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Sotheby's sells US$188.5m in 'Too Big to Fail' auction

[NEW YORK] Paintings by Gerhard Richter and Francis Bacon helped Sotheby's reach £123.5 million (US$188.5 million), the company's highest tally at a contemporary art sale in Europe.

The results on Tuesday in London represented a 40.5 per cent increase from Sotheby's evening sale of the same category a year ago but fell short of the high target of £125.5 million. Of the 75 lots, 87 per cent found buyers.

Collectors from 42 countries competed for works in a tightly choreographed event, with most boxes checked. There were trophy works by the biggest market earners such as Bacon, Richter and Andy Warhol; postwar art from Italy and Germany; Asian art and fashionable youngsters.

"These auctions are too big to fail," said Sergey Skaterschikov, founder of Skate's Art Market Research in New York. The auction houses "have to achieve a sell-through rate of over 80 per cent to sustain the perception of a strong art market. They work very hard to make sure that the bidders are lined up for the key pieces." Sotheby's sale launched a week of bellwether contemporary art auctions. The results are being watched for the indication of the art market's strength in 2015, following record sales in New York when US$2.3 billion of art was sold in two weeks in November. Christie's contemporary evening sale is set for Wednesday, with Phillips on Feb 12.

"The market is big," said Tania Buckrell Pos, managing director of Arts & Management International, a London-based firm that advises collectors, investors and museums. "There are a lot of collectors wanting the same names."

The sale started with frenzied bidding for "Studio Hallway," a figurative 2010 painting by Los Angeles-based artist Jonas Wood. Within the first minute, bidding surged from £45,000 to £200,000 as multiple hopefuls in the room and on the phones chased the work. The final price of £365,000 surged past the high estimate and was 10 times the artist's previous auction record.

Wood's works are currently on view at the Hong Kong branch of Gagosian Gallery.

The top lot of the sale was Richter's 10-foot-tall abstract painting that fetched 30.4 million pounds, setting an auction record for the 83-year-old German artist.

Painted in 1986, "Abstraktes Bild" was estimated at £14 million to £20 million, the highest presale target of the 20 Richter paintings offered this week. The work was chased by three bidders and acquired by an unidentified American client of Cheyenne Westphal, Sotheby's co-head of contemporary art worldwide. It last appeared at auction in 1999, fetching US$607,500.

The new price shattered Richter's previous auction record of $37.1 million set in 2013 at Sotheby's for the representational painting, "Domplatz, Mailand (Cathedral Square, Milan).

A European client of Westphal bought the evening's second priciest lot, Bacon's 1977 ''Two Studies for Self-Portrait," which fetched £14.7 million.