingly brisk. The Cy Twombly blackboard painting, which the consigner (rumoured to be Leonard Riggio, the founder and chairman of Barnes & Noble) bought for $17.4m three years ago, sells for £19.7m ($30m) to an Asian buyer. A good evening’s work for Mr Riggio.
The Francis Bacon Pope, estimated at around £9m, goes for £10m. (Sale prices, it should be remembered, include the buyer’s commission but estimates do not.) Richter’s “Vierwaldstatter See” goes for £15.8m, surpassing its estimate of around £10m. Surprisingly, perhaps these items pass with little freneticism; hardly surprising that a Richter should realise this, and a Twombly that, a frisson of anti-climax even that they didn’t realise more. When Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painting “Three Delegates”, estimated at £5–£7m, realises only £4.3m (only!), there is a tangible sense of disappointment, as if even from the grave Basquiat has somehow let the side down.
The greatest buzz of the evening comes on what you might call the under-card. A stark white elaboration of shapes in acrylic on overlapping canvasses, “Intersuperficie Curva Bianca” by Italian artist Paolo Scheggi, sells in a round of excited bidding for £1.1m, three times its high estimate of £350,000. The Hodgkin painting, “In The Green Room”, estimated at £550,000–£750,000, sells for £1.2m, a new record for the artist.
So, Scheggi and Hodgkin are up. Basquiat is down. Among the specialists and the Client Relations and Intelligence team, these things will be keenly noted. The final total for the evening is £116.8m, within the pre-sale target but six per cent short of last year’s equivalent Evening sale. Afterwards, the art and business journos slug back the free wine and canapes, and avidly deconstruct the implications for art and for business.
Jussi Pylkkänen is shining his searchlight smile around the room. It has, he declares, been “a roaring success”.
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