Hot, Cold and Busted Sales in London Show the Risks of Flipping Art

(Bloomberg) -- Competing bids for a tiny abstract painting by Robert Ryman climbed higher and higher until - Bang! - the hammer came down on the 1963 canvas at 850,000 pounds ($1.08 million), more than twice its low estimate.

The boisterous moment came during the Wednesday evening auction of contemporary art at Sotheby’s in London, but it masked a sobering reality: “Untitled #32" was far from a great investment.

Hot, Cold and Busted Sales in London Show the Risks of Flipping Art

The 7.7-inch square canvas marked with thick white brushstrokes had been purchased for $1.09 million less than two years earlier. The anonymous owner tried selling it last summer, when it appeared in a New York show priced at $1.8 million. The work returned to the market this week estimated at 400,000 pounds to 600,000 pounds. While that did the trick, the seller barely broke even. The S&P 500 Index gained 16% over the same period it was held.

The result underscores the risk of seeking quick gains in the opaque art trade. Every couple of seasons, market darlings emerge while erstwhile favorites are cast aside. Some investors have made a killing flipping works by hot young artists or guaranteeing blue-chip pieces. Inevitably, though, there are missteps.

Sotheby’s got a single bid for a painting of a carpet by Rudolf Stingel, which the seller purchased for $3 million just two years earlier at Christie’s in Hong Kong. This week, it sold for about $1.3 million (before the fees charged by the auction house).

“A lot of these works are not fresh to market and the estimates are quite aggressive,” said Benjamin Godsill, a New York art adviser. It’s also gotten harder to flip from one auction to another as more buyers can look up results online, he said.

Those who bought works by emerging artists from galleries a few years ago had a much better time of it.

Hot, Cold and Busted Sales in London Show the Risks of Flipping Art

Christie’s this week had 19 registered bidders for “Out of Body," a 2015 oil and fabric collage on canvas depicting curvaceous female figures in bright colors, by Tschabalala Self, an up-and-coming artist with rave reviews and museum exhibitions under her belt. Four years ago, "Out of Body" was priced at less than $10,000 in her first solo gallery show in New York.

On Wednesday, it fetched 371,250 pounds, more than six times the high estimate and a record for the 29-year-old artist. The buyer was Jose Mugrabi, the patriarch of a collecting family known for its holdings of Warhols and Basquiats as well as investment in emerging artists. In 2013, the Mugrabi family paid $389,000 for Lucien Smith’s first painting at auction. It remains the artist’s record, long after his auction prices collapsed.

On Thursday, another Self painting, “Leda," fetched 237,500 pounds at Phillips, roughly a 2,000% increase from four years earlier and about four times the high estimate.

Hot, Cold and Busted Sales in London Show the Risks of Flipping Art

At Sotheby’s, a large portrait of a young black woman, “Compound Leaf" (2017), by Toyin Ojih Odutola went for 471,000 pounds, more than three times the high estimate and also a record at auction. It was purchased from Jack Shainman gallery in 2017 for $40,000.

Such rewards are far from common advisers warn.

“Any time you buy a work by an emerging artist, it’s more likely be worth the same amount or less in five years than $100,000," Godsill said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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