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At its Modern British art sale on March 1st Christie’s global president, Jussi Pylkkanen, remarked from the podium in King Street, London, how much he missed being up there, wielding his gavel, albeit just to phone and internet bids. In the previous nine months, he had only conducted four sales, two of which were shared with auctioneers in other locations, including the “ONE” sale in July which he had to share with Hong Kong, Paris and New York.
Today was only his fifth outing in ten months, presiding alternately with his colleague Arlene Blankers over an 82-lot-mix of Impressionist (mostly day sale material at other times), Modern, Surreal, Post-War and Contemporary art– all subsumed under Christie’s revived 20th Century art banner.
Picasso, Banksy Top 20th Century Art Evening Sale
It was the contemporary art that was included in this sale that gave Pylkkanen his customary high octane start. Following the $42 million Basquiat sold in Hong Kong, the sale started with a focus on contemporary women artists who have gained traction via museum and gallery shows. Rising star, 27-year-old British Nigerian figurative painter Joy Labinjo, who is represented by the Tiwani gallery in London which focusses on artists from Africa and its diaspora, made a dramatic impact on the market when her first work at auction, estimated at $10,000-$15,000 sold for $189,000 at Phillips last December. Today, No Wahala (or “No worries” in Nigerian Hausa), 2019, was only her third work at auction. Estimated at £30,000-£40,000 ($41,000-$55,000), unsurprisingly it sold for more at a new record of £150,000 ($206,000) after bidding from Thailand, New York and London.
This was immediately followed by the auction debut for artist-musician Issy Wood, who has garnered interest following a show at the X Museum in Beijing. Her large oil on velvet painting Over Armour had been given an estimate of £100,00–£150,000 ($137,000–$206,000)—an unusually high price for an auction first-timer—and it saw bidding from New York before, selling to a London phone bidder for £250,000 ($343,000).
Making up a trio of records for young female artists was Claire Tabouret’s 11-foot canvas, The Last Day, of school children in fancy dress (reminiscent of Marlene Dumas’ The Teacher which Christie’s sold for £1.8 million in 2005) that soared above a £150,000-£200,000 ($206,000- 274,000) estimate to hit a new record £622,500 ($855,000).
The priciest living artist in the sale, though, was British incognito street artist Banksy with a pandemic-themed painting, Game Changer. Originally given to Southampton University Hospital, the work depicts a boy playing with a toy nurse whose uniform is emblazoned with an iconic Red Cross symbol. Unusually tame in its aesthetic, it carried a social context and persuaded bidders, among them one from Thailand and another from the British Virgin Isles, a tax haven in the Caribbean, to let rip, selling for a record £16.8 million ($23 million)–the highest price of the day, surpassing works by Picasso and Magritte.
As a charity sale with the proceeds going to Britain’s National Health Service, it may have attracted extra bidding, and would also qualify for some tax relief for the buyer bidding through London’s head of sales, Tessa Lord.
Strength of bidding from Asia was notable as it has been all last year for Amoako Boafo as his self-portrait zoomed to a price of £550,000 ($755,000), 5 times the estimate, selling to a Hong Kong bidder. Matthew Wong’s untitled landscape—the 32nd work by him to hit the block since last May—saw competition from 10 bidders before it sold to one of the many Hong Kong contenders for £2.7 million ($3.7 million).
One of the questions as a bullish 2020 ended was whether and by how much auction estimates for Wong’s work would change. Prices seem to be dictated by size. In June, a 65 in-by-80-inch canvas was estimated at $60,000-$80,000 and sold for $1.8 million. By the end of the year, 40-inch-by-60-inch paintings were being estimated at $300,000-$400,000 and selling between $1 million and $3 million, and the record was a quadruple estimate $4.9 million for an 80-by-70-inch inch painting, the largest yet. Earlier this month was the first 72-in-by-48-inch landscape which Christie’s sold for $2.2 million against a $600,000-$800,000 estimate– giving them just enough time to settle on a slightly higher £500,000-£700,000 ($693,481-$970,873) estimate for the second of that size which they were selling today. Ten contenders went for it before it sold to one of the many Hong Kong bidders for £2.7 million ($3.7 million). So when the next one of that size comes up, what will the estimate be?
