London art market buzzing after Christie's contemporary art sale

Reuters

* Second highest contemporary art sale in Europe

* Francis Bacon portrait sets new record for artist

By Julia Fioretti

LONDON, Feb 14 (Reuters) - The high-end art market passed another resilience test this week when Christie's fetched 124 million pounds ($206 million) for contemporary artworks at an evening auction in London, the second highest total for a European sale in that category.

The post-war and contemporary art auction at Christie's on Thursday evening highlights a series to be held in the British capital this month, shining the spotlight once again on a buoyant art market that experts say is driven by a growing pool of buyers, particularly from emerging markets.

A celebrated portrait by Irish-born artist Francis Bacon of his alcoholic lover and muse George Dyer, "Portrait of George Dyer Talking", painted in 1966, was bagged for 42 million pounds by a U.S. buyer, well above its pre-sale estimate of 30 million pounds, Christie's said on Thursday.

That made the painting the most expensive work of contemporary art to be sold at auction in Europe and also set a record for a single canvas by the artist, Christie's added.

The London-based auction house held the biggest ever sale of contemporary art in Europe in June 2012, when it sold 133 million pounds' worth of works.

Other top lots at the auction included Gerhard Richter's "Abstraktes Bild" from 1989, which went for 20 million pounds and Damien Hirst's "Mickey", a colourful depiction of the popular cartoon character Mickey Mouse, which was snapped up for 902,500 pounds.

"The astonishing energy and depth of bidding at this evening's auction follows on from the record auction of post-war and contemporary art in New York last November," said Francis Outred, international director and head of post-war and contemporary art at Christie's Europe on Thursday.

Christie's New York November sale saw a Bacon triptych sell for a whopping record of $142 million, a result experts attributed to the safe haven status of the high-end art market, particularly when compared with volatile emerging market currencies and unstable economies.

STOCK EXCHANGE OF THE ART MARKET

The eye-watering prices achieved for masterpieces in the past years have encouraged ever more collectors to sell, experts say, and the expanding class of buyers is helping keep demand strong.

"When you get very significant prices achieved by global buying, people will know that not only are they getting the highest price but they are selling to the broadest possible audience," Jussi Pylkkanen, president of Christie's Europe, told Reuters by telephone on Friday.

"That creates its own impetus."

A growing class of the super-wealthy in emerging markets, particularly China, Russia and the Middle East, have been increasing their buying power in a sector typically dominated by U.S. and European collectors.

Pylkkanen said that the Bacon piece sold on Thursday would probably not have come to market had it not been for the record-setting triptych last November. "That gives confidence to American and European buyers," Pylkkanen said.

"London and America, which (are) the stock exchanges of the art market, (are) able to offer these pieces to a much broader audience."

Thursday's sale followed that held by Christie's rival Sotheby's a day earlier which saw buyers parting with 88 million pounds ($146 million).

Auction officials have pointed to London's position as a financial centre and its attractive real estate market as reasons for buyers flocking to the British capital.

"London is a centre of art production and private and institutional collecting, supported by a network of creative and financial industries, and its global location physically as well as ideologically positions it well for the exchange of art in a secondary market," said Dida Tait, Head of Development & External Relations, at the Contemporary Art Society.

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