Christie’s Navigates a Tough $104 Million London Sale With a $49 Million Hockney—But Jordan Casteel Is the Breakout Star

Overall, the sale showed London's auction market on a downtrend.

David Hockney, Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott (1969). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Tonight was the first Christie’s London contemporary sale for some time over which their former head of postwar and contemporary art, Francis Outred, has not presided. And how did it go? All said, the total of £79.3 million ($104.1 million) was way down from last year’s £137.5 million. So while New York’s mid-season sales were edging up in value last week, London’s main sales were edging down. On the positive side, 93 percent or 38 of the 41 lots found buyers.

Still, as at Sotheby’s the previous evening, half of the sales were either on or below the low estimates, indicating minimal competition. Six of the top ten selling lots were guaranteed and four sold on or below the low estimates, so likely back to the guarantors. These included a 1961 Joan Mitchell, sold for £2.9 million; and a 2009 painting, The Collector, by Adrian Ghenie, which was back having sold only 18 months ago for £2 million at Phillips, and sold for a fraction more tonight, at £2.7 million.

Outred left the company after last October’s Frieze week sales and was replaced with two co-heads, Katharine Arnold and Cristian Albu. They culled the sale to 41 lots (down from last year’s 65) with a pre-sale estimate of £65.2-£109.8 million (down from £111.4 million–£160.6 million last year) for tonight’s sale. To emphasize the shrinkage (experienced at Sotheby’s and Phillips as well), just one lot, David Hockney’s large double portrait of Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, amounted to almost half of the low estimate value of the sale, at £30 million. And as at Sotheby’s the night before, nothing else in the sale approached the $10 million mark.

In terms of drumming up business, “it had been tough,” said Albu. “But then it is tough everywhere.”

The Hockney had been part of the Barney Ebsworth estate which Christie’s had disposed of in New York in November. It was never going to be offered in the same sales as the swimming pool painting which made Hockney the most expensive living artist at $90 million last year—so it was sent to London, where it wouldn’t have to compete. None of the other 40 lots carried estimates in excess of £5 million; and only 14 had low estimates more than £1 million. A lot of this material would have been day sale fodder in New York.

It is also worth pointing out that, including the aforementioned Hockney, nine works in the sale were guaranteed with a total low estimate value of £42.6 million, comprising some 66 percent of the low estimate value of the entire sale. That’s a lot of brokering done before the sale even begun.

Jordan Casteel, <i>Patrick and Omari</i> (2015). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Jordan Casteel, Patrick and Omari (2015). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

As at the previous evening’s Sotheby’s sale, the sale kicked off strongly with a focus on young contemporary female artists, though here there was a more American slant. The first lot was only the second work at auction by the young American painter Jordan Casteel (born 1989), who makes large, intensely observed figurative paintings of black figures. Casteel is represented by Casey Kaplan and is currently enjoying a solo show at the Denver Art Museum. In 2017, Kaplan was selling her work for between $18,000 and $36,000. With those primary market prices, her six-foot painting, Patrick and Omari, warranted a £40,000–£60,000 estimate, given that her previous work at auction had quadrupled estimates last May in a fundraiser for the Studio Museum in Harlem, to sell for $81,250. (Rosemary Motley, a director at Casey Kaplan, says works of this scale retail for around $50,000.)

Here, nine bidders piled in, including Sotheby’s former expert, Gabriela Palmieri. But it was eventually won by a phone bidder against an online bidder in the UK for £299,250.

Katharina Grosse has had plenty of auction experience—especially of not selling during the years prior to her representation by Gagosian in 2017. In that year, a record quadruple-estimate £308,750 was set, and tonight’s work, a vivid, approximately 8-by-13-foot spray-gun abstraction carried the highest estimate yet for her work at £150,000–£200,000. It hurtled the high estimate comfortably to sell for £275,000.

Avery Singer (born 1987) is another young female artist who is receiving museum acclaim for her subtle and witty work referencing art history. It has only been appearing at auction in the past two years, consistently outperforming estimates and hitting a seven-times estimate $725,000 last year. Tonight’s relatively small, three-foot-square painting, Cycladic Mask, took that feat into account, estimated at £80,000–£120,000. It sold to Andrew Fabricant of the Gagosian gallery for £150,000.

