By Kelly Crow
Of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Hindu's elephant god of wealth, Ganesh, once inspired contemporary-art star Bharti Kher to create a huge, fiberglass elephant lying slumped on the floor, possibly dying or napping.
The artwork sends mixed signals, and the same could be said of Sotheby's Monday evening sale of contemporary art in London which included Kher's GBP993,250 piece, "The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own."
Overall, Sotheby's GBP41.1 million ($62 million) total bested its GBP25.5 million auction a year ago. The sale also saw an electric-blue Yves Klein sponge painting "RE 49," go to an anonymous telephone bidder for GBP6.2 million ($9.3 million). It was priced to sell for at least GBP4.5 million ($6.8 million).
Yet for an art market seemingly on the mend, collectors showed surprising restraint. Of Sotheby's 53 offerings, 11 artworks sold to buyers who only needed to place a single bid to win. They included a GBP2.2 million "Millionaire Nurse" painting by Richard Prince; a GBP1.7 million "Camouflage Self-Portrait" by Andy Warhol, and other works by Andreas Gurksy, Blinky Palermo and Gabriel Orozco.
Nine artworks failed to sell at all, including pieces by one-time London favorites like Lucian Freud, Peter Doig and Subodh Gupta.
Sotheby's did help a European collector sell Lucio Fontana's apple-green oval abstract, "Concetto Spaziale, La Fine Di Dio," for GBP4.7 million, over its GBP4.5 million low estimate. And Gerhard Richter's 1964 photo-based painting of a Sudanese funeral, "Neger (Nuba)," sold for GBP3.7 million.
The crowd inside Sotheby's Bond Street salesroom also livened up when auctioneer Tobias Meyer offered up works from the so-called School of London, a group of post-war artists that included Frank Auerbach, Paula Rego, and Leon Kossoff. A colorful, London streetscape by Auerbach, "Mornington Crescent -- Summer Morning," sold to a telephone bidder for GBP2.3 million, well over its GBP2 million high estimate. Patrick Heron's earthy, striped abstract, "October Horizon: October 1957," sold for GBP481,250. It was priced to sell for up to GBP350,000.
Still climbing: The Zero Group, an art movement that sprang up in Europe after World War II and became known for using aluminum sheeting, nails, eggshells and door locks in their abstract work. Sales continue to rise sharply for key Zero members like Klein, Fontana and Gunther Uecker. Sotheby's got GBP481,250 for Uecker's swirling white canvas dotted with hundreds of slightly bent nails, "Bewegtes Feld." It was priced to sell for up to GBP300,000.
Art-market watchers may also note the reemergence of Takashi Murakami, a boom-era star who has been largely missing from major auctions since the recession. Sotheby's brought him back here through his 2003-2004 totem of a smiling ghost-like figure, "Koumokkun." The work sold for GBP397,250, over its GBP300,000 high estimate.
Boutique auction house Phillips de Pury holds its contemporary sale on Tuesday, and Christie's sale follows on Wednesday.
-By Kelly Crow, The Wall Street Journal; email@example.com