Sotheby’s led the London auction market last week with Hockney, while Phillips turned its attention to a new generation of young artists. Meanwhile Christie’s saw a 30 per cent drop in its Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening sale.
TEXT: CoBo Editorial
IMAGES: Courtesy of various
Overall, the London sales showed many positive indications of a stable market: a low buy in rate and the majority of lots selling comfortably within estimate. However, while London has—in terms of big-ticket artworks—long played second fiddle to New York and, more recently, Hong Kong, this week the problems in consigning 20th century masterpieces became apparent. With only one artwork exceeding £10 million up for grabs (Hockney’s The Splash at Sotheby’s), the auction houses promoted new artworks by young up-and-coming contemporary artists; works they might previously have placed in a Day Sale. While these new artists sold well across all three auction houses in London, often spurred on by online bidders in Asia, acutely apparent was the resulting drop in revenue that new contemporary art draws in comparison to stellar modern works.
Sotheby’s kicked-off with their Contemporary Art Evening Sale, on Tuesday 11 February, which totalled £92,488,659 (US$119,310,370), including buyer’s premium. With a sell through rate of 93.5 per cent by lot, the sale was what industry insiders refer to as “solid” wherein all key works sold, but for mostly within—and often to the lower end of—their estimates. There were no big splashes. The highlight of the night was David Hockney’s The Splash (1966), which sold for £23,117,000 (US$29,820,930), not quite reaching its top estimate. Likewise, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Rubber (1985), was bought for £7,487,600 (US$9,664,994), safely within its estimate, by dealer James Butterwick.
Butterwick also bid heavily on Adrian Ghenie’s The Arrival (2014), purchasing it for £4,184,500 (US$5,426,460), well clear of its top estimate. After a shaky few years, Ghenie’s market is clearly up and running again. It was also a good night for Maurizio Cattelan, whose Untitled fetched above its high estimate for £1,515,000 (US$1,964,652). Was this a result of his recent press from his banana stunt at Art Basel Miami Beach in December 2019? Or perhaps the theft of his 18-carat gold toilet America from Blenheim Palace, UK, back in September 2019.
Underscoring the Brexit theme of the week, Banksy’s Vote to Love (2018), was bid up on the phones and eventually sold in the room to Bartow Morgan Jr., chief executive of the BrandBank for £1,155,000 (US$1,497,804), over twice its lower estimate. And Eddie Martinez’ Empirical State of Mind (2009) fetched £615,000 (US$793,842), four times its high estimate, with Butterwick as an underbidder, and watched on by Jay Rutland of Maddox Gallery.
On the whole, women artists did well. Bidding was active for Witch (2017) by young artist Julie Curtiss, which realised £162,500 (US$210,730) against a top estimate of £70,000 excluding buyer’s premium, with eight dealers bidding including dealer Hugh Gibson. Bridget Riley’s Shift sold for £2,715,000 (US$3,520,812) to dealer Alan Hobart. A new auction record was achieved for Portuguese French painter Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, when L’Incendie II ou le Feu (The Burning II or The Fire), from 1944, sold for £1,635,000.00 (US$2,120,268), to a collector from mainland China.
Somewhat lagging behind, Christie’s Pop-heavy Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on Wednesday 12 February totalled £56,180,434 (US$72,697,482) including buyer’s premium. This is Christie’s lowest result for the same sale in a decade, and 30% down on last year. The reason? Perhaps a lack of bid-ticket-works: there were piece exceeding £5 million.
Positively, of the lots consigned, all but one sold. The top work, Andy Warhol’s iconic Muhammad Ali (1977) sold for £4,973,250 (US$6,489,210), just shy of its top estimate, to a phone bidder in the US. Muhammad Ali was followed by 12 other Warhol lots, many of them from the artist’s “Athletes” series, featuring sports personalities about whom auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen shared witty anecdotes. The second and third highest lots of the night were Jean-Michel Basquiat’s The Mosque (1982), which narrowly missed its £4,000,000 low estimate, and David Hockney’s Walnut Trees (2006), a painting of the East Yorkshire landscape, which realised £3,251,250 (US$ 4,242,244).
The three Dubuffet lots, Alentour la maison (Around the House) (1957); Panorama (1958); and the wonderfully-textured La robe à boutons (Button Dress) (1961), all went comfortably within estimate and stirred no surprises, despite the fact that The Barbican in London will be opening a major Dubuffet exhibition later this year.
The lots that garnered the most attention in the room at Christie’s were the Oehlen, the Riley and the Tàpies. Albert Oehlen’s large acrylic, oil and inkjet on canvas Mission Rohrfrei (Down Periscope) (1996), sold for £3,191,250 (US$4,163988), well above its high estimate, to dealer Daniella Luxembourg.
In other lots, Bridget Riley’s Gaillard (1989), was bought by Alan Wheatley for £2,291,250 (US$2,989,655). It was also a good night for Antoni Tàpies’ market when Pintura del Cubell (Painting with Laun-dry Bucket), executed in mid-1970, fetched £851,250 (US$1,110,723), double its high estimate and setting a new artist’s auction record for his assemblage works on wood. Another artist record at auction was set by Günther Förg’s multi-panel work Untitled (1990), when it sold for £1,331,250 (US$1,737,034) to Gabby Palmieri.
Rounding out the London spring auction season, on Thursday 13 February, was Phillips’ 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, which totalled £21,183,600 (US$27,665,782), including buyer’s premium. As there were few pieces actually dating to the 20th century, this sale identified the emerging contemporary artists of the moment; almost two thirds of the works consigned were created post-2000.
The story of the night was Amoako Boafo’s 2019 work, The Lemon Bathing Suit, fiercely bid on and wildly sold for over 10 times its top estimate for £675,000 (US$881,550), spurred on by an online bidder in Hong Kong. Another contemporary artist’s record was made when Tschabalala Self’s Princess (2017) sold for £435,000 (US$568,110), again driven by online bidders in Asia. After underbidding on the Martinez at Sotheby’s on Tuesday, James Butterwick finally managed to pick one up, Neanderthal Jeans (2014), for £375,000 (US$489,304).
The high value lots of the night both sold for within estimate, Ed Ruscha’s God Knows Where, 2014, at £3,375,000 (US$4407,750) and Keith Haring’s 1981 untitled painting for £3,206,000 (US$4,187,036).
So a week of safe sales in London, with nothing spectacular, and by all accounts, about a quarter down on last year. The chatter throughout the sale rooms was Brexit: the pressure that three years of indecision has put on the business, and a winter consignment period overshadowed by the general election. Certainly, the lack of stellar lots—only one this week passed the £10 million mark—is a concern. Yet the auction houses, along with the rest of the London art market, are quietly optimistic returning confidence in time for the June sales. With the big Brexit moment now in the past, and auctions in Asia somewhat hampered by the COVID-19 virus, things could be shaping up well for bigger and better London consignments this summer.
*All prices include premium
*currency exchange rates accurate at time of press but may be subject to change