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London Auctions Are on the Rise, but a Big Failure Casts a Shadow

“There’s a volume issue,” said Anthony McNerney, director of contemporary art at Gurr Johns, an art valuation and advisory firm in London. “A lot of collectors were feeling ‘art blind,’ ” he added.


Boosted by the artist’s nomination for this year’s Turner Prize, Hurvin Anderson’s 2008 painting “Peter’s Series: Back” sold for £1.8 million.


Unlike Sotheby’s and Phillips, which held contemporary auctions in June, Christie’s had opted out of London’s summer season of contemporary sales, preferring to concentrate its efforts on Frieze Week. The presence of the Bacon in its Friday-evening sale appeared to vindicate that decision.

Not exhibited in public for nearly 45 years, the painting, owned by an unidentified European collector, was the only one of the artist’s coveted “Pope” studies to include an image of his lover George Dyer and had been included in the landmark 1971 Bacon exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. It seemed to conform to the market’s every notion of a trophy. But the asking price of £60 million — almost £20 million more than any single-panel painting by the artist has achieved at auction — proved too ambitious.

“It sent a ripple through the market suggesting the top end is not as strong as it was,” said Mr. McNerney, “and it also suggested London still lags behind New York for the big-ticket items.”

But with so many collectors in town — it was difficult to remember the Christie’s and Sotheby’s salesrooms being so crowded — plenty of works lower down the price scale sold for reassuring amounts. Excluding after-sales, the £23.4 million that Phillips raised at its Friday evening contemporary auction was more than 30 percent up on last October, and the totals achieved at equivalent sales of £50.3 million at Sotheby’s on Thursday and £99.5 million at Christie’s on Friday were both company highs for Frieze Week.

The validation of a museum show almost invariably lifts an artist’s commercial value. Being nominated for this year’s Turner Prize certainly galvanized the auction market for works by the British figurative painter Hurvin Anderson. At Phillips, the 2008 canvas “Peter’s Series: Back,” from Mr. Anderson’s admired sequence of barbershop paintings, sold at a high for the artist at auction of £1.8 million, or around $2.4 million, against a valuation of £600,000-£900,000. Two hours later, Christie’s sold another Anderson painting from the same year, “Country Club: Chicken Wire,” for a further high, £2.6 million, more than three times the low estimate.

The austere geometric abstracts of the postwar German-American painter Josef Albers have had plenty of institutional exposure, but it has been since May 2016, when the dealer David Zwirner took over management of his estate, that auction prices have moved most dramatically. The bar was raised yet again on Thursday when Sotheby’s sold Albers’s 1957 “Homage to the Square: Temperate,” painted in an unusual combination of red, purple and blue, for £2.3 million, or about $3 million, an increase of $800,000 on the previous auction high.


“Homage to the Square: Temperate,” a 1957 painting by Josef Albers, sold for £2.3 million at Sotheby’s on Oct. 5.

2017 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Sotheby’s

Frieze Week visitors were probably most spoiled for choice (or was it blinded?) with 20th-century Italian art. In Mayfair, there were gallery shows of Giorgio de Chirico at Tornabuoni and Nahmad Projects, and of Giacomo Balla at Mazzoleni. Then there was all the Italian material at Frieze Masters — not to mention specialist auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Of the two houses, Christie’s had conspicuously the better selection. This raised £32.2 million, or about $40 million (as against £18.4 million at Sotheby’s), led by a rare black 5ft-square Lucio Fontana “Venezie” abstract, embedded with Murano glass, made specially for an exhibition in Venice in 1961. Never seen on the auction market before, it sold to a telephone bidder for £10 million, or about $13 million. The most expensive auction lot of the week was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 painting, “Red Skull,” which topped Christie’s contemporary sale earlier in the evening with a price of £16.5 million, or about $22 million.

“It’s a very global week,” said Luigi Mazzoleni, a director at Mazzoleni, which exhibited at the Frieze Masters for the first time. “There are too many things, but that’s good to attract people from all round the world,” he added, saying that he met new clients from China and India at the fair.

Frieze Week’s reputation as one of the top destination events of the art world calendar remains secure. But the failure of that Bacon will, perhaps, have made it less likely that the world’s most expensive art will be auctioned in London. It will certainly make owners more nervous about publicly offering artworks worth more than $50 million without a guaranteed minimum price.

The family trust of the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev understandably won’t be taking any chances when it offers Leonardo da Vinci’s circa 1499 painting, “Salvator Mundi,” in Christie’s Nov. 15 auction of contemporary art in New York. A third-party guarantor has ensured that it will sell for at least $100 million.

The Leonardo was among 38 artworks by famous artists bought privately for about $2 billion by Mr. Rybolovlev through the Swiss businessman Yves Bouvier. These transactions have become the subject of a protracted law suit in Monaco and other jurisdictions: The Russian collector maintains that he was fraudulently overcharged, an accusation Mr. Bouvier denies. Court papers have revealed that Mr. Rybolovlev bought the Leonardo in May 2013 for $127.5 million. Mr. Bouvier had recently acquired it, in a private transaction brokered by Sotheby’s, for $80 million.

“Yves had the golden goose and was greedy,” said James Butterwick, a London dealer who has regularly made purchases on behalf of wealthy Russian collectors. Mr. Butterwick said he charged commissions varying between 5 and 15 percent for such transactions. “But Rybolovlev was too trusting,” he added. “Collectors have to have some kind of finger on the pulse of the market.”

The art market may or not be entering a new period of prosperity. But, as the sellers of paintings by Francis Bacon and Leonardo da Vinci can attest, it can still be difficult place to make easy money.

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