This report with details on the success of Banksy, Henry Taylor and Glenn Brown and the struggles of lots by Dubuffet, Stingel and Riley is available to AMMpro subscribers. (The first month of AMMpro is free and subscribers are welcome to sign up for the first month and cancel before they are billed.)
On Wednesday, Sotheby’s took up the running in the London contemporary sales this evening, but faltered with an £47.8 million ($62.2 million) sale for 41 lots (£39.5 million without buyers’ premium. Sale prices include the buyers’ premium, estimates do not). After six lots were withdrawn due to market jitters, the estimate was reduced from £52.3 million-£73.2 million to £42.4 million-£60 million both of which still compared favorably with last year’s £40-56 million. But the result was below estimate and fell short of last year’s £54.7 million.
After the sale, Alex Branczik of Sotheby’s rolled off a ‘combination of circumstances’ that may have reduced the bidding temperature this evening– COVID and the inability to travel, and the US election among them. Apart from the disconcerting withdrawals, the bidding was mostly patchy with seven unsold lots, and 18 sold either on or below the low estimates. “We must hurry you,” said auctioneer Oliver Barker to his phone bidders on one of the final lots. One sensed he was keen to get the evening over and done with.
The sale was to have opened with a 2017 painting by South African artist, Lisa Brice, with a record busting £120,000 low estimate; nothing by her had ever sold at auction for more than £20,000 before. Represented by Stephen Friedman in London and Salon 94 in New York, from whence this work was purchased, it was by far the largest of her works to be offered at auction, but it was withdrawn after its inclusion in the Sotheby’s printed catalogue of highlights, so Brice’s moment in the spotlight will have to wait.
Following the standard pattern of offering hot new artists to open their sales, Sotheby’s first lot, instead, was by the African-American Henry Taylor (though neither Brice nor Taylor could be described as young). Taylor’s large 2011 painting of Alice Coachman, a high jumper and first black woman to win Olympic gold, was last at auction in 2016 in a day sale where it made a record $149,000 perhaps in anticipation of the artist’s participation in the Whitney Biennial the following year. Taylor had in any case already been on an upward trajectory with collectors Charles Saatchi, Francois Pinault and Don and Mera Rubell leading the way in public. After See Alice Jump was sold in 2016, Saatchi jumped on the bandwagon and loaded the London and New York sales in 2016 and 2017 with Taylor’s works from his collection which he had bought for much less five or six years earlier. One of them, Miss Kelley, sold for a quadruple estimate $231,250. The following year Taylor hit a new record $975,000 with Saatchi’s New York dealer, Irene Hochman, the underbidder. Tonight, See Alice Jump came in with a £250,000 to £350,000 estimate and sold after competition from London and the Middle East, to a New York bidder for £523,200– not a record but a handsome 31.6% average increase in each of the four years of ownership.
Sotheby’s also maintained its newish tradition of offering a highly valued work by street artist, Banksy, in its Frieze week sales. In 2018 it was the girl with a red balloon that shredded as the hammer came down for £1 million. Since then, five works by Banksy have sold for over £1 million, the most recent, at $8.4 million, was sold, significantly, in Hong Kong. Last October, the 8 foot ‘Devolved Parliament’ made a five-times estimate record £9.9 million – also at Sotheby’s which has achieved 9 of the top 10 Banksy prices according to Artnet.
Banksy’s ‘Show me the Monet’, 2005 – a consumerist satire based on Monet’s painting of the Japanese bridge in his waterlily garden (an example sold for a record £19.8 million in 1998) carried the highest estimate yet for a Banksy at £3 million-£5 million. It was originally shown in a rat strewn West London house as part of his ‘Crude Oil’ series in 2005 when it was bought by a local collector for about £25,000. It was last shown by Banksy’s dealer Steve Lazarides in London in 2018 where prices ranged from £250,000 to £1.75 million for a painting of Guantanamo Bay. ‘Show me the Monet’ was not for sale then, but tonight showed its paces when the original buyer parted with it above estimate for £7.6 million ($9.8 million) – the second highest price for the artist. Six bidders, including at least two from Asia and London’s Maddox Gallery sipping champagne in an upstairs room, vied for the painting before it was knocked down to Sotheby’s chairman of Asia, Patti Wong. Banksy’s work has yet to be taken seriously by museums such as Tate or MoMA – so this is an entirely private, non-institutional market, defying the normal valuation process. It’s also one that thrives at the lower end as several auction rooms in the UK have held sell-out auctions of Banksy prints during lockdown where prices have continued to rise.
Top lot going into this sale was an A class black and white op art painting Untitled (Diagonal Curve), 1966, by Bridget Riley, with a record busting £5.5 million-£7.5 million estimate. Four years ago, the same painting sold for the current record £4.3 million at Christie’s in London where it was bought for a client by their Hong Kong representative, Elaine Holt. Riley has quite a following in Asia, says Christie’s former head of contemporary art Europe, Francis Outred, who underbid that painting and reminded me that another, later black and white Riley was underbid by an Asian bidder when it sold in February for £2.7 million. But it’s Asian owner clearly got cold feet during the auction that their asking price would not be met and withdrew the picture. “The painting really needs to be seen in the flesh,” said Branczik, with the most telling comment: “We just couldn’t get the right people in front of it.”
