Thirst for Hirst

by Mary Barone

What to say about this week's auction of contemporary art at Christie's London on Tuesday, June 29, 1999? Christie's Contempo, it lacked tempo? We had so much rain here these last two days, people practically had to swim to the sale -- and as if to oblige the weather, lots of things belly-flopped.

Of 156 lots offered -- making for an excruciatingly long 2½-hour auction -- a total of 103 found buyers, for a 66 percent sold rate. The overall total was £3.2 million -- about $5 million (the presale estimate for the entire sale was $4.6 million-$6.3 million). What's the exchange rate these days? £1 =$1.58? Oh my.

Whatever. In any case, there's still a thirst for Hirst. The young Helly Nahmad and crew were out in force, bidding heavily on Untitled AAAAAAA, one of the artist's popular medicine cabinet sculptures. It sold for $167,000 to a telephone bidder.

Hirst's Spot Wall Painting, which he made in an edition of 10 with two artist's proofs, also went through the roof, selling for $75,000. His spin painting, which was pretty gorgeous, did fabulously -- it sold for $122,000 -- which I believe is a new record for that sort of thing.

Overall, though, so many lots were passed that the poor auctioneer probably could have used some of the Gaviscon antacids that were included in Hirst's Untitled AAAAAAA!

Christie's expert Graham Southern, whom I bumped into in a coffee shop after the sale, felt that some of the installation works did surprisingly well -- given the risk one takes to put that sort of thing at auction. Notable in this regard: Marie-Jo Lafontaine's massive, steel-encased 27-monitor video piece, which sold for $141,000!

Top lot was Trunk (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat, which went for $350,000 (est. $300,000-$360,000). It was one of 10 Basquiat works in the sale -- two others registered in the top ten.

A lot of photography was up and Cindy Sherman's "Untitled Film Stills" still command wads of cash -- two here went for $38,000 and $31,000. Same with the seven-foot-wide Andreas Gursky nighttime picture of distant city lights, which sold for $82,000 (the high estimate on that lot was $20,000).

The Andres Serrano photos all did very well, notably his Blood Cross (1985), a photo of a clear plastic cross-shaped tank filled with cow's blood, which went for $28,000. The thing is in an edition of four and carried a presale estimate of $8,200-$13,000.

Sam Taylor-Wood's Fuck-Suck-Spank-Wank (1993), a photo of a girl wearing a rugby shirt with the titular slogan on it (and with her trousers around her ankles) didn't seem to turn anyone on that much. It sold for $4,000, just under its $4,100 low estimate. It's from an edition of 100, so that may have had something to do with it.

Despite the Basquiat success, no one wanted the nine-foot-wide crayon and color-xerox picture by the trio of Andy Warhol, Basquiat and Francisco Clemente. Its presale estimate was $130,000-$200,000.

The sale also registered wan results for the torrid mannequins of Jake and Dinos Chapman, slotted in at the end of the auction. The Cockroach Kid, a four-legged pedophile's delight, went unsold, while a fiberglass sculpture of a decapitated head with a penis nose did go, for $6,400.

Several lots were withdrawn, including the pair of photos-with-video-monitors by Turner Prize nominees Jane and Louise Wilson. At the presale party, Christie's had hired someone to play the harpsichord designed by Gerhard Richter and featuring one of his Abstraktes Bild on the inside lid. It sold for $115,000.

Overall the sale was uneven -- but it was a tough crowd. And the auction came fast on the heels of the Basel Art Fair. Could people be a little hard-pressed for cash?

By the way, given all the amazing press Gary Hume got for his installation in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, it seemed surprising that one of his "classic" door paintings, which was the final lot, sold for a "mere" $18,000, just meeting its low estimate. But maybe collectors only want new work. It's so much sexier.

MARY BARONE lives in London.


Rule Britannia

by Mary Barone

One London shopkeeper not reporting slow business this Christmas season is Christie's auction house, which sold over $2.6 million worth of contemporary art on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 1998. The sale was dubbed "130 Works from the Saatchi Collection to Create Bursaries for Young Artists," and in the end a total of 109 lots sold, 19 were bought in and two were withdrawn. The blue-ribbon pedigree of Saatchi no doubt contributed to the impressive results, which included record prices for works by several contemporary artists, both British and American.

