London October 2019 Sales Highlights and Summary 

Post-War & Contemporary Sale Summary


Please note that prices listed in the summary above refer to hammer prices and do not include auction fees.

Christie’s Lancaster Sale

Christie’s commenced this year’s Frieze week contemporary auctions with the sale of the Jeremy Lancaster Collection, a group predominantly made up of post-war British works with smatterings of American and European avant-garde pieces. With no works  guaranteed, an impressive 48 out of 53 lots sold for £23m (incl. premium), against a pre-sale estimate of £13.9 – £19.7m. Bidders from 26 countries registered and 30% of those bidders were from Asia, dispelling opinions of decreasing transactions from the region.

The auction opened with a flurry of bids for a remarkable gouache study by Bridget Riley which sold for £250,000 (incl. premium), more than doubling its low estimate of £100,000. With a major Bridget Riley show opening at the Hayward Gallery on 23 October, there was strong interest in her works during the sale. The pastel-toned Orphean Elegy 7 (1979) sold for £2.3m (£2.8m with fees) above a £1.5m – £2m estimate, making it the third highest price for a colour work by the artist.

Drawn in by attractive estimates, there was significant trade bidding in the room from a range of international dealers including David Zwirner himself, Michael Haas, Acquavella, Piano Nobile, Annely Juda and Offer Waterman. This was mostly underbidding, however, Simon Stock from Gagosian Gallery was the buyer of Frank Auerbach’s Head of E.O.W (1955) for £1.2m (incl. premium) on behalf of a client.

Lancaster particularly enjoyed the work of British painter, Howard Hodgkin, and the sale included works spanning seven decades of his career. An orange framed painting Bombay Sunset (1972-3) saw bidding from Victorian art specialist Martin Beisly, who was seated with an Asian client, but he was outbid by a phone bidder who acquired it for £731,250 (incl. premium), the most expensive of the five works on offer.

Of the American offerings from the collection, Andy Warhol’s Clockwork Panda Drummer (1983), sold for £180,000 hammer (£225,000 incl. premium) to an Asian buyer on the phone. Lancaster had purchased it at Sotheby’s in 2007 for £144,000 with fees.

Two paintings by Philip Guston were subject to competitive bidding, an unusual inclusion in a London auction. Both were late works in Guston’s cartoonish figurative manner, whose market development demonstrates how tastes have changed, with demand previously for more abstract early works. Language 1 (1979), had gone unsold in 1993 with a $200,000 low estimate before Lancaster bought it from Leslie Waddington in 1995. At Christie’s this work carried an estimate of £1.5 – £2m and attracted 5 bidders including Acquavella Gallery before selling to the phones for £3.8m (incl. premium), making it the top lot of the sale. When the second, smaller painting of two hooded figures came to the block it sold for £1.1m (incl. premium) against an estimate of £400,000 – £600,000, again the price driven up by numerous bidders. With a major forthcoming travelling retrospective starting at National Gallery of Art, Washington in June 2020, demand for the artist’s work is rising.

With an impressive 91% sell through rate, the sale was a solid and successful start to Frieze week, helping to draw attention to not just modern but contemporary British art with significant levels of international bidding.

Phillips’ 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Phillips’ 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale comfortably totaled £25.8m (incl. premium), at the high end of their pre-sale estimate of £17.1 – £24.5m. Over 60% of the value of the sale was guaranteed by third parties, significantly more than the other auction houses. Whilst Christie’s and Sotheby’s had lower presale estimates than 2018, Phillips was fractionally higher.

True to form Phillips’ sale was heavily weighted with younger contemporary artists, relatively fresh to the auction market. It was these lots that received the most spirited bidding, drawing some excitement to an otherwise typical roster of London auctions. The first six lots in this category all surpassed their estimates, notably Gagosian’s newly signed artist Nathaniel Mary Quinn, whose 2015 painting Over Yonder hammered at £170,000 (£212,500 incl. premium), more than double its £60,000 low estimate, with six bidders competing for the work. Works by Simone Leigh, Derek Fordjour, Sanya Kantarovsky, Tschabalala Self and Tomoo Gokita all followed suit, hammering at or above their high estimates.

The headline auction record for the evening was achieved for Alex Katz’s Blue Umbrella I (1972) which fetched £2.8m (£3.4m incl. premium; est of £800,000 – £1.2m) whose prices have been steadily rising over the past year. Six bidders rallied for the work before it eventually sold on the phone to Phillips’s client advisory director, Philae Knight. Other records for were achieved for Leigh, Fordjeur, Kantarovksy and Raoul De Keyser. Hurvin Anderson, whose Beaver Lake from 1998, shown at his graduation show from the Royal College of Art, was just shy of his record selling for £2.2m (incl. premium) against the artist’s highest ever estimate, £1.5 – £2m.

Phillips appropriately focused on only a few high value lots, instead aligning themselves with the ethos of Frieze which aims to present younger artists in the mid or lower range price categories. As a result, the sale maintained strong interest throughout, with a 95% sell through rate and 28% increase on their sale total from 2018 as testament to the success of this strategy.

Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction

Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction totaled £54.7m (incl. premium) against a pre-sale estimate of £40.4m – £53.1m.

Unquestionably the principal headline of the night was the sale of Banksy’s Devolved Parliament, which sold for a record £9.9m (incl. premium), nearly five times the £2m high estimate and smashing the artist’s previous record of £1.5m. At least 10 bidders competed for the work including Czech data analyst and collector Matyas Kodl, Jose Mugrabi and Turkish banker Halit Cingillioglu. The 13-minute battle eventually whittled down between two phone bidders with Emma Baker and Alex Branczik respectively and one persistent bidder at the back of the room, before selling to Baker’s client. Amongst a backdrop of Brexit uncertainty and exactly a year after the artist’s infamous shredding incident (which saw Sotheby’s install metal detectors for this round of auctions), the timing of the sale was impeccable and added some much-needed action to an otherwise prosaic sale.

Aside from the Banksy’s dominating presence, the sale consisted of generally safe blue-chip consignments, including Basquiat, Bacon and a smattering of classic Italian postwar artists, Fontana, Burri etc. These names contributed to the other top prices of the night including Basquiat’s Pyro selling for £9.9m (incl. premium), ironically the same price as the Banksy, and Bacon’s Figure with Monkey for £2.8m (incl. premium).

This was closely followed by a 1961 faux naive Dubuffet portrait, Melancolie, which saw competing bidding between the Nahmad and Mugrabi families, before both were outbid by a collector on the phone who paid a double-estimate £2.65m (incl. premium).

Other noteworthy prices included an artist record set for Salvatore Scarpitta at £2.5m (incl. premium) which had last sold in 2005 for £114,000, whilst a Natura bronze by Fontana set a new sculpture record at £2.5m (incl. premium).

Three lots were withdrawn prior which affected an already reduced sale total compared to last year: a guaranteed Sigmar Polke painting, a creased canvas by Piero Manzoni, estimated at £4m – £6m, and a Cy Twombly work. 34 out of 41 lots sold with an 87.2% sell through rate. Although 2018’s totals were boosted by the Teiger collection, ultimately the sale total was a 53% decrease from last year, as the auction house struggled to attract consignments. Despite this strain half of the lots sold for within or above estimates and the average price per artwork was a healthy £1.35m, the highest across all three houses.

Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Auction

Christie’s closed this year’s round of London Frieze week auctions with a Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Auction totaling £64.5m (incl. premium; estimated at £52.5 – £73.9m), followed by a Modern and Contemporary Italian art sale totaling £24.6m (incl. premium; estimated at £18.5m – £27.3m).

The sale included two group consignments that are being spread throughout multiple sales; the UniCredit Group, which is raising money to support social-impact banking, and the Belgian Mathys-Colle Collection. The latter of which was led by a copper and steel floor sculpture from 1969 by Carl Andre that sold above estimate for a record £2.4m (incl. premium) to a US phone bidder.

The significant prices for the sale centered around three auction stalwarts, although few hammered at their estimated prices. The top seller of the night was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Four Big (1982), which sold for just under its £7.5m – £9.5m estimate, at £7.4m (£8.6m with fees), reportedly to Acquavella Gallery. A pale polka dotted ’60s painting of flowers by Sigmar Polke sold below estimate for £5.6m (incl. premium), and a large abstract picture by Gerhard Richter from the collection of the Unicredit Group, also went below estimate at £7m (incl. premium).

A work by France’s most expensive living artist, Pierre Soulages, demonstrated the long-term price ascension of his market. A buyer bought a 1987 work by the artist for €50,000 ($54,900) in 1996; his heirs witnessed the price increase to £2.8m (incl. premium). The top Soulages of the sale, a 1960 black and red abstract painting, saw competition between Belgium’s Vedovi Gallery and an Asian phone bidder before it sold mid-estimate for £5.5m (incl. premium).

In a similar vein to Phillips’ sale, the most animated bidding came for works by up and coming artists including Tschabalala Self, Nathaniel Mary Quinn, and, Thornton Dial who all saw record estimates. Another notable lot was Lady in Green by Pace Gallery’s much-in-demand artist Loie Hollowell, which sold for £359,250 (incl. premium) – doubling the record for the artist, set in New York in March.

The postwar sale achieved eight world-record prices for artists, there were only six lots unsold and only two lots unsold in the Italian sale. With an impressive 87% sell through rate, the sale proved successful and despite political turbulence, Christie’s displayed a solid performance.

Overall sales totals for Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips combined were down from last year but prices remained strong for deserving works, indicating a consignment and supply problem for London’s auctions, undoubtedly due to the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. Artworks by younger contemporary artists, priced in the low to mid-range category, were most popular among bidders as the auction market continues to search for fresh material and artists. With a total of £192.6m (incl. premium) spent across five evening sales, surpassing the overall low estimate of £142.4m, the auctions demonstrated the stability of the London art market.


Author: Charlie Wood

Cover image © Neil P. Mockford/Getty Images for Sotheby’s

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