A core supplier in this auction, as we have become used to since the summer, was Revlon chief, Ron Perelman. Although not named, he supplied works by Gerhard Richter, Beatriz Milhazes, Damien Hirst and Jean Dubuffet bearing a combined estimate of £6.6-£9.4 million.
Dubuffet’s art brut style Les Voeux de Mariage (Marriage Vows), 1955 had been bought privately from dealer, Jeffrey Loria, way back in 1985, when Dubuffet prices were beginning to bubble. Sotheby’s £700,000-£1 million was not excessive, but they must have not had sufficient interest registered and withdrew it.
Perelman bought Beatriz Milhazes’ almost 12 foot, joyous Maracorola, from James Cohan in 2015, the year it was painted and not that long after Milhazes hit a record $2.1 million for a larger painting at auction. The artist is now with Pace Gallery and Maracorola had among the highest estimates for her work at £500,000 to £700,000. Underlining the feeling that buyers are not all playing ball there were just two bids on the Milhazes which sold on the low estimate for £620,000.
Another Perelman disposal – Richter’s 1991 squeegee painting Abstraktes Bild— was bought from dealer, Barbara Annis in 2007, just as Richter abstracts were beginning to fetch millions from the likes of Roman Abramovich, and was consigned by Perelman with a £4.5-6.5 million estimate – one that looked eminently obtainable after the collector’s successful sale of another Richter abstract for $28 million at Christie’s Hong Kong. But bidding was thin and it sold to another of Wong’s bidders, the only bidder this time, below estimate for £5.1 million (including the premium).
In addition to the Banksy and the Richter, Asian bidders also claimed a Gormley sculpture above estimate for £958,500 and a Kaws painting within estimate for £499,000, as well as several underbids, so helping to keep this sale afloat.
Perelman’s fourth consignment was a four-part spot painting by Damien Hirst, The Four Seasons, 2010, which had a third-party guarantee, and sold, presumably to the guarantor, below estimate for £862,000.
Another Hirst painting, a Baconesque 2008 triptych, Cast a Long Shadow, 2008 looked like a bargain with a £380,000 to £450,000 estimate compared to the original primary market prices for these triptychs at White Cube of around $3 million. But, following some strong prices recently (his triple estimate $2.3 million Mickey sculpture at Christie’s and a quadruple estimate $1.3 million for a ‘candy’ painting at Sotheby’s earlier this this month) the triptych sold comfortably above estimate (if at a loss to the consignor) to a New York bidder for £741,000.
Although Sotheby’s have abandoned their Italian art sales in London, leaving the field open to Christie’s which stages one tomorrow, there were a few choice examples. Though not stated in the catalogue a classic kaolin and bread roll conceptual work by Zero artist Piero Manzoni was from the private collection of art dealer, Gian Enzo Sperone, who has owned it since 1971. There are only 7 bread roll works in the artist’s catalogue raisonne, and this was selected for inclusion in the Guggenheim’s Zero Group exhibition in 2014-15. Being a dealer, Sperone would have understood the uncertainties of the current market and allowed Sotheby’s some leeway with the reserve, and the work was sold to a Paris bidder below the £1.8-2.5 million estimate for £1.7 million – the highest price, nonetheless, outside of Manzoni’s more popular pleated canvases.
Another good price was for The Real Thing, a smallish 2000 painting by Glenn Brown who asks his audience to distinguish between his work and an original by another artist – in this case Frank Auerbach. The painting had been in some decent collections – firstly Howard Rachofsky in Dallas, and then the Rennie collection in Canada which paid $374,400 for it in 2005, the year after Brown was signed up by Gagosian. More recently it was sold privately by the UK art advisor, Emily Tsingou, who counts Eskander and Fatima Maleki among her more important clients. If they were the sellers they would have been relieved when three bidders took the painting near the top estimate to sell for £680,500 ($884,485).
Best returns (apart from the Taylor and Banksy), as ever, were for Basquiat with work bought 20 years ago selling for 40 times cost, though with several owners in between. A red slashed Fontana was up there, realizing £922,500 for its owner who bought it in 1998 for £95,000; and a lead painting by Gunther Forg bought 13 years ago for $60,000 had passed through a few hands before selling tonight for the equivalent of $617,000. Probably the least productive from an investment view, was a 2009 Christopher Wool that pretty much made the same price £1.4 million hammer, it made 8 years ago.
One comparison has left me with an unanswered question. Lot 143 was a gold painting by Rudolf Stingel whose market, as we all know, is waiting for the fall-out from the Inigo Philbrick affair to clear. Although not mentioned in the catalogue, this work was last sold by Sotheby’s in New York in November 2018 with a third party guarantee for a below estimate $1.4 million. It’s reappearance tonight came with a triangle that signified that Sotheby’s had a financial interest in the painting. Phillips managed to sell a Stingel on the low estimate last night, but according to Artnet, nearly half the Stingels at auction since Sept 2019, when Philbrick went to ground and the alarm bells in the Stingel market began ringing, have been unsold – not because of doubts on authenticity but of what their real value might be. Had this Stingel not been paid for in late 2018 and had it been part of Philbrick’s intricate financial web? Sotheby’s wouldn’t say, but either way they are stuck with it for now.