Christie’s London Nets $250 Million Across 20th/21st Century and Art of the Surreal Sales

The total was 17 percent up on the equivalent sale last year.

Adrien Meyer, Co-Chairman-Impressionist & Modern Art, selling Francis Bacon’s Landscape near Malabata, Tangier for £19.6 million. Photo: Courtesy of Christie's.

The London market looked a little stronger after Christie’s followed Sotheby’s £100 million ($127 million) opener with its 20th/21st Century and Art of the Surreal auctions. The back-to-back sales of Impressionist, Modern, Surrealist and contemporary art on Thursday, March 7, brought in £196.7 million ($250 million) against a £166 million to £233 million estimate. (All sale prices include the buyer’s premium unless otherwise noted; estimates do not.)

Seven lots were withdrawn of the total 105 across the two sales. Of these, perhaps the most significant was the late Francis Bacon work, Painting March 1985, which we revealed was the property of the British collector David Ross. Estimated at £4.2 million to £6 million, it was overshadowed by another Bacon in the run up to the sale and had attracted no third-party guarantees. The total, nonetheless, was 17 percent up on Christie’s equivalent sale last year, though it has to be said, those sales were down 26 percent on the year before—such is the merry-go-round of swings and roundabouts in the art market.

20th/21st Century Sale

The top lot of the 20th/21st Century sale, which included 87 lots before withdrawals, was Francis Bacon’s Landscape near Malabata, Tangier, which had an estimate of £15 million to £20 million and sold for £19.6 million ($25 million). Nearly 40 years ago the painting was bought by London dealer Ivor Braka for a record $517,000. “I absolutely loved it,” Braka said just before the sale, “so I kept it for 14 years.” He eventually sold it to the billionaire financier Pierre Lagrange, who was the seller this time around.

Francis Bacon, Landscape near Malabata, Tangier(1963).

Francis Bacon, Landscape near Malabata, Tangier (1963). Courtesy of Christie’s.

Bidding for the Bacon was dominated by dealer Nicholas MacLean, who took it to £16.7 million. Then, waiting for his moment, former Christie’s head of post-war and contemporary art Europe, Francis Outred, seated on the other side of the sale room, signaled a bid at £16.8 million and the contest was over. The final price, including premium, is the highest realized for a non-figure painting by the artist.

Outred chose not to comment on the buy, or the painting, but he is well known as a fervent admirer of the artist and achieved several notable prices for Bacon while he was at Christie’s. His knowledge and enthusiasm were apparent again after he left Christie’s when, together with Bacon’s primary biographer, Michael Peppiatt, he co-curated the acclaimed 2022 Bacon exhibition at the Royal Academy, “Man and Beast,” in which this painting was included.

Art dealing, they say, runs in the family, and for Braka, watching the sale of a much-loved painting was matched by a proud moment seeing his son, Joseph, cutting his teeth at Christie’s when he placed the winning bid for David Hockney’s early 1960s swimming pool painting, California. The work, held in a private German collection for the last 40 years, fetched the second highest price of the sale, for which his client had to outstrip a guarantor to win it for £18.7 million ($23.8 million).

British interests in the sale continued with a small early work by Lucian Freud, Raid on a Village (circa 1949) that sold to Beaumont Nathan Art Advisory below estimate for £403,200 ($512,000). Later in the sale, a small plant painting by Freud, on show recently at London’s Garden Museum, received a winning bid from Asia selling for £982,800 ($1.2 million), doubling its estimate. But perhaps the real British showstopper was a rare 1978 painting of goldfish swimming by the overlooked School of London artist, Michael Andrews, which sold for £3.1 million ($3.9 million) on a £1.6 million estimate and set a new record for the artist.

Painting of a man floating in a pool by David Hockney

David Hockney’s California (1965). Courtesy of Christie’s.

The sale had opened with the customary crop of hot contemporary artists led this time by Allison Katz’s Snowglobe (2018), which quadrupled its estimate to set a record of £277,200 ($352,000). It was underbid by Hauser & Wirth, which staged their first exhibition for the artist in New York last year. The price must have been a lot more than the seller would have paid (lower five figures) when it was first shown at Jake Miller’s The Approach gallery in London. Following that and spurred by Asian bidding, Jade Fadojutimi’s large abstract painting, The Woven Warped Garden of Ponder (2021), doubled its estimate and set a new record for the artist at £1.2 million ($1.5 million). It’s a substantial mark up on the price it would have commanded (again lower five figures) when first shown at Pippy Houldsworth in 2018.

Outred was in the action again bagging Liu Ye’s Girl with Toy Bricks (2007) at its low estimate of £1.2 million ($1.5 million). The below-estimate hammer price was one of several signs that we are living in more selective times, even in the contemporary sector. Other works that hammered at or below their estimates include: Then Tha Dust Settles (2017) by Christina Quarles (£180,000, or $228,000), Adrian Ghenie’s The Squat (2021) (£800,000, or $1 million), Caroline Walker’s Ward Round 1 (2012) from the Czech collector Robert Runták’s holdings (£150,000, or $190,500), and Nicolas Party’s Back with a Red Hat (2017) sold to an online bidder from Turkey at £360,000 ($457,000). There was even the rare sight of an unsold painting by Julien Nguyen.

