Christie’s Defining British Art curated evening sale was the second highest grossing auction of the sales cycle that all but closes the first “semester” of the auction calendar. Making just shy of £100m, it seemed to validate Christie’s strategy of moving toward themed sales over category sales to attract collectors.
Colin Gleadell took the mood in London from his crutches:
As a ploy, the Defining British Art sale seemed to work. “There were some very strong results there,” London dealer Jonathan Green told artnet News after the sale. “They set estimates very high and by and large found buyers.” Only four lots were unsold, but 11 lots sold either on or below their low estimate. There was also the addition of guaranteed lots after the catalogue had been printed, which betrayed a certain nervousness about the outcome by the auctioneers. Then there was the withdrawal of two lots, betraying a nervousness amongst sellers.
Then, again, the total is only slightly more than the low estimate for the sale. And with the discrepancy between estimates being on hammer prices and final sale totals including fees, the sale clearly underperformed the auction house’s expectation setting.
Given the prominence of works from categories that would hardly get the attention if not included in these themed sales, Christie’s might have been encouraged to keep at the strategy. Whether there will be an knock-on effect in interest for British art—which has already seen a sharp upturn this season—or 19th century or Old Master works will interesting to watch.
Even so, the sale was dominated in value by three lots. Only two of which found buyers. The Lucian Freud painting that didn’t get sold was not a crowd favorite, as Katya Kazakina illustrated:
“I’ve never liked that particular painting, and I think a lot of people share my view,” said Ivor Braka, a London-based art dealer, after the auction. Nearby, an elderly man was overheard giving an explanation: “Guys like nudes.”
The other two were bought by one bidder, if the paddle numbers declared to the auctioneer were for the same client. The New York Times was following closely:
About half a dozen telephone bidders vied for Henry Moore’s “Reclining Figure: Festival,” one of five bronze casts based on a commission for the 1951 Festival of Britain….
The buyer of the Moore — on the phone with Brett Gorvy, Christie’s worldwide chairman for postwar and contemporary art — bought it for 24.7 million British pounds with fees, or about $33 million, a high for the artist at auction and well above the upper estimate of $26.7 million. […]
Mr. Gorvy also represented the buyer of two of the sale’s other top works: Francis Bacon’s “Version No. 2 of Lying Figure With Hypodermic Syringe” (1968), which sold near its estimate, £20.2 million, or $27 million; and John Constable’s 1820s oil sketch “View on the Stour Near Dedham,” which sold for £14.1 million, or $18.8 million (on an estimate of about £12 million, and had been guaranteed by a third party for about £12 million). All of Mr. Gorvy’s winning bids were for a mysterious buyer with the paddle number 844.
That last observation seems to have a conflicting report though the real point is that something in the neighborhood of 70% of the sale’s value went to three different buyers. In other words, for the all of the emphasis on curated sales, the buyers are not flocking in from all corners but concentrating among a few with plenty of dry powder.
Here’s what Colin Gleadell says about that Constable and the buyer who also seems to have bought a Reynolds:
Works by Old Masters and Victorian artists tallied just over £32 million ($42.7 million), led by John Constable’s 6-foot-wide sketch for View on the Stour near Dedham. The painting had belonged to the Royal Holloway College in London for over 100 years[…] Christie’s intimated that the buyer might loan the painting to a museum, leading to speculation that it was greeting-card magnate Andrew Brownsword; he has bought major pictures of this kind before and lent them to the Holburne Museum in Bath.
A supremely elegant full-length portrait of a lady by Sir Joshua Reynolds had come from stately Harewood House, where it had been for generations, and was chased by Matthew Green of London’s Richard Green Gallery before falling to the same phone bidder as the Constable, above estimate, for £3.8 million ($5.1 million).
If that weren’t enough, some of that record-setting British art went to an Asian collector who also bought multiple pictures:
A client of Elaine Holt, a Hong Kong-based director of impressionist and modern art at Christie’s, dropped 7.6 million pounds on two paintings by Frank Auerbach and one by Bridget Riley — establishing records for both artists. […] “Asian collectors are diversifying,” Holt said on Thursday after the auction.
After the New York sales were dominated by a single Japanese buyer, this trend of individual collectors buying in bulk bears watching in the Fall.
Christie’s London’s Solid British Art Sale Tallies £99.5 million, Led by £24.7 Million Henry Moore (artnet News)
London Art Market Rides Out Brexit, Sets Records as Pound Drops (Bloomberg)
Christie’s ‘Defining British Art’ Brings Out Bidders (The New York Times)