The sales in the British capital are traditionally strong on School of London paintings, though that was less the case in this auction. The highest auction price since lockdown is still the $84 million Francis Bacon triptych which Sotheby’s sold last year, which may have encouraged the European owner of a late work, a rare landscape by the artist, Sand Dune (1981) to try it at auction. Bacon’s late work has not previously found favor with the market, though, as in the case of Picasso, previously derided late works can be repositioned. A recent exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which travelled to Houston, tried to do just that and included Sand Dune. But, still a duller picture, without the vibrant palette Asian collectors are beginning to favor, it needed a guarantor. Even with a fairly humble £5 million ($6.9 million) estimate it sold to the guarantor on a single bid for just under the low estimate.
Other School of London painters in the sale included close friends, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. Auerbach has always been more sought after in the market, but Kossoff, who died last year, has been closing the gap. Today Auerbach’s Head of Debbie Ratcliffe guaranteed with a £450,000 ($618,000) estimate was back at auction having sold in 2009 for £343,250 and struggled to hit its low estimate at £562,500 ($773,000). Kossoff’s Here Comes the Diesel, Summer, formerly in the Saatchi collection had sold in 2004 for £173,600 ($238,000) and made a slightly better return at £682,500 ($938,000). Both had been in a Christie’s exhibition last summer organized by Andre Zlattinger, presumably unsold, and Zlattinger was on the phone to the winning bidder on the Kossoff.
Overall, though it was Modern art that dominated. Coming in at the top of the sale were two works by Picasso, sold under the label, “The Power of Colour: Masterpieces from an Important Private Collection.” According to sources familiar with the works, both were owned by Aaron Frenkel, an Israeli businessman and board member of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, who lives in Monaco. The cover lot of the catalogue was one of Picasso’s sumptuous 1932 nude paintings of his mistress, Marie Therese Walter, Femme Nue Couchee au Collier (Marie Therese) with a £9 million-£15 million estimate ($12 million-$20.6 million). The painting had previously been owned by Israeli shipping magnate, Sammy Offer, who bought it at Sotheby’s in 1997 for $3.1 million and sold it there in 2014 for $11.1 million. Frenkel’s other consignment to the sale was a Picasso portrait of a later partner, Jacqueline Roque, Femme assise dans un fauteuil noir (1962). Frenkel won this work against dealer Robert Landau in 2015 at Christie’s for a mid-estimate $8.1 million. Back at auction today with nearly the same estimates as before, the Marie-Therese portrait sold close to the top estimate after competition between a bidder from Hong Kong against a bidder represented by London’s Giovanna Bertazzoni for £14.6 million ($20 million), and the Jacqueline femme assise, for a mid-estimate £9.7 million ($13.4 million).
Adding strength to the backbone of the modern section was a group of five works from a French collection by Dubuffet, Fautrier and Leger along with an American, Alexander Calder, thrown in for good measure, bought 20 and 30 years ago. The long-term growth of the Dubuffet market was evident from the large 1963, Paysage du Pays de Calais, III, a work that bridges his classic Paris circus paintings with his next series known as ‘hourloupes’. Last at auction in 1982 when it sold for $99,000, it had changed hands several times since, and was estimated £2.5 million-£3.54 million ($3.5 million-$4.9 million) and sold after competition between two European bidders for a top estimate £4.04 million ($5.5 million) thus registering a sturdy 10.3% annual growth over the 38 year period. The Fautrier, a large example from his wartime “hostage” series, was the best example of his work on the market for quite a while and fetched a triple estimate record £4.5 million ($6.2 million) from a European bidder.
A small collection of three German and Austrian works from the 1920s by Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Kokoschka and Ernst Barlach with a combined £2 million ($2.8 million) low estimate was being sold by Deutsche Bank. Early last year, the bank, which had been experiencing fiscal problems, announced it was selling a major work by Gerhard Richter, and later that it would be selling more historical works from its collection to focus more on building its contemporary collection (presumably at a lower price point than the Richter). The selection at Christie’s did not attract much bidding apart from the wood figure by Barlach which went just over-estimate selling to a European museum, as yet unnamed, for £622,500 ($855,000 million). Expect more from this source at Christie’s.
