Rock star Eric Clapton sells an abstract painting by German artist Gerhard Richter for £21.3m – a new record amount for a living artist.
A high gloss was applied to the results of last week’s contemporary art auctions in London when a luxuriant abstract painting by Gerhard Richter established a new record for a living artist, selling at Sotheby’s for £21.3 million. Rock star Eric Clapton, who bought it for one tenth of the price in 2001, timed the sale well. In the past four years, Richter’s decorative abstract paintings, of which there are hundreds, have become status symbols among the world’s super rich – Roman Abramovich and Lily Safra, who gave hers to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, being among the top buyers at auction.
The latest Richter record price is thought to have been paid by a Russian buyer, and crowned a triumphant week for the octogenarian German artist, in which all 15 of his paintings that were offered sold for a total of £28 million – accounting for more than 25 per cent of the week’s sales. But rest of the story, while it had its moments, was not quite so rosy; the other five contemporary art auctions all fell short of pre-sale expectations.
At Phillips, more than 30 per cent of works offered were unsold, including a view of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange by the artist photographer Andreas Gursky, valued at £400,000. Gursky prices peaked last year at a record $4 million (£2,490,000) for a photographic work, but sellers hoping to capitalise on that last week were disappointed. Two further substantial works by Gursky at Christie’s were also unsold.
Another notable casualty at Christie’s was Californian artist Paul McCarthy. While his dealers, Hauser & Wirth, claimed the first sale of the Frieze Art Fair with a large, Disneyesque sculpture by McCarthy for over a million dollars, two slightly lewd, cartoon-style sculptures in a similar price bracket found no buyers. Unlike Richter’s abstracts, McCarthy’s discomforting social critique is not to everyone’s taste, and the number of potential buyers is limited. It was also apparent that Spanish buyers were, perhaps due to the state of the national economy, out of the equation, and works by Spanish artists were either unsold or snapped up by non-Spanish buyers at soft prices.
The stars of the Christie’s sale were the eccentric German artist, Martin Kippenberger, whose rare self portrait sold for a record £3.1 million to Hauser & Wirth, bidding for a client, and a group of works by young British artists from the Saatchi collection which were prominently placed to catch the attention of the type of collector of new art roaming the aisles of the Frieze Art Fair. A lumpy sculpture of a woman’s legs by Rebecca Warren sold to an American buyer for £109,250; a triptych of blurred photographs by Idris Khan sold for £181,250; and a huge, Photorealist painting of an aircraft wreck by Jonathan Wateridge sold for £313,250 to a Russian collector – all record prices and above estimates.
Saatchi had less of an impact at Sotheby’s, though his painting of a pair of gymnast’s rings by Gerhard Richter’s wife, Isa Genzken, did sell for a record £265,250 to art advisor Jorg Bertz. Here at the main evening sale, there was a more historically classical selection, made perhaps to catch the audience at the new Frieze Masters fair for older work. Apart from the record Richter, there was, for instance, a 1960s blue sponge relief by Yves Klein which sold to the Swiss-based collector Dimitri Mavromatis, above estimate for £3.7 million. Such sales, normally reserved for the higher-value auctions in February and June, gave Sotheby’s the edge.
However, closer analysis again revealed a certain fragility in the market as over half the lots sold either on below their estimated price guides. A granite sculpture by Anish Kapoor sold below estimate for £361,250, less than the price it fetched five years ago, and an early coloured drawing of a dead chicken by Lucian Freud found no buyers at £400,000.
The outstanding result for young artists was reserved for the next morning, when an inkjet-printed painting of black-and-white blocks of colour by Wade Guyton, currently enjoying a survey exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, sold for a record £421.250.
When the Frieze Art Fair started 10 years ago, London’s Frieze week auctions brought a modest £6.5 million, and last week’s £101 million is a measure of the impact the fair has had. Now with Frieze Masters thrown into the mix, the trend is likely to see even higher value sales next year.