The main focus, inevitably, fell on the 1969 Hockney double portrait. It had last been sold 1992 when the market was on its back, below estimate for $1.1 million, the third highest price for a Hockney then. It was bought by Ebsworth privately five years later. With tonight’s sale, which was guaranteed, auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen announced there was only one other large double portrait in private hands. He then began fielding phone bids at £28 million.

When they petered out and the hammer came down at £33 million (£37.7 million with premium or $49.4 million), it was declared the most expensive painting by a living artist in Europe. Still, the image of Geldzahler sitting rather glumly in a soulless interior only made half the price of Hockney’s record-setting beautiful young men by a glistening hillside pool.

Other Hockneys in the sale include a small 1968 Santa Monica street gouache, which was chased by London dealer Hugh Gibson before selling for a double estimate $515,250, and an interesting, perhaps unresolved 1965 composition, Realistic Still Life, from the collection of artist Frank Stella. Not out of the top drawer, it failed to sell with a £1.5 million estimate. Stella told the press he was looking for cash flow, but will have to wait.

Jonathan Yeo, <i>Claire's Room (Grayson Perry)</i> (2013). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Jonathan Yeo, Claire’s Room (Grayson Perry) (2013). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Joining the British bandwagon was the first painting by society portrait painter Jonathan Yeo to be featured in an evening contemporary art sale. Yeo has a loyal following, however, and this portrait of Grayson Perry bathed in pink just eked out a single bid on the low estimate to sell for a not very convincing record £125,000.

Cecily Brown, <i>Night Passage</i> (1999). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Cecily Brown, Night Passage (1999). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Otherwise, it was more familiar fare. Christie’s did set a record £1.45 million for a bronze hare by Barry Flanagan, though only by virtue of the increased buyer’s premium. On a more positive note, Cecily Brown compounded the success story, affirming that there is life after New York as a place to work (and Gagosian as a dealer). The last time her Night Passage was at auction was in October 2007, at the height of the pre-Lehman Brothers boom, when it was sold by Charles Saatchi for £468,000. This time, with Brown’s reputation still growing, the painting sold to a phone bidder for £3.1 million—one of the better returns in the sale.

David Salle, <i>Bigger Rack</i> (1998). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

David Salle, Bigger Rack (1998). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Saatchi has not had a work in an evening sale for a while. Tonight, perhaps in competition with Per Skarstedt’s exhibition of David Salle’s paintings nearby (titled “Musicality and Humour“) which were selling from $275,000-$450,000 each, his 1998 painting, Bigger Rack, was on offer. The collector has owned the painting for 30 years (unusual in itself). It had a £200,000-£300,000 estimate. Two phone bidders vied with Bona Montagu of Skarstedt before she let one of them take it at £515,250 ($676,000)—the second highest auction price for the US artist.

Nicolas de Staël, <i>Bouteilles (Bottles)</i>(1952). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Nicolas de Staël, Bouteilles (Bottles)(1952). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Postwar European artists outnumbered Americans by at least two to one—such are the demographics of the London sales—and out in front was Russia-born French painter Nicolas de Staël with three 1950s semi-abstractions, all of which attracted strong Russian bidding. The top seller was a still life of bottles which sold well above estimate for £4.5 million.

Gerhard Richter fared little better than at Sotheby’s when a small, colorful abstraction, sold a mere 16 months ago to an Asian collector for $3.8 million—and sold again tonight below estimate for £3.1 million (or $3.8 million again). Still, it may have been an achievement just to make the same price.

It was not a great sale for spotting buyers. Grayson Perry’s ceramic pot, Style Riot, sold to collector Alex Lachmann on the low estimate for £100,000; White Cube snagged a Cy Twombly work on paper below estimate for £611,250, not much more than it cost the consignor in 2014; and Andrew Fabricant of Gagosian added a 1960s alphabet painting by Jannis Kounellis to his shopping bag this week, paying an above estimate £539,250—among the highest prices for one of these paintings by the artist.

So the market is still there—just not as exuberant as it was. London and Miami dealer Inigo Philbrick summed it all up this way: “Christie’s worked their reserves and bidders very well to manufacture a very successful night that a lot of us thought it would be hard to complete.”

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