This week, while some of the world’s top tennis players were in action at Wimbledon and the war in Ukraine dragged on, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips held their traditional summer week of major modern and contemporary art auctions in the British capital.
Main auction prices for now suppressed rumors that London is losing ground to Paris as a hub for high-end art auctions: a sum of £30.1 million with fees, or about $36.9 million, was paid twice in the same sale for two different paintings by Claude Monet, and about $52.8 million bought a Francis Bacon portrait of Lucian Freud. Last year, in the wake of Britain’s exit from the European Union, France’s share of global auction sales rose to 9 percent, while Britain’s shrank to 13 percent, according to the latest annual Art Basel & UBS. Global Art Market Report.
“Collectors travel the world to see and buy great art,” says Offer Waterman, a London-based dealer of modern and contemporary British art. “It doesn’t matter where they are. The concept of hubs is not really relevant.”
In addition, in the pandemic era of virtual and hybrid live stream auctions, no one has to travel anywhere to view and buy art.
For example, on Thursday at Phillips, during the last major auction of the contemporary art world’s summer season, only one of 31 lots sold, totaling $21.3 million, went to a buyer in attendance. All other successful buyers bid by phone or online. The star of the evening, “Moi aussi je déborde”, a quintessentially rococo-inspired 2017 canvas, in rose-pink, by young British market sensation Flora Yukhnovich sold to an online bidder in Canada for $2.1 million, some seven times the low estimate.
“Everyone is scratching their heads about these artists,” New York-based art consultant Kim Heirston said in an interview with Phillips, referring to the works of a select group of female painters in their twenties and thirties who are currently in high demand on contemporary art. encourage art auctions. †
Heirston noted that it took more than 60 years for works by the admired Color Field painter Helen Frankenthaler to break the $1 million mark at auction. “Now it takes a nanosecond,” Heirston said.
Seemingly wherever in the world a top auction of contemporary art is held, it must be kickstarted with pieces with the same must-have names. After a slew of record prices in New York in May, some of the heat seems to have been taken off the auction market for emerging artists’ paintings, at least here in London. Works by Anna Weyant (who has a relationship with mega-dealer Larry Gagosian), Shara Hughes and Christina Quarles all rose to seven-figure heights in New York, but here the bidding was more measured.
On Wednesday, Sotheby’s sold the selection of Weyant’s paintings, giving $567,995 for the 2020 canvas, “Buffet.” In the same auction, Quarles’ 2017 multi-layer painting, “We Woke in Mourning Jus Tha Same,” cost $644,751. The previous day, Christie’s offered the most valued of the landscapes by Brooklyn-based Hughes, 2017’s “At Full Tilt,” which reached $896,692. These were decent prices, but the bids weren’t shouted out as frantically as they were in May.
“London is always a little less frothy and a little less good,” said Heirston, referring to the overall quality of the works on offer at these June auctions.
Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s have abandoned their traditional separate formats of Impressionist and Modern and Contemporary sales and instead offer marathon mash-ups of 20th- and 21st-century material. Christie’s started Tuesday afternoon with a $11.9 million single owner auction of 20 works by Marc Chagall from the artist’s estate, followed by a mixed owner sale of 86 lots, combining livestream auctions, first in London and then in Paris, and lasted more than three hours. The first session of 61 lots raised $222 million, followed by a further $16.2 million from the 25 lots in Paris, underscoring how London continues to be Europe’s locus for international trophy art sales.
The sale of the Christie’s was led by two coveted museum-quality paintings from the Monet series. The canvas “Waterloo Bridge, effet de brune” from 1904 and “Nymphéas, temps gris” from 1907, both sold, it is estimated, to the same telephone bidder for $36.9 million each.
This level of blue-chip art now rarely surprises the sales space, but the Christie’s sale also included the “Main Street Pool Hall” painting, circa 1976, by Ernie Barnes, whose eponymous canvas “The Sugar Shack” created a sensation. in New York in May when it sold for a record $15.3 million. That result had a knock-on effect in London when Barnes’ signature depiction of a pool room in the room was sold to New York-based Citi Private Bank Art Advisory & Finance for $1.8 million, some 18 times the low estimate. .
The following evening, Sotheby’s sold a 49-lot selection of modern and contemporary works, supported by 33 British works of art offered to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee. British entries include Francis Bacon’s little-known 1964 “Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud,” which is estimated to sell for about $50 million. Bacon was an uneven painter, and while this large, gold-framed canvas hadn’t been seen in public for more than 50 years, its clunky composition only drew one telephone bid above the warranty and it was taken down for $52.8 million. The offer was accepted by Mark Poltimore, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, who often represents Russian clients.
Similarly, competition was muted for Andy Warhol’s rare large-scale self-portrait ‘Fright Wig’ from 1986, which was sold at a single bid from the guarantor, as is increasingly the case with high-value lots. This cost $15.5 million in a Sotheby’s sale that brought in $181.8 million as of the evening.
In recent years, thanks to outside guarantors who guarantee minimum prices, unsold lots have virtually disappeared from marquee auctions. But here at Sotheby’s, David Hockney’s landmark Yorkshire landscape, “Woldgate Woods II, May 16 & 17, 2006” didn’t sell at a sharply low estimate of $12 million. A $5 million Banksy also went unsold.
“I feel like there was a sea change,” said Christine Bourron, chief executive of Pi-eX, a London-based firm that analyzes art auctions. The guarantors’ reluctance to fund valuable lots was a “warning signal,” Bourron said, adding: “Reality is starting to hit them; there is slightly less demand.”
The $2.8 billion that Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips turned over in May would always be hard to track, but the $453 million earned here makes the relative strength of London’s position as an international auction center in international perspective. In 2015, in the days of separate sales of “Imps & Mods” and “contemps,” the Sotheby’s and Christie’s evening auctions in London brought in $747 million, according to Pi-eX.
“London is suffering from post-Covid, Brexit and the international economic situation,” Bourron said.
Is this just a London problem? Or is there a broader international art market problem? We should discover that in the fall at the marquee auctions in New York.