A painting by Winston Churchill from the collection of Hollywood star Angelina Jolie fetched $11.6 million at Christie’s surprisingly successful Modern British art evening sale yesterday, March 1.
The sale totaled £25.6 million ($35.8 million), selling 97 percent by lot and 99 percent by value. Final prices include premiums unless otherwise noted; presale estimates do not.
The evening was led by the British wartime prime minister’s Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque, which was painted as a gift for US president Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II as a symbol of the special relationship between the two allied nations.
It was painted in Marrakech in 1943 shortly after the allies met in Casablanca, where they decided to accept only the “unconditional surrender” of Germany.
The work later passed to FDR’s son, and changed hands a few times before it was acquired by Jolie’s family, which has owned it since 2011. It was bought from the New Orleans gallery M.S. Rau Antiques. (CNN reports it was a gift from Brad Pitt, who was dating Jolie at the time. Artnet News reached out to the gallery to confirm, but did not hear back by press time).
The historic provenance and much-buzzed-about Hollywood connection attracted heated bidding from 10 different parties, who duked it out for nine minutes before it hammered at £7 million, nearly three times its high presale estimate.
When fees are accounted for, the sale set a new auction record for Churchill’s work at £8.3 million ($11.6 million). The result far outstrips the previous record, which was set when The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell fetched £1.7 million at Sotheby’s London in 2014 (then equivalent to $2.7 million).
“Churchill’s works are beyond pure artworks, they are objects of historical importance, which certainly drives enthusiasm and interest in them,” Jussi Pylkkänen, Christie’s principal auctioneer, tells Artnet News. “Churchill now is firmly in the cannon of Modern British painting. I think we assume that his political career was greater than his artistic career, but I think art collectors look on his work differently.”
The record-breaking work was secured by an anonymous telephone bidder through Belgian specialist Olivier Camu, though Pylkkänen said the buyer was not Belgian.
It was not the only Churchill work to sell last night. Scene at Marrakech, a gift for World War II general Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery, fetched £1.9 million ($2.6 million), and St Paul’s Churchyard brought in £1.1 million ($1.5 million). Both works exceeded their presale estimates, and were underbid by an online collector in Texas.
The results were striking for a Modern British sale, with Pylkkänen noting that the million-dollar average lot value was the highest in the auction house’s history for a Modern British sale. The total was also the second-highest for the category in the past decade.
Surprisingly, none of the works in the sale carried a presale guarantee. “I’ve lived in an environment for the last decade that’s been about clients wanting reassurances,” Pylkkänen says. “And here we are in a period when people need reassurance for all sorts of reasons and feel discombobulated about stuff going on in their world, their private lives, yet here we have a sale without any guarantees, hugely successful, and with no withdrawn lots.”
The auctioneer was most excited by the online interest the sale attracted. The house claims 185,000 people watched across various platforms, and Pylkkänen fielded bidding from 12 countries—interest he says outstrips even the major New York sales in the past.
“When you think that Britain is caught in a lockdown, and private clients weren’t able to view, I think it really does prove the point that the globalization of the art market through digital channels has completely transformed the way in which people perceive Christie’s sales,” he says.
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