LONDON––This October two auctions in London presented a new high end approach to ceramics on auction in an expanded art context. Wall Street Journal welcomed the new move:
Christie’s and Phillips for the first time added stand-alone auctions of 20th-century and contemporary ceramics to their high-profile set of evening sales in London with examples by artists like Paul Gauguin, Lucio Fontana and Thomas Schütte. All but three of the 36 pieces in Christie’s $4 million “Un/Breakable” sale on Tuesday found buyers.
Each auction offers lessons for dealers, collectors and curators. UN/Breakable (see the catalog with results here) at Christies on October 2 was the most successful grossing GBP 3,107,625 while at Shape & Space: New Ceramic Presence at Phillips on October 5 brought in GBP 2,493,250. The title is a nod to Rose Slivka’s groundbreaking and controversial article in Craft Horizons in 1961, the first notice that a ceramic revolution was underway. To download the article click here
At Phillips the two excellent George Ohr pots (lots 53 and 54) failed to sell. The reason was evident, wildly optimistic estimates, both at GBP 80K to 120K. I am not surprised. The works come from the Collection of Estelle and Marty Shack. Early this year a vase in the much desired red glaze sold at Rago Arts for $56,000. It was at least the match of lot 53, smaller but better.
The two Ken Price estimates were also wishful thinking and neither sold. An exceptional Kathy Butterly received a reasonable 16,250, the American Wunderkind Roberto Lugo got 35,000 for Obama and Me. Coper did well with a Cycladic Arrow Figure getting the highest price 156,250.
A lively 20-inch tall Peter Voulkos 1959 vase sold for 40,000 confirming as I have previously written that the $915K price in 2017 for a Voulkos sculpture was a fluke. The vase’s price is what such works have been getting for the last five years. Phillips claim after the 2017 sales that Voulkos “was finally being recognized in the marketplace for the extraordinary importance he holds in in the pantheon of 20th century sculpture” was, at this point, wishful thinking.
Also some artists did not fit this auction notably Ewen Henderson and Claudi Casanovas, not a comment on their work but their underdeveloped resale market. Neither sold.
Not surprisingly the fine art stars did best, Yoshimoto Nare got 125,00 for an underwhelming plate, Ai Weiwei’s He Xie sold for 609,000, Lucio Fontana’s Cavallo for 549,000, Sarah Lukas got 87,500 for Toilet Elevation, the steal was Roy Lichtenstein’s Ceramic Sculpture #10 for only 309,000, and the ubiquitous overpriced Pablo Picasso reached 93,750. Robert Arneson’s monumental This head is mine has been withdrawn from the catalog results with a cryptic “no longer available” placemarker, perhaps because it did not sell. Its estimate was 258,000 to 388,000.
A Christies sale drew a large part of its income from Picasso. Grand vase aux femmes voiles sold for GBP 404,750 (how many of these vases exist?) and Tripode for GBP 150,000. A Fontana Crocifisso made 150,000 and his Concetto Spaziale 272,750, two Grayson Perry vases did well, 175,000 and 156.250. Thomas Shutte’s two ceramic sketches made 18,.500 and 162,500, Fausto Melotti’s ceramic market Gessetti sold for 32,750. Among the potters Alev Siesbye did better than Rie and Coper with 43,750 for a tall (rare) vase 27,500 for a bowl.
Perhaps the most exciting lot of Paul Gauguin’s ceramic sculpture the brutalist Vase porte-bouquet “Atahualpa” circa 1988 which sold for 150,000. And the most expanded view of ceramics was the inclusion and sale of Julian Schnabel’s plate painting Corrinne (which I have always seen as part of our expanded field) for 187,500.
The final lot was Bernard Leach. Yes, Bernard Leach. Two tiles panels sold for a healthy 52,500
A final note; In another sale Thinking Italian in London October 4, a work Leoncillo Leonardo, a gifted sculptor working ceramics mid-century reached an impressive price for Grande Mutilazione (Large Mutilation), 1962 almost crossing into seven figure club with $ 947.375 GBP 728,750. A brilliant artist, this attention is long overdue.
All in all, the two auctions represent a real step forward. Combined it’s the most exciting group of work yet. Kudos all round. The prices were healthy and the scholarship, particularly for the Phillips sale, was first class. Christies did produce a review “A Brief History of Modern Ceramics” that is worth a read. Contemporary ceramics and the auction are growing up together.
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