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After a fairly nail-biting contemporary art evening sale in London last week, Christie’s global president Jussi Pylkkänen handed the auctioneer’s gavel to Arlene Blankers, Christie head of Decorative Arts in London for the house's "Thinking Italian: Modern Italian Art and Design," sale, no doubt conscious of the sea of empty bids that awaited her. Blankers ended up selling only 18 of the 30 lots offered, just 9 of which were within or above the estimate, for £5.3 million ($6.9 million) including premium—one of the lowest totals for an Italian sale in years and far below the £9.7-£14 million ($12.6 million-$18.2 million) pre-sale estimate, without premium.
The modern Italian art sales were a fixture in London’s auction calendar long before the Frieze fair was thought of, the brainchild of dealer, Ben Brown, while he worked in Sotheby’s Contemporary Art department in the 1990s. His sale was so successful, Christie’s followed suit the next year. At their peak in 2015-16 they were generating some £84 million ($109 million) between Sotheby’s and Christie’s in two evenings. A score of specialized Italian art galleries opened in London creating an alternative Italian festival within Frieze week.
But with the export of valued post-war modern art from Italy being restricted and the threat of Brexit to the movement of goods generally, the Italian market in London began to shrink. Sotheby’s stopped holding Italian sales last year, incorporating works within their mixed international modern and contemporary Art sales. This week, it was just Christie’s bravely persevering in pandemic conditions.
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