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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.

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