Bacon painting sells for $16.4 million amid signs of unsettled art market

LONDON – A Francis Bacon painting the artist donated to an art college in lieu of rent decades ago has sold for $16.4 million at an auction where solid but unspectacular results suggest global financial turmoil may be unsettling the art market.

human body man turning on light.jpgStudy from the Human Body, Man Turning on the Light was bought Oct. 14 by an anonymous bidder at Christie’s auction house in London. The painting was given by Bacon to the Royal College of Art in 1969 as payment for renting a studio, and the college sold it to fund a new campus in south London.

London October auctions are being closely watched for signs that after several years of rising prices, the red-hot art market may be cooling. The price paid for the Bacon painting, which includes the buyer’s premium, was in the middle of Christie’s presale estimate of $14 million to $18 million.

Fine-art insurer Hiscox says the value of contemporary art sold at auction rose by 55 percent during the first six months of the year. But many fear the weak dollar and fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis will hit prices.

The total for the Christie’s sale was $80.6 million – nearly double the total for the same sale last year. But 15 percent of the artwork went unsold.

“It’s certainly not good news for market bulls, but it’s not ‘I told you so’ for market bears,” said Charles Dupplin, head of the art division Hiscox. “On balance, I wouldn’t have thought everyone from Christie’s went home shouting ‘Yippee!’”

Several high-profile lots underperformed, with works by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat failing to sell, and several Damien Hirsts going for below their pre-sale estimates.

It was a similar story at Sotheby’s Oct. 12 sale, when a Hirst polka-dot painting valued at up to $5.1 million went unsold.

Charles Dupplin, head of the art division at Hiscox, said any art-market slowdown would show itself first in a fall in sales. “You won’t see immediate price falls,” he said. “You just won’t see the buyers.”

Pilar Ordovas, Christie’s head of postwar and contemporary art, said the results showed “confidence in the international art market, notably the postwar and contemporary art segment, with strong prices achieved for top quality and sensibly estimated works.”

In contrast to the lackluster performance of some famous Western names, the weekend’s sales saw booming prices for contemporary Chinese art.

Christie’s sold 10 Chinese works for a total of $10.6 million, including Zeng Fanzhi’s “Mask Series 1999, No. 5,” which fetched $1.63 million – more than four times its pre-sale estimate.

At Sotheby’s, Yue Minjun’s “Execution’’ sold to a telephone bidder for $5.9 million, including buyer’s premium, a record for a Chinese contemporary artist.