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In response to Christie’s £168 million ($230 million) 20th Century sale in London on Tuesday, Sotheby’s staged its now familiar cross category mix of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art today allowing for an Old Master or two to be thrown in and for them to stretch the sale title to “Modern Renaissance.” Sotheby’s was still the shorter sale, though. Comprising 47 lots with a pre-sale estimate of £66.6-£93 million ($92 million-$128 million), it came near the top at £96.9 million ($132.6 million). (Sold prices include the buyer’s premium, estimates do not.) Last year, the equivalent sales for Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art at Christie’s London comprised 80 lots which sold for £141.5 million ($194.7 million).
Two of the top lots going into the sale were by Edvard Munch, who is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Both left the hands of Jewish owners during World War II before being sold and entered the collection of Norway’s well-known Olsen family, the current consignor. The original owner, industrialist Thomas Olsen, was a friend and patron of the artist, owning 30 works by Munch at the time of his death. Those works were inherited by his two sons Fred and Petter Olsen, who were at the center of a legal dispute around the estate that was settled in 2001.
In 2006, Fred sold two Munchs, including the Linde Frieze, at Sotheby’s in London, where they fetched a collective £23 million ($31.7 million). It’s possible that the buyer in 2006 was Petter, as the ghostly lakeside painting reappeared in yesterday’s auction with a £9 million–£12 million ($12.4 million–$16.5 million) estimate. Four bidders, from London, New York and Hong Kong, vied for the painting, which was one of eight guaranteed lots in the sale. This time, it realized a reasonable return over the 15-year holding period at an above-estimate £16.3 million ($22.4 million), and was won by the Hong Kong bidder.
A further Munch from the Olsen collection was the later Self Portrait with Palette (1926), which Thomas bought at auction in Oslo in 1939 for 15,000 Norwegian Krone and has not been on the market since. Estimated at £4.5 million-£6.5 million ($6.2 million-$9 million), it had less popular appeal than the frieze and met with subdued biding from New York, selling below estimate for £4.3 million ($5.9 million).
Two other top lots, described by Sotheby’s as “from an Important Private Collection,” were sold by the prominent Israeli collector, Joseph Hackmey. The first was David Hockney’s unconventionally arranged six-part landscape Tall Dutch Trees After Hobbema (Useful Knowledge), 2017, bought from Pace the following year. Estimated at £6.5 million-£8.5 million ($9 million-$11.7 million) it was guaranteed and appeared to sell to the guarantor for £7.3 million ($10 million).
The next Hackmey lot was Picasso’s 1941 portrait of Dora Maar, Femme assise dans un fauteuil (1941), which he bought at a sale in London in 2003 for £1.8 million ($2.5 million). Now with a guarantee and estimated at £6.5 million-£8.5 million, ($9 million-$11.7 million) the bidding was taken above the low estimate and the guarantee by Asia chairman, Patti Wong, who eventually won it for her client for £9.4 million ($12.9 million).
Just featuring among the top five estimated lots, was the Renaissance 15th century Portrait of Youth by Piero del Pollaiulo at £4 million-£6 million ($5.5 million-$8.2 million). Described as the property of ‘an English Private Collection’ it was in fact owned by the modern art dealer Thomas Gibson who sold a small collection of modern drawings at Sotheby’s in New York earlier in the month for $25.3 million. Gibson bought the portrait at Christie’s in 1985 when it was attributed to the lesser Cosimo Roselli, for £91,800 ($126,335). Now fully catalogued (though disputed in some quarters) as by Piero del Pollaiulo, Gibson was selling it on behalf of his children, one of whom, Hugh, took over his father’s namesake Gallery in 2015.
Sotheby’s said this was the only known portrait by the artist in private hands and was once in the same collection, held by Thomas Merton, as the $92 million Botticelli that they sold earlier this year. The last time a Pollaiulo portrait appeared on the open market was in 2012, when a 1470 drawing of a young man sold at Sotheby’s for $1.4 million, against an estimate of $300,000. The buyer was the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The painting today, however, seemed to suffer from the attribution doubts and elicited only one bidder who is taking it home at £4.6 million ($6.3 million)…a record nonetheless.
