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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.

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