Top lot in the sale was Grosse Geister (1996), a trio of eight-foot-tall, cast aluminum hobgoblins by German artist Thomas Schütte. The sculpture, which is in an edition of three, sold to a telephone bidder for $245,850, well above the high presale estimate of $200,000, and an auction record for the artist. Back in November 1996 in New York, this work brought 57th Street to a standstill as it was hoisted through the window of the Marian Goodman Gallery for Schütte's exhibition there.

Saatchi's brightest star, Damien Hirst, continues to beam, with two lots in the top ten. A sculpture consisting of four cabinets holding dozens of jars containing cow viscera in formaldehyde solution, called The Lovers (Spontaneous, Committed, Detached, Compromising) (1991), sold for a record $229,350 (est. $140,000-$170,000). This particularly avant-garde meditation on life and death was exhibited in "Young British Artists I" at the Saatchi Gallery in 1991.

Hirst's Acetic Anhydride (1991) set a record for a "spot painting" by the artist, selling for $202,125, five times more than its $42,000 high estimate. Rachel Whiteread's Untitled (Square Sink) (1990), a plaster cast of the negative space under of a wash basin, sold for a record-breaking $220,350 (est. $67,000-$84,000).

Saatchi's magic provenance extended to non-British artists as well. Cindy Sherman's Untitled No. 122 (1983), a unique large-scale photograph of Sherman as psycho fashion model, sold for a record $144,045 (est. $84,000-$120,000) and Janine Antoni's Lick & Lather (1993), a pair of classicizing self-portrait busts of chocolate and soap, sold for a record $76,890 (est. $14,000-$17,000).

Saatchi does like painting, and painting did well in the sale. Jenny Savile's Prop (1993), a large painting of a monumental nude woman slouched on a four-legged stool, sold for a record $84,150 (est. $17,000-$25,000). Ealan Wingate of Gagosian Gallery in New York was a contender for this picture but lost out to a relentless telephone bidder.

Gary Hume's Stop (1991), a three-part panel painting which takes its design from swinging hospital doors, sold for a record $80,520 (est. $31,000-$37,000).

A sexy collage-painting by Sarah Lucas, Great Dates (1995) sold for over $51,000, a record for the artist. Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili had two works in the sale. Them Bones (1995) set a new record for the artist, selling for $36,139 (est. $13,000-$17,000).

Ron Mueck's Big Baby 2 (1996-97), sold for $41,100 (est. $11,000-$17,000), still another artist's record. There's a queue for works by Mueck, according to Christie's specialist Graham Southern.

Saatchi is donating the entire proceeds of the sale to create scholarships for young artists at four London art schools. In addition to this philanthropy, Charles Saatchi, together with his brother Maurice, is planning a new division of their ad agency, called M & C Saatchi Arts, to advise arts organizations on marketing and promotion. Judging from the standing-room-only crowd at Christie's, this new venture will surely be a hit.

Prices given here include the buyer's premium, which is 15 percent of the first $50,000 and 10 percent of the remainder.

MARY BARONE is an American in London.


Hirst Rules at Christie's London

by Mary Barone

Young British bad-boy Damien Hirst continues to lord it over the contemporary art market, at least in London. His 1989 medicine cabinet piece, God, sold for almost $316,000 (presale est. $67,000-$100,000), a record for the artist at auction. The work, which contains about $800 worth of pills and salves, was acquired by Helly Nahmad, a dealer who recently opened a new gallery (directed by James Hyman) on Cork Street with an impressive show of Impressionists.

The other Hirst lot in the sale, the swirly pink spin painting Beautiful Big Issue... (1997), went for $105,000 (est. $37,000-$46,000) to a telephone bidder. As yet, none of Hirst's trademark works, what the English press calls "pickled livestock," have come to auction. Previously, Hirst's top auction seller was one of his decorative dot paintings, which was knocked down last December at Christie's London for about $71,000.

The sale totaled more than $4.7 million on 87 lots sold (of 122 total, about 75 percent by lot). "This sale, which transformed our approach to selling contemporary art at auction, has been a major success," said Graham Southern, head of contemporary art at Christie's London.