Leaving the Renaissance and its issues of attribution aside, the sale was thin on Impressionists– the earlier Paris sale having the better selection – but had some modern and post-war gems. A rare early architectural painting from 1922 by the Czech modernist František Kupka, Le Jaillissement II (Tryskání II,) was the subject of a three way bidding battle before selling for a triple estimate record £7.55 million ($10.4 million). According to Artnet, Kupka’s previous record was $3.4 million set last year at Gallery Kodl in Prague where the market for Eastern European artists has been thriving.
As at Christie’s, there was a strong presence of post-war Paris, art informel works, with period classics by Jean Dubuffet, Wols and, particularly, Jean Fautrier. Following the record £4.5 million ($6.2 million) at Christie’s for a large wartime canvas by Fautrier, two determined bidders, one, through Helena Newman and another, presumably German, through Martin Klosterfelde, went for Corps d’otage (1943-44), a smaller but still rare work from the “otage” series leaving the £500,000 ($688,000) estimate way behind until it sold for £3.1 million ($4.3 million) to Klosterfelde’s bidder. The two then went head-to-head on a smaller Fautrier from the same series, which Newman won for a double estimate £1.1 million ($1.5 million). The market for Fautrier, which boomed in the 1980s and then subsided after the 1989 crash, is back.
Unlike Christie’s, the top surrealist price here was for an American, Arshile Gorky’s Garden in Sochi (ca. 1941)– signed after the artist’s death in 1948 by his widow. The vibrant, playful composition was subject to strong bidding from two American phone bidders before selling for a triple estimate (though not a record) £8.6 million ($11.8 million).
It was also a sale that allowed for a couple of cameo performances by artists not usually included in the international category. Minotauro sulla riva del mare (1977) by Bahman Mohassess was the first work by an Iranian artist to be included in a Modern and Contemporary as opposed to Middle Eastern sale. Coming from the artist’s estate and bearing hallmark influences of both Goya and the Surrealists, it was a museum quality work and attracted bidding from Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere before selling for a double estimate record of £1 million ($1.4 million).
A lone work by a Modern British artist was a sensuous 1924 carved sandstone female torso by the sculptor Frank Dobson and was the biggest surprise of the sale. Bought at auction in 1990 by dealer Jonathan Clarke for a then record £17,500 ($28,000) it then sold to an American collector. Although Dobson’s record since improved to reach £338,500 ($643,000) in 2005– nothing has approached that since. But today, with the auctioneer reminding viewers it had once belonged to Alberto Giacometti, the carving easily surpassed its unprecedented £250,000 ($344,000) estimate to sell to an Impressionist and Modern art department client for £2.04 million ($2.8 million).
The contemporary content of the sale, even examples by Matthew Wong and Banksy, was comparatively unremarkable. A once fashionable digitally manipulated C-print of the Singapore Borse by Andreas Gursky, that sold in 2013 for £421,250 ($660,000), sold on the low estimate today for £252,000 ($346,802), and for YBA supporters there were some unpromising results. Damien Hirst’s zebra in formaldehyde, ‘Incredible Journey,’ 2008, had been bought at the artist’s memorable ‘Beautiful Inside My Head Forever’ one-man auction at Sotheby’s in 2008 in which it was said, buyers were given extended credit terms. Most works that have been resold since then have lost money for the buyers and ‘Incredible Journey’ was estimated to follow suit for young Russian art entrepreneur, Maria Baibakova, who bought it at the sale (whether for herself, her father or someone else is not sure) for £1.1 million against a £2 million-£3 million ($2.8 million-$4 million) estimate. Back at Sotheby’s over 12 years later, Sotheby’s had more than halved their estimate to £700,000- £900,000 ($963,000-$1.2 million) and, importantly, found a third-party guarantor. There are many, like the Mugrabis, who have a vested interest in the Hirst market. In this case the guarantor was the only one in the game, buying the zebra for £570,000 ($784,000).
Swanky Holland Park restaurant, the Belvedere, closed for most of the pandemic, had consigned a 7-foot diameter circular Damien Hirst butterfly collage, The Human Voice, 2006, from his Butterfly Grid series with a £600,000-£800,000 ($825,000-$1.1 million) estimate. According to the Artnet database, similar sized Butterfly Grid paintings have sold for as much as £1.3 million ($1.8 million)– but that was back in 2008. Today this visually arresting work sold to a single bid from the US for £620,000 ($853,000).
So this was a sale that emphasized the values of significant and previously undervalued modern artists- Fautrier, Kupka, Dobson -and acted as a reminder of the brevity of bull markets for the new and fashionable.