LONDON — The spring auctions here, which ended on Thursday night, were a sharp contrast to those that recently took place in New York. There was not a night in London over the last two weeks when sales reached nearly $500 million, as happened in May at the Christie’s evening sale of postwar and contemporary art in New York.
In fact, that one Christie’s auction almost eclipsed the total from all five of the evening auctions in London.
It’s been generally a struggle for Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips to gather property to sell. Unless a big estate comes up, or a collector is in financial trouble and needs cash, people these days are hanging on to their art rather than investing in the financial markets.
The London auctions also followed an unusually jampacked spring calendar that piled art fairs in Hong Kong and Basel, as well as the Venice Biennale, on top of the New York sales. Collectors seem tired. Many experts grumbled that the quality of what was sold in London paled in comparison with New York, and said that the auction houses should have considered canceling their June London sales.
Even the auction houses acknowledged some problems. “After New York and Basel, it was a challenge to keep clients focused,” said Brett Gorvy, Christie’s worldwide chairman of postwar and contemporary art.
Still, London is one of the world’s art capitals, attracting buyers from other parts of Europe as well as Russia and the Middle East. And the diversity of collectors was more pronounced than ever this season. On Wednesday, for example, Sotheby’s reported that at its contemporary auction, bidders came from 38 countries, its broadest participation ever, with one in 10 registered bidders from what Sotheby’s calls “new markets.”
Here are some of the high and low points of the London sales:
BACON STARS AT SOTHEBY’S Two paintings by Francis Bacon — one of the artist’s favorite female model and another of a man peering at the viewer from behind a pair of delicate glasses — were the stars of Sotheby’s sale of contemporary art. Both Bacon canvases were being sold by William Acquavella, the New York dealer, according to several dealers familiar with the works. The better of them — “Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne” — was a 1966 triptych of Rawsthorne, an artist, who was Bacon’s confidante and model.
Two bidders fought for that painting, which was purchased by Alex Corcoran of the Lefevre Gallery in London for $17.3 million. It had been estimated to bring $15.5 million to $23.3 million. Mr. Acquavella had bought the triptych at Christie’s in London nine years ago for $4.2 million.
The second Bacon — “Head III” — a 1949 canvas of a man’s head peering eerily out, was bought by an unidentified telephone bidder for $16.1 million, well above its $10.8 million high estimate.
(Final prices include the buyer’s premium: 25 percent of the first $100,000; 20 percent from $100,000 to $2 million; and 12 percent of the rest. Estimates do not reflect commissions.)
STRONG ABSTRACTS Abstract paintings have been all the rage recently, and two works by Lucio Fontana commanded high prices at Sotheby’s on Wednesday night. His “Concetto Spaziale, le Chiese di Venezia,” a 1961 canvas inspired by the mosaics, frescoes, glass and stone of churches in Venice, which was expected to fetch $6.2 million to $9.3 million, went to a telephone bidder for $6.8 million. And Fontana’s 1965 “Concetto Spaziale, Attese,” a white canvas with his signature slashes that was expected to bring $5.1 million to $7 million, sold for $6.7 million to another telephone bidder.
Another top seller was de Kooning’s “Untitled XXVIII,” from 1983, which was auctioned at Christie’s. The abstract canvas of swirling ribbons in reds and blues had sold for $4 million in November 2011. This time around, it was estimated at $2.8 million to $3.8 million and brought $4.4 million.
POPULAR IN LONDON David Hockney is always a favorite here, especially after his blockbuster exhibition last year at the Royal Academy of Arts. At Sotheby’s, two works brought higher-than-expected prices. “A Small Sunbather,” from 1967, depicting one of his famed swimming pools, had belonged to Stanley J. Seeger, the celebrated collector who died in 2011. Although it was expected to bring $467,000 to $780,000, it sold to a telephone bidder for $1.7 million. Mr. Seeger had bought the painting at Christie’s in New York 13 years ago for $270,000. A later Hockney work, “Double East Yorkshire,” a colorful landscape from 1998 that had been estimated to sell for $3.1 million to $4.6 million, went to another telephone bidder for $5.3 million.
The sale also included five photographs by Andreas Gursky depicting stock exchanges around the world. They were being sold by Greg Coffey, a former hedge fund manager living in London. Among the best was “Chicago Board of Trade III,” which was estimated at $935,000 to $1.2 million and went to a telephone bidder for $3.3 million.
MIXED RESULTS Jean-Michel Basquiat was a big seller at Christie’s on Tuesday night when a painting from 1982 went for $29 million. But at Sotheby’s, “Quij,” a 1985 canvas featuring a large yellow windmill, failed to sell. It was one of the evening’s biggest casualties, as was “Hoax,” a 1983 collage on canvas, also by Basquiat.
LOW BIDS Damien Hirst continues to lose his luster. At Christie’s, “Soulful,” a 2008 circular work made up of hundreds of butterfly wings on canvas, failed to sell. It was expected to fetch $980,000 to $1.3 million. “Zinc Chloride,” from 2002, one of Mr. Hirst’s spot paintings, was expected to bring $460,000 to $750,000, but sold for $432,320, or $521,679, including Christie’s fees.
But “My Way,” from 1990-91, one of the artist’s early medicine cabinets filled with old drug bottles, did well. Two people were interested in the piece, which was estimated to sell for $1.1 million to $1.4 million and brought $1.3 million.
At Sotheby’s, two works sold for well below their estimates. “Judgement Day/Atonement,” a canvas filled with butterfly wings from 2004-5, was expected to sell for $780,000 to $1 million but brought $651,537 to a lone telephone bidder. “Girl,” another butterfly painting, this one round and bright blue, from 1997, sold for $535,890, or $651,537, including Sotheby’s fees.
YOUTH SELLS Works by a younger generation of artists had some surprising results. Glenn Ligon’s neon sculpture, “Untitled (Negro Sunshine),” from 2005, sold to Ivor Braka, a London dealer, for $299,938, exceeding its high estimate of $234,000. At the Phillips auction on Thursday, younger, high-profile artists, including Rob Pruitt, Kelly Walker, Tauba Aueerbach, Sterling Ruby and Oscar Murillo, brought better-than-expected prices. The South American Mr. Murillo was particularly hot; a 2011 untitled painting by him brought $224,145, nearly four times its high estimate.
BIDDING UP The Scottish painter Peter Doig has been something of a star in London, especially after his 2008 retrospective at Tate Britain. On Tuesday César Reyes, a psychiatrist who lives in Puerto Rico and is one of the artist’s biggest collectors, was selling “Jetty,” a 1994 canvas of a lone figure on a dock at sunset. Four bidders went for the painting, which was estimated to bring $6.1 million to $9 million and was bought by a telephone bidder for $11.3 million.
POPPED Several Pop canvases had mixed results. There were no takers for Warhol’s “Colored Campbell’s Soup Can,” a 1965 painting that had been in the collection of the legendary dealer Ileana Sonnabend and was being sold anonymously by Steven A. Cohen, the hedge fund billionaire, according to people familiar with his collection. But Lichtenstein’s “Cup of Coffee,” a 1961 painting from one of the artist’s series of a single image with his signature Ben-Day dots in the background, brought $4.3 million, above its high $3 million estimate.
By CAROL VOGEL