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Ai Weiwei sets record as Phillips caps US$1b sales

A group of gold-plated bronze sculptures by Ai Weiwei fetched 2.9 million pounds (US$4.5 million) at Phillips in London, an auction record for China's dissident artist.

[LONDON] A group of gold-plated bronze sculptures by Ai Weiwei fetched 2.9 million pounds (US$4.5 million) at Phillips in London, an auction record for China's dissident artist.

"Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads" from 2010 depicts 12 signs of the ancient Chinese zodiac, with the animal heads displayed on individual pedestals. Estimated at 2 million pounds to 3 million pounds, the work led Phillips' contemporary art evening sale on Thursday.

The auction totaled 17.7 million pounds, a 70 percent increase from the 10.4 million-pound tally at last year's equivalent sale. Phillips sold 93 per cent of the 30 lots offered and two artist records were set.

The sale was part of two weeks of Impressionist, modern, postwar and contemporary art auctions that were a successful early test of the market in 2015. The sales, which concluded Friday, at Christie's, Sotheby's and Phillips tallied 675.5 million pounds, 4.6 per cent less than the total for the same series last year in London.

"These sales were average and the works found buyers, with reasonably good quality selling at higher values," said Skarlet Smatana, director of the George Economou Collection in Athens, who attended the auctions. "That's pretty much the story of this season." On the primary market - the first time an artwork is sold by a gallery or an artist - Ai's Zodiac sculptures have sold for about US$3 million, said Christophe Mao, owner of Chambers Fine Art gallery in New York and Beijing, which represents Mr Ai. The animals depicted include a tiger, rabbit, snake, monkey and rooster.

The group that sold is from an edition of eight plus four artist proofs, Phillips said. In each set, the animal heads, which range in height from 24 inches to 35 7/8 inches, sit on 3- foot-tall wood veneer pedestals.

They are a smaller version of the 10-foot-tall, bronze edition of "Circle of Animals" shown at Grand Army Plaza at Central Park in New York, the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington and the Sao Paulo Biennale.

While Mr Ai is one of the best known Chinese artists worldwide, his auction prices aren't as high as those of some of his peers. His previous auction record was US$1.2 million, set April 5, 2014, at Sotheby's in Hong Kong. In the same sale, a painting by Zhang Xiaogang sold for US$12.1 million.

While Mr Ai isn't allowed to leave China, his art is shown around the world. In September his solo exhibition will open at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Two casualties at the Phillips sale were a painting by Cecily Brown and a sculpture by Antony Gormley that went unsold.

High points included bidding for Mark Bradford's 2013 painting "Biting the Book" that sold for 2.5 million pounds, surpassing its high estimate of 1.5 million pounds and setting an auction record for the American artist.

Rashid Johnson's black and white 2008 painting, "We Real Cool" sold for 116,500 pounds, above the high estimate of 80,000 pounds.

Oscar Murillo, a young sensation at auction in the past two years, was represented by a 2012 painting, "Bingo," that fetched 206,500 pounds, surpassing its high estimate after the buyer's commission was added, but falling short of the artist's record of $401,000 set at Phillips in 2013.

Paintings by Alex Israel and Tauba Auerbach were among the sale's five guaranteed lots financed by third parties, according to Phillips.

California Sky Israel's 16-foot-wide painting of the California sky, "Sky Backdrop" (2013), sold for 506,500 pounds, within the estimated range. A similar, 14-foot-wide painting by Israel sold at Christie's in May for US$1 million. On Feb 10, Sotheby's sold a triptych by Israel for 305,000 pounds, within the estimate. Christie's diptych by the young Los Angeles-based artist was withdrawn from its evening sale on Wednesday.

Auerbach's 2009 "Untitled (Fold) X" went for 1.2 million pounds, within the estimated range. At its high estimate, it would have matched her record of US$2.3 million set in November.

"There's a softening at higher estimates for young, recognized artists," said Smatana. "When you see Tauba at 1.5 million pounds, there is not a lot of room."