Disappointing Sale of Freud Painting Signals Deepening Crisis

October 19, 2008

Lucian Freud’s unfinished portrait (1956-7) of his friend Francis Bacon had many in the global art market holding their breaths. Up for auction tonight at Christie’s in London, the painting was expected to fetch £7 million. Bloomberg reports that it sold for much less: £5.4 million.

After lower-than-expected contemporary art sales at Sotheby’s, Frieze, and now Christie’s, dealers consider the Freud sale to be a sign of a stalling global market and a deepening financial crisis.

The Independent on Sunday reports great apprehension:

The global art market is all but dead already, except for buyers of ‘trophy art’ whose fortunes have previously seemed unassailable. If they stop bidding, prices will plummet.

Freud’s portrait was considered a harbinger for super-rich spending. The fact that it sold for less than expected (although still above the presale low estimate of £5 million) indicates that even trophy buyers are cutting back.

Fasten your seatbelts. Turbulence ahead.

Bacon’s Triptych: Most Expensive Artwork Sold at Auction

May 15, 2008

Sotheby’s Contemporary Art evening auction brought in $362 million tonight. (Last night, Christie’s Postwar and Contemporary Art evening auction brought in $331.4 million.) This painting, a triptych by the late Francis Bacon sold for $86.3 million to a “private European phone bidder”, breaking the auction record for a contemporary artwork. It is now the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction, surpassing Mark Rothko’s “White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose),” (1950) which brought in $72.8 million at Sotheby’s last year.

bacon triptych

As a resident of New York, I’m just wondering whether we get any trickle-down benefits. Does the buyer pay a sales tax, for example? An 8.375% sales tax on this work would amount to more than $7.2 million. In 2006-7, the average teacher’s salary in NY was at $62,647. Those tax dollars could cover almost 115 teachers’ salaries. A private sale has very public effects.

How Much Oil Would Top 5 Paintings Sold at Christie’s Buy?

May 14, 2008

Christie’s Postwar and Contemporary Art Auctions closed tonight. And yes, Lucian Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” now officially holds the auction record for a living artist. Estimated to go for between $25-$35 million, the painting went for $33,641,000. As a followup to my post a couple days ago, here’s a tally of the top five paintings sold. And for consistency’s sake, quick calculations for how much oil each might buy. (Just in case we run into a gas shortage, we really ought to know which ones we should NOT burn for fuel.)

Here goes:

1. Mark Rothko, “No. 15”, 1952 / price $50,441,000

This could buy 400,325 barrels of oil OR 8.0 million gallons of gasoline. This represents 2% of U.S. daily gasoline consumption OR what we consume in 29 minutes.

2. Lucian Freud, “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”, 1995 / price $33,641,000

This could buy 266,992 barrels of oil OR 5.3 million galloons of gasoline. This represents 1.33% of U.S. daily gasoline consumption OR what we consume in 19 minutes.

3. Andy Warhol, “Double Marlon”, 1966 / price $32,521,000

This could buy 258,103 barrels of oil OR 5.2 million gallons of gasoline. This represents 1.29% U.S. daily gas consumption OR what we consume in 19 minutes.

4. Francis Bacon, “Three Studies for Self-Portrait“, 1976 / price $28,041,000

This could buy 222,548 barrels of oil OR 4.4 million gallons of gasoline. This represents 1.11% of U.S. daily gas consumption OR what we consume in 16 minutes.

5. Gerhard Richter, “Abstraktes Bild“, 1987 / price $14,601,000

This could buy 115,881 barrels of oil OR 2.3 million gallons of gasoline. This represents 0.58% of U.S. daily gas consumption OR what we consume in 8 minutes.

TOGETHER, these five paintings sold for $159,245,000. Just for the record, that would buy 1.3 million barrels of oil, which could be converted into 25.3 million gallons of gasoline. This buys the equivalent of 6.32% of our entire country’s consumption in one day. Or, a total of 91 minutes of power for the U.S., from FIVE paintings. Wow. Talk about concentration of wealth.

Tomorrow: the Sotheby’s auction results.

Contemporary Art Auctions This Week: Recession-Proof?

May 10, 2008

Next Tuesday and Wednesday, NY auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s (respectively) hold their Spring sales for Post-War and Contemporary art. Smaller lots and tighter selections at both houses indicate cautious optimism as the U.S. economy continues to dip and the art market opens up to buyers from Russia, the Middle East, and of course China, who are taking advantage of the weak dollar.


Highlights at Christie’s include Andy Warhol’s “Double Marlon” (1966), Francis Bacon’s triptych “Three Studies for Self-Portrait” (1980), and Lucian Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” (1995, pictured) which is expected to reach between $25-35 million, a new auction record for a work by a living artist. (This distinction is now held by Jeff Koons’ “Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold)”, bought by superdealer Larry Gagosian on behalf of Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk for $23.6 million in November 2007). Sotheby’s top-priced lots include another Bacon, “Triptych, 1976”, Rothko’s “Orange, Red, Yellow”, and a late Warhol “Detail of the Last Supper (Christ 112 Times) Yellow”. Each of these carries an 8-figure starting price tag and the auctions are expected to ring in more than $1 billion in sales next week.

Will the bull market for art continue despite a languishing U.S. economy? From Reuters:

“We’ve taken into account that the U.S. economy has slowed, and some buyers are not in the same situation,” said Marc Porter, Christie’s president.

“But on the other hand, Russian and Middle East collectors are richer than ever,” he told Reuters. “There are enormous amounts of cash piled up,” Porter said. “We’re continuing to see incredible strength for the very best things, especially in the international markets.”

Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art co-chairman David Norman agreed.

“The sliver of super-wealth in the world is still just so extraordinary,” he said, while Chief Executive William Ruprecht noted that oil wealth was stoking the market far more than hedge fund players as many believe.

Oil money STILL rules. Stay tuned for auction results on the 13th and 14th: art always follows the money. Or as blixity says: culture is always tied to capital.