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Bacon portrait, Asian buyers boost $159.3M art auction

Sotheby’s sold $159.3 million of contemporary art in London on Monday as wealthy buyers around the globe chased trophy works by postwar and contemporary artists.

The tally exceeded the high estimate of $153.6 million and represented a 23 percent increase from a year ago, when the publicly traded auctioneer sold $129.8 million of art. Of the 59 lots offered during the 90-minute event, eight failed to sell.

Asian bidding was brisk, with Sotheby’s representatives from China and Japan winning or underbidding pieces by Francis Bacon, Mark Rothko, Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol.

Art prices are on an upward trajectory, boosted by low interest rates and a limited supply of blue-chip material seen as holding its value. The Artnet C50 Index, which combines performance data from 50 top postwar and contemporary artists, advanced 434 percent from the start of 2003 through last year, beating asset classes including gold, fine wine and stocks.

“The market feels extremely robust,” said Lock Kresler, who is overseeing European operations for Dominique Levy gallery after leading Christie’s private sales department in London for three years. “The last three, four seasons continue to go up and up and up.”

The top lot was Bacon’s 1964 portrait of his lover, “Three Studies for Portrait of George Dyer,” which fetched $45.7 million. Bidding drew at least five hopefuls after going beyond the high estimate of $34.2 million, including a client of Sotheby’s Asia Chairman Patti Wong. The winner was an undisclosed European client of Helena Newman, Sotheby’s co-head of Impressionist and modern art worldwide.

Dreamy landscape

The work spent 40 years in the same collection and never appeared at auction before, Sotheby’s (NYSE: BID) said. Bacon (1909-1992) was crowned the most expensive artist at auction in November, when his triptych of Lucian Freud fetched $142.4 million at Christie’s in New York.

Peter Doig’s 1999 dreamlike landscape “Country-Rock (wing-mirror)” fetched $14.5 million. The result set a new auction record for the Scottish artist despite falling short of the $15.4 million presale estimate. Prices include buyer’s commission; estimates do not.

The work depicts a rainbow that was painted over an underpass by the Don Valley Parkway near Toronto in 1972 when Doig was growing up there, according to Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s guaranteed the seller, who acquired the work during Doig’s exhibition at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise gallery in New York in 1999, an undisclosed minimum price. It drew tepid bidding and went to a telephone client of Isabelle Paagman, a senior specialist in the contemporary art department in London.

Paagman also won Warhol’s “Nine Multicoloured Marilyns (Reversal Series),” depicting Marilyn Monroe’s face outlined with neon colors and set against black background as if it were a photographic negative. It went for $7.8 million and was underbid by Evelyn Lin, head of contemporary Asian art in Hong Kong.

Dominique Levy’s Kresler won several lots for the gallery and its clients, including a unique 1990 sculpture by Louise Bourgeois that fetched $1.4 million, and Alexander Calder’s 1953 sculpture for $1.7 million. Both works exceeded their top estimates.

“There were about three works we bid on and were not successful,” Kresler said. “And in some cases we didn’t even get a chance to raise a paddle.”

Bidding was furious for pieces by established and emerging artists.

Rothko’s 1949 painting “No. 10” surged to $4.2 million from the $685,000 opening bid. At least six buyers competed for the work that went to a telephone client of Wong.

The price was more than three times the work’s high presale estimate of $1.3 million. The anonymous seller purchased the piece for $1.7 million at auction in 2005.

“The Fake Rothko,” a large 2010 square canvas by Adrian Ghenie fetched $2.3 million, four times its high estimate, to set an auction record for the Romanian artist born in 1977. The underbidder was a client of Wei-Ting Huang, Sotheby’s London-based private client liaison for Asia.

Ostrowski’s abstract

It took one minute for David Ostrowski’ 2011 abstract painting “F (Dann Lieber Nein)” to go from the opening bid of $42,800 to the final price of $208,940. The 33-year-old German artist was making his evening sale debut at a major auction house. In the past year, his works have been selling out at gallery shows and fairs, with prices at about $34,000.

The auction started with 11 lots of the Sender Collection, consigned by former hedge-fund manager Adam Sender; 10 sold, tallying $7.5 million.

The group included two pieces by Damien Hirst, who remains the most expensive living British artist at auction despite a 91 percent decline in annual sales volume from his peak year of 2008 to 2013, according to Artprice.com.

Hirst’s butterfly canvas “Kingdom of Heaven” fetched $1.8 million, surpassing the high estimate of $1.3 million. His 1992 medicine cabinet “Untitled Aaaaaaa” sold for $497,500, slightly above the high estimate.

“It’s great to see Damien’s market very robust,” auctioneer Oliver Barker said during the sale, before moving to the next lot.

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