There was little in this sale to really test the Impressionist market, apart from an atmospheric Monet, Matinée sur la Seine temps net (1897), which fetched a mid-estimate price of £14.4 million ($18 million). “At close to $20 million, that’s quite a strong price,” said David Stern of the Stern Pissarro gallery, which is planning a 150th anniversary celebration of the birth of Impressionism at its gallery one block away. Elsewhere, though, a somber early Van Gogh sold to China on the low end of its estimate for £2,460,000 ($3.1 million), a fairly flat Monet landscape in Giverny failed to attract Chinese bidders and sold below estimate for £6.3 million ($8 million), while a third but dark Monet, Ravin de la Creuse (estimated between £2 million and £3 million) was withdrawn and a pastel Degas Dancer went unsold at £1.2 million.

“There was much stronger bidding at Sotheby’s day sale,” said Stern, pondering the continued strength of attractive and decorative middle-market Impressionists.

Monet's Matinee sur la Seine painting

Claude Monet, Matinée sur la Seine, temps net (1897). Courtesy of Christie’s.

The best Modern art on the block may not have elicited much competition but attracted buying at sensible prices. A Fauvist Jawlensky, Frau mit Fächer (1912), sold by the Josefowitz family’s Fridart Foundation, was bought by Wentworth Beaumont of Beaumont Nathan advisory for below its estimate at £4.8 million ($6 million). A 1944 Picasso, Nature morte a la bougie, was snapped up below estimate by the Nahmad family, who occupied the front row as per usual, for £2.2 million ($2.7 million).

Small, classic sculptures with reasonable estimates proved more of  an enticement. A 16-inch Giacometti, Figure 1, petite (1947) was one of only 14 lots in the 125-lot sale to exceed estimates, going to Hauser & Wirth for £3.4 million ($4.3 million). Another sculpture inspiring competition was Henry Moore’s three-foot Reclining Figure No.2 (1953), which was also chased by Hauser &  Wirth, which represents the artist’s estate, before selling above estimate for £3.5 million ($4.4 million). The gallery, which will celebrate the centenary of Spanish artist Eduardo Chillida’s work at their Menorca outpost this May, also stepped up to pay £2.3 million ($2.9 million) for the artist’s more sizable steel sculpture, Down Town 111 (1990), doubling its estimate.

In the post-war market, a collection of four works by Alighiero Boetti sold well in the £500,000 to £1 million ($700,000 to $1.3 million) range, mostly above estimates to telephone buyers—a tribute to the London dealer, Ben Brown, who advised on the formation of the collection. But the Italian magic did not extend to a slashed white Lucio Fontana canvas with a £2.5 million low estimate that found no takers at £2 million.

The Art of the Surreal Sale

By the end of the 20th/21st Century sale, the room had thinned out, but it soon refilled in anticipation of the Surrealist sale, where 25 lots were expected to fetch £48 million to £79 million. In the event, 22 of them sold for a combined £59 million ($75 million), half of them for hammer prices above their estimates. Half of the top 10 lots were by René Magritte, led by the top lot of the week in London, L’ami intime which appeared to sell to the guarantor under estimate £33.7 million ($42.8 million). That’s still a substantial gain on the £90,000 it cost in 1980.

A painting of a man with his back turned to the viewer, facing clouds,in a bowler hat with a baguette and a wine glass, by Rene Magritte.

René Magritte, L’ami intime (The Intimate Friend), (1958). Photo: Courtesy of the Gilbert and Lena Kaplan Collection and Christie’s London.

The opening lot—a small gouache by Magritte, Le Principe d’Archimede (1952)—was similarly profitable. Bought in 2003 for $186,700, it sold this time to an online bidder from Illinois for £1.5 million ($1.9 million), doubling its estimate.

A Meret Oppenheim object, Tisch mit Vogelflussen (1939), saw competition between an online bidder in Connecticut and a representative of Hauser & Wirth in the room who claimed the trophy for an estimate-doubling record of £529,200 ($672,084). The prescient seller had paid £38,240 for it in 2001—then also a price that doubled its estimate.

Another record of note was set for Hannah Hoch, whose photomontage, The Beautiful Girl (1920), doubled its estimate when it sold for £453,600 ($576,072).

Not everything was a gain, though. Joan Miro’s Oiseaux, Insecte, Constellation (1974) had been bought in 2014 for $2.3 million but now sold below estimate for £882,000 ($1.1 million). For Christie’s, a painting by Man Ray, Portrait (Patti Cadby Birch) (1942), compounded a loss incurred last year. Having been offered at Christie’s Paris last year with a guarantee, it failed to sell with an €800,000 low estimate (an indication of how much it was guaranteed for). Now having a financial interest in the painting, Christie’s re-offered it in London with a £350,000 low estimate hoping to recoup its outlay, but it failed to sell again.

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