Looking across the Atlantic, 20th century American art was in thin supply. Works by Guston, Albers, Lichtenstein and Warhol were not all out of the top drawer. The Guston was of interest because it was the first Ku Klux Klan painting at auction since the artists’ retrospectives were postponed because of the feared incendiary reaction to these painting, despite the works being a critique of racism, but it sold below estimate to a guarantor for £736,500 ($1 million). The less controversial Lichtenstein performed better. A small late 1970s painted bronze of a Cup and Saucer, it was bought from London’s Mayor gallery by Lord Jacobs, whose daughter, Nicola Jacobs, opened a gallery right opposite in Cork Street around the same time. Carrying a guarantee, it rose above estimate on the back of bidding from New York and Hong Kong to sell for £1.1 million ($1.5 million)
The issue with Warhol is not so much whether his work has increased in value lately, but whether it can sustain its value of old. Take his small 12-inch fright wig self-portraits. In 2007 a single 12-inch self-portrait sold for a triple estimate £1.36 million ($1.87 million) in London. Then came the crash and a triptych of 12-inch self-portraits sold for £892,450 ($1.2 million), signaling a steep decline. Sotheby’s Patti Wong bought it for a client in Asia. That triptych was back for sale today– making only a small return selling on the low estimate at $1.46 million.
Hersaint’s Magritte Leads Surrealism Sale
Christie’s ended the sale with a separate auction devoted to Surrealism – a fixture at the auction house under expert Olivier Camu for the last twenty years. Amazingly, in the midst of a pandemic, Camu had rustled up 26 lots with a pre-sale estimate of £42 million-£64.2 million ($57 million-$88 million)– the highest pre-sale estimate in the category’s history. The previous historic high total was £66.6 million achieved in 2015, against an estimate of £37 million-£54 million ($50.8 million-$74 million).
In Tuesday’s sale, total came in at £48.4 million ($66.5 million) (prices in this report include the buyer’s premium, estimates do not). The top two lots by Magritte and Miro sold below estimates, both coming from the prestigious collection of Claude Hersaint who died in 1993. The top lot by Magritte, a large 1959 canvas, had been bought at auction by Hersaint in Paris in 1963 for around £6,000 ($8,000) and was estimated at £10 million-£15 million ($13.7 million-$20 million), but it seemed Camu was the only bidder winning it for his client with one bid for £10 million. Also from the Hersaint collection was an early, 1925, Miro with a £9 million-£14 million estimate ($12.3 million-$19.3 million). Camu again seemed stranded as the only bidder as it sold for £10.2 million ($14 million).
Perhaps the best return of the Surrealists percentage wise was a 1970 illustration by Miro, which was purchased in 2008 for £16,250 ($22,000) and sold for £100,000 ($137,000). Sadly, for the seller– the aforementioned Aaron Frenkel– he had not been the buyer in 2008 having acquired it later from Galerie Gmurzynska in Geneva.
Because of the category mix and the inclusion of a $42 million Basquiat Warrior nominally being sold from Hong Kong, the estimate of £88 million to £128 million (175.8 million) (excluding the Basquiat) is perhaps conveniently difficult to compare with previous seasons. But as an indicator, last year’s part 1 Impressionist, Modern, Surrealist and Post-War and Contemporary Art sales at Christie’s London together made a total of £163 million ($224 million) for 95 lots sold. Today, excluding the Hong Kong Basquiat, a total of £168 million ($230 million) was realized for 75 lots sold out of 81 lots offered over a £136 million low estimate. That’s an improved average of £2.2 million ($3 million) per lot sold compared to last years’ pre pandemic £1.7 million ($2.3 million). Average lot prices are something CEO Guillaume Cerruti has said he cares about passionately, so perhaps he will sleep easier tonight.