London’s first round of auctions for the 2019 season began with a total hammer of around £394.8m worth of art sold across two weeks of Contemporary and Impressionist evening sales. Christie’s reigned supreme in the Impressionist category offering lots from two excellent private collections that of Monte Wallace and David Graham. However, Sotheby’s took the lead with their Contemporary sales total surpassing their counterparts. All auction houses boasted strong sell through rates across the board despite a potentially anxious market.
Sotheby’s Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale
Sotheby’s Post-War and Contemporary Evening sale had a strong sell through rate of 91%. Despite this, the hammer totalled £77.9m which just cleared the pre-sale estimate of £76.9 – 106.5m. This was owed to nearly half of the lots offered selling at or below their low estimates, with many selling on a single bid. The recent increased buyer’s premiums along with Brexit uncertainties suggested a cautious and selective market.
A textile work by Tracey Emin sold well below its estimate for £405,000 (incl. premium), on a single bid to a late-entry third-party guarantor. One of the star lots, a nine-foot-high Jenny Saville painting of a bare female back, also appeared to sell to its guarantor for £4.8m (hammer). Three works by Gerhard Richter attracted very few bidders, most notably two of the Photo paintings only slightly surpassed the price that consignor Marc Jacobs paid for them five years ago.
Contrastingly, Rebecca Warren’s bronze sculpture made an auction record for the artist, selling for £555,000 (incl. premium) and Bridget Riley’s market proved strong with a 1983 stripe painting selling at the high estimate of £1.8m. Toyin Ojih Odutola’s painting also more than doubled its £100,000 low estimate to sell for £250,000 (incl. premium), amid the steady rise in prices for African American artists.
Lots by Jean-Michel Basquiat did particularly well, signifying there is also demand for the artist’s work at lower price points. Only one of the five works on offer failed to sell but the other four works all performed well. The works on paper from the J.C. Tan collection were the subject of aggressive bidding by the Nahmad family as Joe Nahmad lost the first Tan work to a rival who bid £925,000 (hammer) and won the second for £825,000 (hammer). The guaranteed Apex got pushed well beyond the £5m rumoured estimate, eventually selling to a French-speaking specialist on a telephone who paid £8.22m with fees.
Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale
Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Evening sale totalled £67.4m with a sell through rate of 93%. Almost half of this sale total, however, was made up by one lot, the £33.42m (hammer) Hockney Portrait of Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott. No other works in the sale approached the £10m price range. Nine works in the sale were guaranteed with a total low estimate value of £42.6m, comprising some 66% of the low estimate value of the entire auction indicating that a significant amount of brokering was secured before the sale began. As with Sotheby’s, many lots sold at the low estimates on single bids. Further diminution in the Richter market was demonstrated with AB Tower (1987), which was purchased 16 months ago in New York for $3.8m; it was offered by an Asian seller without a guarantee and sold for £2.6m (hammer) which meant a loss of $400k for the seller.
As at the previous evening’s Sotheby’s sale, the auction kicked off with a strong focus on young contemporary female artists including Avery Singer and Katherina Grosse, but the star lot was a large-scale double portrait by Jordan Casteel. With a current solo show at the Denver Art Museum, nine bidders went for the work before eventually selling to a phone bidder for £299,250 (incl. premium), against an estimate of £40,000-60,000, with primary works selling for around $15,000.
Other success stories included Cecily Brown’s Night Passage (1999); it was sold by Charles Saatchi in October 2007 for £468,000, and this time, with three bidders, sold for £3.1m (incl. premium); the third most expensive auction result for the artist. This sale, Saatchi consigned David Salle’s Bigger Rack (1998) which sold for £515,250 (incl. premium), the second highest auction price for the artist. A group of three 1950’s Nicolas de Stael paintings also attracted strong Russian bidding, the top seller was a still life of bottles which sold well above estimate for £4.5 million (incl. premium).
Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale
Despite Phillips’ 29 lot sale, which unsurprisingly gave them a lower auction total compared to Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the evening sale brought in £36.4m (incl. premium) which was toward the top end of their pre-sale estimate of £28.4-40.1m. The top lot, Gerhard Richter’s Jet Fighter painting, controversially was re offered after the third-party guarantor failed to pay out $24m in a 2016 auction, this time around it sold for £15.5m (incl. premium). Other strong results included £125,000 (incl. premium) for Lilith (2015), by Tschabalala Self, which set a high benchmark for the artist’s first work at auction. A large diptych by British artist Rose Wylie, who was recently signed by David Zwirner, sold for £175,000 (incl. premium) well above an estimate of £80,000 – 120,000. These successes saw Phillips gain an increased market share of the sales totals across the three auction houses from 13% last year to 17%.
Overall sales totals were down from 2018 and the number of lots sold across all three auction houses was down 11.2% from last year, indicating difficulties with consignments. In the evening auctions around half of the sales value was taken up with guaranteed lots, signalling the continued importance of guarantees to shore up confidence for sellers in an uncertain market.
Sotheby’s Impressionist, Modern & Surrealist Art Evening Sale
37 of 44 lots sold at Sotheby’s Impressionist, Modern, and Surrealist art auction for a total of £87.7m, against a pre-sale estimate of £62.1 – 89.3m. This was the house’s lowest in the category since 2009 and down from last year’s total of £136m.
The top lot was a late Venetian view of Le Palais Ducal (1908) by Monet; guaranteed with a £25-35m estimate, it sold for £27.5m, the highest price for a Venetian painting. Other auction records were achieved with Oskar Schlemmer’s spare interior, Group at a Table (1923), estimated at £1-1.5m and selling for £2.6m including premium. Francis Picabia‘s Atrata (1929) attracted seven bidders, many from Asia, before selling to Ollie Barker for a double estimate of £3.7 million ($4.9 million), a record for a Picabia transparency painting.
The second highest price of the sale was £10.7m for a 1912 fishing boat painting by Egon Schiele, after his first lot, a 1910 work on paper sold for £1.58m tripling the low estimate of £500,000 – 700,000 with spirited bidding. Contrastingly, a 1928 abstract by Wassily Kandinsky from the group of Bauhaus pictures, which had been acquired in November 2015 by the Nahmad family for $6.4m, disappointingly sold to the third-party guarantor for £6.1 m (incl. premium) against an estimate of £5.5-7.5m.
Overall despite the lower sale total, Sotheby’s achieved a low bought in rate and on average a higher percentage of lots that sold above mid estimate, reflecting strong price confidence.
Christie’s Impressionist, Modern & Surrealist Art Evening Sale
Christie’s sale had a robust pre-sale estimate of £179–233m (excluding premium, with three lots withdrawn). The significantly higher sale total compared to Sotheby’s came from Christie’s’ consignment of two single owner collections- that of Monte Wallace and David Graham. Graham’s collection was accompanied by a number of third-party and house guarantees which ensured the lots successfully sold. The Wallace collection, however, was sold without guarantees and several top lots failed to sell including a £40m late Monet waterlily painting, a £4m Iris painting also by Monet and an Antwerp-period Van Gogh of a peasant woman, estimated at £8-12m. The Wallace collection ended up realizing just half its pre-sale estimate to bring in £50.5m.
More successful lots included Graham’s Signac Le Port au soleil couchant, Opus 236 (Saint-Tropez) (1892), which sold for a record-breaking £19.5m (incl. premium). Gustave Caillebotte’s Chemin Montant (1881), also broke the auction record selling for £16.7m (incl. premium).
The strongest section of the sale was arguably the Surrealist works with only two lots going unsold. The sale realised £43.8m against a pre-sale estimate of £32.3 – 41.5m. The standout lot was Magritte’s mirrored bowler-hat painting, Le lieu commun (1964), which had an unofficial estimate of £15-25m, anticipating a new record for the artist. This was just missed, selling to a phone bidder for £18.4m (incl. premium) to make the second highest price for Magritte.
The sale eventually realized £165.7m including premium, with 67 out of 82 lots sold. That still managed to be its second-highest total for an evening Impressionist sale in London, just short of the £176.9m achieved in February 2014.
Presale estimates and sale results
Please note that prices listed in the summary above refer to hammer prices and do not include auction fees.