Contemporary Art: Masterpiece fails the auction test: Jasper Johns work and eccentricity show gap in market

Jasper Johns' Highway, which has been hailed as one of the greatest American paintings of the post-war era, was left unsold at a Sotheby's auction in New York on Wednesday night, underlining the cracks that have appeared in the contemporary art market this week, writes Geraldine Norman.

It was potentially the most expensive painting offered at auction since the market crashed in 1990. The hammer came down at dollars 7.2m ( pounds 4.9m), after the auctioneer, Lucy Mitchell-Innes, intoned one imaginary bid after another all the way from dollars 5m to dollars 7.2m, hoping that some real bidders would join in. This is standard auction practice, called 'taking bids off the chandelier'. An auctioneer is permitted to intone as many imaginary bids as he or she likes until the reserve is reached. It is rare, however, that such large fantasy figures are batted to and fro.

The Johns painting, a scumble of coloured brushstrokes inspired by oncoming headlights at night, is one of a series of four masterpieces painted in 1959. Another of them, False Start, set a record auction price for a post-war painting when it made dollars 17m at Sotheby's in 1989.

The sale totalled dollars 20.4m ( pounds 14m) but saw 18 out of 63 lots left unsold, mirroring the downward trend recorded at Christie's the night before.

Lamb mints pounds 25,000

The latest sculpture by Damien Hirst, Away from the Flock (above), has been sold to a collector for an estimated pounds 25,000, writes Dalya Alberge.

The piece, which consists of a lamb preserved in formaldehyde in a glass tank, is on view at the Serpentine Gallery in London as part of a show that opened on Wednesday and runs until 5 June.

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