Clearer words were seldom spoken. The sale included several very "fresh" works by artists relatively new to the auction market, including Mike Bidlo, Gregory Green, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Sylvie Fleury, Chris Ofili and even Rachel Whiteread. This state of affairs adds excitement -- and a corresponding risk for younger artists, should auction buyers cruelly spurn their works. It was a very contemporary sale overall, ranging from classic Minimalism, sequeing through Basquiat, Richter and Polke, and ending up with a wide selection from the British School, from Hodgkin and Kossoff to Hamish Fulton and Hirst.

The auction was held in an warehouse in East London's Clerkenwell district, home to many artists and high-powered media types. Top lot was Sigmar Polke's Totenkopf (1974), a goofy painting on metallic fabric of a Dali-esque double image (a skull and a woman at her vanity) that has hung on loan in the Dusseldorf Kunstmuseum for years. Polke's nasty sense of humor has paid off -- it was knocked down for $407,000 (est. $170,000-$250,000).

A work by the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Rossmore) (1991), fetched over $177,000 (est. $92,000-$110,000), an auction record for a work by the artist. Not too shabby for 50 lbs. of wrapped sweets arranged in a row. Barry Flanagan's Nijinski Hare (1989), number four of seven, went for $279,700 (est. $140,000-$200,000).

Other top prices included $270,000 for a 1982 Baselitz figure, $214,000 for a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting from 1983, $214,000 for a Gerhard Richter abstraction from 1988, and $187,000 for a classic Donald Judd wall piece from 1971. Sadly, not everything can soar above its high estimate.

Rachel Whiteread's second appearance at auction -- her first was last May at Sotheby's New York, when an amber sculpture of a mattress sold for an incredible $167,500 -- was also a mattress work. The 76-inch-long plaster Untitled: Mattress (1991) sold for over $128,000 (est. $67,000-$100,000).

Gary Hume's Magnolia XXIV (1989-90), a Minimalist gloss-paint-on-canvas work inspired by the familiar format of swinging hospital doors, sold for $28,000 (est. $14,000-$20,000). The record for Hume is $41,000, but this is a record for a painting from the Magnolia series, several of which have come to market in this decade.

New faces at auction from the London School included Jake and Dinos Chapman, whose Iconic Hallucination Box (1995), featuring a platinum blonde mannequin festooned with genitalia, sold for $33,500 (est. $17,000-$25,000). Not a bad price -- works like this were priced at the Chapman's New York show at Larry Gagosian last fall for between $20,000 and $34,000. Chris Ofili's wacky, six-foot-tall collage painting of cut-out magazine pictures of faces of black people, propped up on two clods of elephant dung, sold for $18,400 (est. $10,000-$15,000). And Sarah Lucas' witty, pink Get Hold of This (1994-95), a cast of someone's arms giving the "up yours" sign, sold for $23,200 (est. ($7,500-$11,000). The work is an edition of eight.

Gregory Green's Suitcase Bomb #1 (London) (1995), billed in the catalogue as "a mechanically complete suitcase bomb minus any explosive materials," went for $12,600 (est. $4,200-$5,800). A show of the artist's work is presently on view at Feigen Contemporary in Chelsea in New York -- where suitcase bombs can be had for somewhat less (today at least!). Green is presently in London installing a large missile sculpture on the roof of the Saatchi Gallery in conjunction with the new show, "Young Americans II."

Sylvie Fleury's untitled German Vogue cover (picturing supermodel Shalom Harlow) from 1996, a modestly sized (ca. 51 x 39 in.) color photo mounted on aluminum, sold for $6,200 (est. $3,400-$5,000). The sale marked her first appearance at auction.

Two works by Mike Bidlo after Andy Warhol were also in the sale. Not Warhol (Before and After 1962) (1983), a replica of Warhol's famous black-and-white nose-job picture, went for $15,000 (est. $5,000-$8,300). And Bidlo's Not Warhol (Campbell's Soup Can 1962) Pepper Pot (1985-86) sold for $6,700 (est. $3,400-$5,000). Top auction price for a Bidlo soup can is $7,200, paid in 1994 at Sotheby's Arcade in New York.

MARY BARONE is an art dealer who lives in London.