London hails the first auction season of the year, setting the tone for what to expect for the art market in 2018. The ups and the downs of what was bought at the evening sales stand as a good indicator of the current health of the market and signal some interesting patterns in both the Impressionist and Modern and Post-War and Contemporary categories.
Evening Sale Results, London
Impressionist & Modern Auctions
Whilst the final results of the Christie’s and Sotheby’s London sales proved to be record-breaking auctions for the February/March period, both sales felt somewhat thin on the ground. Though Christie’s billed a handful of mid-range works that all sold well and often with a number of competing bids, the sale was lacking in a true masterpiece.
Some notable sales included a trio of works by Monet that reached solid prices, with a landscape of Vétheuil reaching £6.5m hammer, pushing it just beyond its high estimate. A beautiful early work by Wassily Kandinsky, Studie fur Landschaft (Dunaberg) was chased by four different bidders, eventually selling for £5.8m hammer, again just beyond its high estimate. However, whilst these results are a testament to the market’s current stability, they fell far short of creating an electrifying atmosphere.
The real story of interest of the night emerged gradually as it became apparent that the same bidder was intent upon buying each lot by Picasso (as set out in the table below), often bidding high above their estimates and eventually snapping up 8 of the 9 works on sale. Harry Smith from art advisory Gurr Johns sat in the room bidding on behalf of a mysterious client whose love for the Modern Master created a flurry of excitement that made quite the impression on the sale season. Harry Smith snapped up two of the evening’s top lots, both later works by Picasso including the large canvas, Mousquetaire et Nu Assis, for £12m hammer and a painting of Femme se Coiffant, a portrait of the artist’s second wife Jacqueline Roque for £5.8m hammer. In total the mysterious buyer, or “paddle 137”, spent a total of £37,091,500 ($51,481,518) including Buyer’s Premium (almost a third of the sale’s total) at Christie’s, leaving onlookers in a state of anticipation as to whether he would return the following night to the Sotheby’s auction room.
Picasso Lots, Christie’s
The competing auction house, unlike its counterpart, boasted a true stand out masterpiece. Picasso’s Femme au Béret et la Robe Quadrillé, with an undisclosed estimate of £35m was already billed to be the top lot of the sale, but after the previous evening’s stirring performance for works by the artist expectations were high for whether the same buyer would return for the piece. Sale room goers were rewarded as once again all four of the sale’s lots by Picasso were bought by the same bidder and though Harry Smith kept a lower profile in the sale room he is suspected of having been placing his bids over the telephone through a senior Sotheby’s executive. Femme au Béret sold for £44m hammer, making it one of the most highly contested lots of the evening, along with André Derain’s Bateaux á Collioure, which reached £9.5m just below its high estimates and Umberto Boccioni’s Testa +Luce + Ambiente that went for £7.9m after being chased by four different bidders.
Whilst Sotheby’s had more stand out pieces than the Christie’s sale, more than 30% of the lots did not find buyers. The night still gave a solid performance, however, had it not been for the active performance of Patty Wong, Sotheby’s executive, bidding over the telephone on behalf of a client and the constancy of the mysterious Gurr Johns client, the outcome would have been very different. The latter, as predicted, bought all four Picasso lots of the evening (see table below), totalling £73,798,000 ($102,428,672) including Buyer’s Premium, making up 62% of the evening’s overall results. Picasso emerged yet again as the main name of this season’s auctions and his mystery buyer pricked the curiosity of the whole art world.
Picasso Lots, Sotheby’s
Post-War and Contemporary Auctions
A different story emerged as the Post-War and Contemporary sales went underway. Whilst the Impressionist and Modern auctions were being carried by a few choice masters, the diversity of works being competitively sought after in the Post-War and Contemporary sales indicate a strong trajectory for the market in 2018. At Christie’s, for example, 48 artists were represented in the 64 lots of the Post-War and Contemporary evening sale, compared to just 33 of the 65 lots in the Impressionist and Modern evening auction.
Nonetheless, the Contemporary sales failed to inspire a feeling of wild excitement. The auctions were solid but not thrilling, despite the fact that Christie’s achieved the highest selling Post-War and Contemporary sale ever in all of Europe, with a grand total of £137,989,750 ($191,028,870) including Buyer’s Premium.
The Christie’s sale was heavily supported by the evening’s two top lots, by the ever high performing duo of Andy Warhol and Jean Michel-Basquiat. Warhol’s Six Self-Portraits elicited a bidding war between Alex Rotter and Francis Outred on the phones, finally hammering down at £19.9m ($27.8m), well above its low estimate of £16m. Basquiat’s work Multiflavours was also chased by two bidders reaching a respectable £10.6 ($14.8) million hammer.
Contemporary American art was certainly the evening’s winner with records rolling in for works by Mark Bradford, Kelley Walker, George Condo and a high demand for the developing market of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose four self-portraits kicked the sale off to a spirited start.
The following evening Sotheby’s picked up the mantle and delivered an animated performance which, though it did not reach the heights of Christie’s total, served up a more exciting evening in general.
The intrigue started when, among a flurry of interest, two room bidders began competing for lot 4, Christopher Wool’s Untitled, a large monochromatic abstract piece that with an estimate of £4.2 – £6.2m reached £9.2m ($12.6m) hammer. This was the second highest achieving work of the night. The highest was an anticlimactic result for Peter Doig’s The Architect’s Home in the Ravine. The piece, returning to the market for the second time in two years, sold to its third-party guarantor for £13.2m ($18.5m) hammer.
Other notable sales included two works by Gerhard Richter, the first, 1025 Farben, a multi-colour cube piece from 1974, reached £6.4m ($8.9m), with three bids, eventually selling to Brett Gorvy. The second work, Gelbgrün (Yellow-Green), sold just below high estimate for £9.5 ($13.3) million to Amy Cappellazzo’s bidder, showing a solid market for the German artist.
The following evening, Phillip’s boasted what might possibly be viewed as the week’s trump card. Stepping up their game to a level of serious competition with the two larger auction houses, Phillip’s 20th Century and Contemporary sale became their highest grossing sale ever, including New York, reaching £98,025,250 ($135,703,215) including Buyer’s Premium. Their staggering total was largely due to their night’s top lot Picasso’s La Dormeuse, estimated at £12 – 15m. The piece elicited up to six different bidders and eventually went to the telephones for £37m ($51.6m) hammer.
Eyes roamed fast around the sale room to spot whether Gurr John’s Harry Smith had made a return to bid on another of the Spanish master’s works but the art advisor was not to be seen. However, it is likely that after his high-profile bidding performance the week before, he switched his tactics and elected to avoid the sale room all together and place his bids over the telephone. He had stiff competition, however, due to the work being of exceptional beauty and artistic importance. It was spiritedly fought over for almost 15 minutes by a number of buyers.
Meanwhile, the rest of the sale included masterworks by a range of artists from Matisse to George Condo, all of which sold with gusto at high prices, with only a few disappointing results for smaller works that failed to find buyers.
Overall these two weeks of sales have proved that the art market is in a solidly healthy state, with established artists such as Richter, Warhol and Condo holding the helm against newer, more contemporary artists.
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Article by Rebecca Jennings
*BP stands for Buyer’s Premium, the additional charges added by the auction house to the final bidding or hammer price.