The New York auctions of Contemporary art saw record prices for Francis Bacon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Andy Warhol last month. And those three artists are likely to now dominate the London auctions that start today. “There is a sense that people watch the New York auctions and consign when they’re positively surprised,” Sotheby’s expert Helena Newman said.
Bacon is a hometown hero in London. His work has had a string of successful auction and private sales over the last year and a half. In New York, some expressed skepticism about the quality of Sotheby’s record-setting Pope painting, but even the doubters admitted the sale was well-timed.
With the momentum still going as the art world lands in London, Sotheby’s has the most expensive of the three Bacons for sale. “Self-Portrait” (1978) is estimated between $16 million and $24 million. The picture captures many important themes in Bacon’s life and work, coming as a coda after the artist’s second wave of productivity in the 1970s. Adding to its value is that the work has not been on the market for 27 years.
Christie’s has two rare paintings that are valuable because they are so unlike anything else of Bacon’s art. “Two Men Working in a Field” (1971), estimated between $10 million and $14 million, is exceptional because it has two figures in it. The source of the image is a mystery that adds to the painting’s allure. And “Landscape with Car” (1945-6), estimated between $8million and $12 million, is sought after because very little of Bacon’s early work— 26 paintings in all — survived the temperamental artist’s harsh scrutiny.
Bacon was not a prolific artist, nor is his friend Lucien Freud. It’s been more than a year since a Freud came to market, a year when Bacon prices seemed to double with every sale. Thus, “Bruce Bernard” (1992), estimated between $9 million and $11 million, is expected to break the previous record for a Freud — a little more than $8 million — even if it sells at the low end.
All eyes will be on Bacon and Freud, but many savvy collectors will be looking at Frank Auerbach, a prominent British painter whose prices are rising in the slipstream behind these two giants. His work is well represented in the sales and is rapidly becoming world-class in the estimation of the market.
With so many new collectors coming from so many unexpected locations — Christie’s Olivier Camu points out that the Italians have had a resurgence of buying: “Italy is feeling very wealthy,” he said.
But it’s hard for the auction houses to know which artist will become the next international star. Take Andy Warhol. His market is now truly international. “The new group of collectors is very switched on to buying Warhol,” Sotheby’s Contemporary expert Oliver Barker said. “Warhol was so prescient. His work is so topical today, it’s disconcerting.”
Warhol is proving his enduring popularity among international buyers with 30% of the top 20 works by estimate in the contemporary art sales. Following the spectacular sales of Marilyn paintings — the Lemon Marilyn had a hammer price of $25 million followed by an $80 million private sale of one of the legendary large Marilyns — Christie’s has “Three Marilyns” (1964), estimated between $10 million and $14 million. The house is also selling a “Four Foot Flowers” between $5 million and $7 million, and a portrait of Brigitte Bardot at the same estimate range.
Sotheby’s has a “Dollar Sign” between $3.6 million and $5 million and a portrait of Ethel Scull between $3 million and $4 million. And Phillips is selling a “Self-Portrait” that could go somewhere between $2 million and $3 million. All of which just proves that pop art is the current style of the global art market.
The last of the world-class artists is Jean-Michel Basquiat. Like Warhol, Basquiat keeps getting bigger and bigger. Phillips de Purty is selling “Grillo” (1984), estimated between $6 million and $10 million, which comes with all the bells and whistles for a Basquiat. The 1984 multi-panel collage work is one of only three similar pieces, and it has both dramatic figures and the graffiti-like writing that are hallmarks of the painter’s meteoric career.
Sotheby’s has a classic Basquiat in “Warrior” (1982), estimated between $3 million and $4 million. It was last sold as recently as 2005, so the market will be able to judge whether this painter, like so many others around him, has progressed to a new level.