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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to Create Bursaries for Young Artists," and in the end a total of 109 lots sold, 19 were bought in and two were withdrawn.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.

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