Despite the recent banking scandals and the slow pace of economic recovery, the latest round of auctions achieved the highest overall total seen in the capital since before the downturn in 2008.
Three houses held sales - Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips de Pury (all 25/20/12% buyer's premium) - and the running hammer total for the series was over £215m with a day sale at Phillips still to finish as ATG went to press.
This time it was Christie's who had the bulk of the blue-chip material. Their evening sale on June 27 made a hammer total of £116.9m against a presale estimate of £102m-139m - a figure that broke the record for a post-War and Contemporary art auction in Europe.
Four lots sold for over £10m as works by Yves Klein, Francis Bacon, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Gerhard Richter all generated serious interest even though they were all bound to sell - three of them had third-party guarantees and the other was guaranteed by Christie's themselves.
Elsewhere on the night, demand also held up well with 60 out of the 69 lots finding buyers (87%).
Klein's Sponge Board
Leading the way and making the highest price of the series was the Yves Klein (1928-1962) relief from 1960 entitled Le Rose du Bleu (RE 22).Featuring pink pigments, natural sponges and pebbles on board, it had the 'estimate on request' epithet in the catalogue although the pitch was thought to be in the region of £18m-20m.
The 6ft 6in x 5ft (1.99 x 1.53m) work was the largest of 12 pink sponge reliefs created by Klein. It had also been included in all the artist's major exhibitions over the past 50 years.
With the bidding opening at £15m, it drew a two-way competition and was knocked down at £21m to a phone bidder operating through Christie's European head of contemporary art Francis Outred.
It just overshot the previous record for Klein set less than two months earlier - the $32.5m (£20.9m) seen for FC1 (Fire Color 1) at Christie's New York.
Also at Christie's, Francis Bacon's (1909-1992) Study for Self-Portrait took £19.2m, selling to New York dealer Christophe van der Weghe who was bidding on behalf of a client.
Another lot with an unpublished estimate, this picture had been the subject of a lawsuit regarding the $40m guarantee it had apparently been given prior to its consignment to Christie's in 2008. According to the complaint from the vendor (Weiss Family Art), the auction house had later said they could no longer honour the guarantee, citing "the changed climate of the art market". The painting had failed to sell in November 2008 without any actual bidding at $27.5m.
In a more positive market, the current sale also set a record for Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) when an Untitled acrylic took £11.5 and further competition emerged for top works by Gerhard Richter (b.1932) when Struktur (2) sold for £11.3m. Both had third-party guarantees.
There was also a strong take up over at Sotheby's the night before as 69 of the 79 lots (87%) got away for a £60m hammer total. The presale estimate was £57.5m-82.5m.
Lacking the kind of stellar lots seen at their rival's sale, the highest price was Basquiat's Warrior painting from 1982 which sold just below estimate to private buyer at £4.95m.
The best competition at Sotheby's came for Glenn Brown's (b.1966) Tragic Conversion of Salvador Dali (After John Martin) which drew four telephone bidders and sold at £4.6m to a private collector.
A full report of the Contemporary art sales will appear in next week's ATG.