At the most recent installment of summer sales, traditionally held in London in June, Phillips instead started the cycle in New York, as part of the now common shifting of auction locations and dates.
Held at their newly opened headquarters, the Phillips sale generated an above estimate $98 million hammer, more than double their 2020 total and up nearly 20% from its May 2019 sale. That being said, it’s important to note Phillips opted not to hold a London sale, pushing their ‘May sale’ to June which no doubt assisted volume. Strong evidence of this was the unusual inclusion of a Winston Churchill painting, which surely was destined for a London summer sale but was moved into their hybrid New York lot list, likely impacting the result, selling on just one bid.
The following week Sotheby’s and Christie’s presented their multitude of cross category evening sales, although in fact held in the afternoon so as to allow for global bids from New York and Hong Kong. Sotheby’s staged a British Art Evening sale, then followed by a Modern & Contemporary Art Evening sale which traversed art history with works by Degas and Monet to Mark Bradford and Julie Curtiss. The top lot of the evening being the 1937 Kandinsky estimated at £18 – 25 million, it sold for £18.3 million hammer (£21.2 million premium). Their eighty-three lot sale totalled a hammer of £130.3 million against a presale estimate of £119.7 – 170.3 million. Twelves lots, however, were withdrawn, some well before the sale and whose presence is now unknown to all but Sotheby’s as the auction house rapidly removed them from their online catalogue where possible. These works totaled well over £10 million in low estimates, which technically results in a below target sale total.
There was strength in the early part of both Sothebys’ evening sales, with deserving lots including Hockney’s Gladioli painting and Freud’s Portrait of David Hockney performing well. The latter for a hammer price of £12.8 million (£14.9 million premium) selling to James Sevier’s client after being chased by more than six bidders through to the top end of the bidding. Towards the second half of both sales, however, bidding began to feel thin with many lots selling on a single bid around or often below the low estimate. Over half of their sale was guaranteed and the lack of deep bidding proved this was required to help ensure their 93% sell through rate.
Christie’s opted to combine the 20th and 21st centuries into one sale with the collection of Francis Gross and a Paris evening sale following on, in the now normal relay fashion. With a total of ninety-four lots across the three sales, and a presale estimate around £114 – 167 million, (not including the four lots that were withdrawn, comprising just over £5 million in low estimate) the sales brought in a total of £119 million hammer. Considering the withdrawn lots, the three sales achieved within the low end of their presale expectations and similarly to Sotheby’s, apart from some key works by Picasso, James Ensor and Bridget Riley, several works sold on just one or two bids. Interestingly none of the Paris lots were guaranteed, compared to over half of the London auction, which resulted in an 87% sell through rate across all three sales. Top lots by value included Picasso’s L’Étreinte (1969) selling for £14.7 million (premium) and a René Magritte, La Vengeance (1936) which sold well above its €6 – 10 million estimate for €14.6 million (premium).
The strength of the Asian market continued to help propel these auctions. Phillips saw strong Hong Kong bidding on several lots, primarily for younger artists. Lot one at Sotheby’s, Jadé Fadojutimi, was chased by almost exclusively Hong Kong bidders and several clients of Patti Wong bid significantly on the higher end lots, notably Degas and Picasso. And similarly at Christie’s, artworks by Condo, Degas, Kusama, Chagall, Miro, Leger, Klee and Stanley Whitney all went to Hong Kong phones, with Asian bidding on over a third of lots in the London segment.
Also of note is the increasing number of lots for which the auction houses are accepting cryptocurrencies. Sotheby’s notionally accepted Ether or Bitcoin for their Banksy Laugh Now painting estimated at £2.5 – 3.5 million, it sold for a single bid at £2 million hammer. Christies also offered this for their 1984 Keith Haring painting estimated at £3.9 – 4.5 million, again selling on just one bid for £3.9 million to the third-party guarantor. Whilst the houses are clearly trying to tailor the works they select for this to a specific clientele, it certainly didn’t have the effect the consignors and houses alike were hoping for and will be interesting to see how this develops in future sales.
As has been the case over the last several sale cycles, emerging and historically under-represented artists continue to see the bulk of interest. Phillips set a new record for Avery Singer at $4.1 million (premium); Singer’s previous auction high, $3.1 million, was set just a month ago at Christie’s Hong Kong. Records were also set for Julie Curtiss, whose painting Three Widows (2016) sold for $466,200, more than double the $150,000 high estimate, and Titus Kaphar, whose portrait sold for just over $1 million, well above its $400,000 high estimate.
The reduced estimate for Phillips’ top lot, further demonstrated where heat in the market still lies. David Hockney’s A Neat Lawn (1967), was reduced from a low estimate of $12 to $9.5 million, accompanying a last minute third party guarantee, to whom it sold. Also of note in the Phillips sale was Jeff Koons’ Gazing Ball sculpture, surprisingly offered with no reserve, selling for $800,000 hammer ($998,000 premium).
In the current auction climate prices for young, figurative painters are exceeding that of some of the most historically expensive artists at auction, including Koons and Picasso. The auction debut for Flora Yukhnovich, estimated at $60,000 – 80,000 in the Phillips day sale, being a prime example, selling for an astonishing $950,000 hammer ($1.2 million premium). With only five solo shows to date and the artist having never received an institutional exhibition, the level of speculative buying has reached new heights.
During the London sales the situation was similar but less aggrandized due to the material, instead emphasizing the limited demand for the more traditional areas of the Impressionist & Modern market. At Christie’s, an exceptional work by Kirchner, Pantomime Reimann: Die Rache der Tänzerin (1912) sold on just one bid for £6 million hammer, whereas works by George Condo, Elizabeth Peyton and Bridget Riley experienced much more global and spirited bidding. Riley’s Zing 2 (1971) successfully sold for £3.3 million (premium), clearing the high estimate of £2.2 million and marking the second-highest auction price for Riley to date.
The next marquee sale cycles in October are again traditionally held in London and then Paris, adding to the pressure for the houses to swiftly gather more material. Brexit and Covid restrictions seem to have weakened Europe’s auction positioning but perhaps some of the stronger consignments have been pushed towards the ‘Frieze slot’, typically the most major calendar moment for the London art scene. The results of October will help inform how some of the trends seen during these sales will develop. What is in no doubt, however, is the strength of the Asian auction market. Compared to a 43% drop in New York and 38% decline in London, Asia’s sales fell just 3% in 2020. With almost $900 million worth of art sold to date, 2021 is poised to be another record for the region.
Image 1: Image courtesy Sotheby’s; Image 2: Image courtesy Sotheby’s; Image 3: Image courtesy Christie’s; Image 4: Image courtesy Sotheby’s; Image 5: Image courtesy Christie’s; Image 6: Image courtesy Phillips; Image 7: Image courtesy Phillips; Image 8: Image courtesy Phillips; Image 9: Image courtesy Christie’s