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  • Christie's, Sotheby's Raise Record $451 Million at London Sales
    02.14.2006 Linda Sandler

    Christie's International and Sotheby's Holdings Inc., the top two art sellers, raised a record 258.8 million pounds ($451 million) at their London winter sales last week amid signs new collectors are bidding up prices.

    The winter auctions, featuring artists from Edvard Munch to Francis Bacon, were London's biggest ever, exceeding 1989 totals before art prices last crashed. U.S. and Asian buyers pushed sale totals 5 percent above auctioneers' top estimate of 245 million pounds. Last February's total was 170.6 million pounds.

    London is the No. 2 art market after New York, and the salerooms drew dealers from New York's Larry Gagosian and William Acquavella to Geneva's Jan Krugier and Tonsberg, Norway's Einar-Tore Ulving, who paid 1.2 million pounds for Munch's ``Horses.'' Forty-six new highs were set for artists or their work in a particular medium, Sotheby's and Christie's said.

    ``The buying is clearly broader than past cycles,'' and may be expanding, said Marc Regenbaum at Helios Partners Fund Management in New York, in an e-mail to Bloomberg. ``Russians are wallowing in petrodollars and surely this is making its way, or is going to make its way, into the art market.''

    Star artists were Anthony Caro, Chaim Soutine, Egon Schiele and Munch. Some Andy Warhol prints took four times their estimates in another sign that so-called 20th-century classics are attracting wealthy first-time buyers.

    Asians and Andy

    Asians bought 8 percent of Sotheby's contemporary works, and drove up prices for Warhol, Lucian Freud and Gerhard Richter, said Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's chief of contemporary art. Buyers from the Middle East took 2 percent of Christie's impressionist-and-modern sale, where 30 percent of the lots went to Americans, Christie's said. So far, auctioneers say Russians are mainly buying Russian art.

    Warhol's ``Dollar Sign'' took 2.6 million pounds from an anonymous European dealer at Christie's, where an overheated auction room was jammed with more than 500 people, as 45 Christie's staffers manned telephones. The top estimate was 600,000 pounds.

    A U.S. hedge-fund manager, who declined to be named, said he paid $800,000 for a Warhol dollar sign last year. Warhol is the most actively traded artist after Pablo Picasso and is a staple of contemporary sales.

    Also at Christie's, U.K. painter Francis Bacon's 1969 ``Self-Portrait,'' with a twisted face and rabbit-like nose, fetched 5.2 million pounds, shooting above its top estimate of 1.8 million pounds. At least five bidders fought for the painting, including Gagosian, Andrew Fabricant, Iwan Wirth and Ivor Braka, before it went to a telephone bidder.

    `Too High'

    ``You can't buy anything these days,'' said Wirth, founder of the Hauser & Wirth gallery of Zurich and London, after bidding unsuccessfully for at least three pictures. ``Prices are just too high.''

    Contemporary art values have nearly quadrupled since 1995. Most art sold last week will wind up in private collectors' hands, auctioneers said.

    Christie's most heavily promoted Bacon barely beat its estimate. The stumpy-armed portrait of Pope Innocent X took 5.2 million pounds, including commission. Still, Bacon, Georg Baselitz, Freud, Yves Klein and young German artists such as Dirk Skreber all are increasingly in demand in the U.S., said Edward Dolman, Christie's chief executive officer. An anonymous U.S. collector paid a record 1.2 million pounds for Baselitz's ``Ein Roter,'' portraying a communist soldier.

    One of Sotheby's hottest contemporary lots was Caro's ``Sculpture Two 1962,'' made of green-painted shafts of steel. An anonymous bidder in the room paid 1.3 million pounds. The top estimate was 350,000 pounds. Caro's previous record was 77,675 pounds.

    Bidding was inspired by U.S. billionaire Eli Broad, who paid $23.8 million in November for David Smith's steel sculpture ``Cubi XXVIII,'' Sotheby's said.

    Strategic Pricing

    Sotheby's contemporary art price tags were mostly higher than Christie's, so fewer of its works went to three or more times the top estimates. Underwriters for initial public offerings also set prices as high as possible, leaving room for a stock to jump up.

    ``We priced aggressively, because we felt the market was strong enough,'' said Sotheby's Meyer, in an interview.

    Sotheby's, whose main auction rooms are in New York, sold the week's top-priced picture -- a Paul Gauguin -- at its impressionist and modern auction and raised a total of 130.8 million pounds from all its sales. London-based Christie's sold 128 million pounds of art.

    Gauguin's ``Deux Femmes,'' portraying semi-nude South Sea island women, fetched 12.3 million pounds from a telephone buyer after the only other bidder, Monte Carlo-based collector David Nahmad, dropped out. The estimate was 11 million pounds to 14 million pounds. Claude Monet's foggy ``Waterloo Bridge,'' valued at as much as 3.5 million pounds, failed to sell, indicating high estimates can deter buyers.

    Soutine, Schiele

    At Christie's impressionist-and-modern sale, Soutine's ``Le Boeuf Ecorche,'' a painting of a flayed and bloody beef carcass, sold to a telephone bidder for a record 7.8 million pounds. A drawing of a semi-naked woman by Schiele was bought for a record 4.2 million pounds by New York art consultant Abigail Asher, according to her mother, who sat next to her. A Picasso valued at as much as 2.5 million pounds failed to sell.

    On top of the hammer prices, Sotheby's and Christie's charge buyers a 20 percent commission on the first 100,000 pounds and 12 percent on the rest of the value. Estimates are pre-commission, and they calculate records after adding a commission.

    Sotheby's and Christie's hold their next big sales in New York in May, followed by June auctions in London.