Celeb Podcaster Russell Tovey’s Sotheby’s Sale Generates $8.5 Million—and Fierce Competition for Young Stars

The tenth edition of the sale brought the series' highest total to date.

Russell Tovey in front of Wolfgang Tillmans, Arms and Legs Image courtesy Sotheby's.

The combination of buzzy young artists and the stamp of approval from a celebrity collector has proven to be a winning combination for Sotheby’s. The auction house’s Contemporary Curated sale, featuring works chosen by actor, podcast host, and self-proclaimed “art-geek” Russell Tovey, took in $8.5 million (£6.1 million), the highest total in the category to date.

Banksy, Laugh Now (2002). Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Banksy, Laugh Now (2002). Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

The 107-lot sale, which ran for a week and closed on Tuesday, found buyers for 88 works, delivering an 82 percent sell-through rate. The $8.5 million total, which includes fees, exceeds the $4.9 million-to-$7 million pre-sale estimate. Sotheby’s reported that more than two thirds of the lots sold for prices above their high estimates.

But all this should come with an asterisk, since the range was revised downward after several lots were withdrawn prior to the close of the sale.

The auction house had previously stated that the sale comprised 112 lots and a pre-sale estimate of $5.1 million to $7.2 million. Some experts have complained about a lack of transparency in extended online auctions like this one, when objects that don’t sell are listed as “withdrawn” rather than “unsold,” thus sparing them a black mark if offered for resale in the future.

Damien Hirst, <i>Sinful</i> (2007). Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Damien Hirst, Sinful (2007). Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Tovey’s auction is the latest in a series curated by boldface names such as Ellie Goulding and Virgil Abloh. It continued the trend, accelerated during lockdown, of Sotheby’s drawing younger clientele. According to the auction house, the sale had a 50 percent increase in bidders under 40 compared to the equivalent sale in November. Twenty percent of buyers were also transacting with the house for the first time, Sotheby’s said.

The sale’s top lot was a Banksy stencil from 2002 depicting a monkey wearing a sign that reads “Laugh now but one day we’ll be in charge.” Laugh Now sold for $1.18 million (£864,000), well over its high estimate of £600,000. A mixed-media work by Rashid Johnson, The Wave (2014), a six-part piece with black soap and wax on burnt red oak flooring, fetched $935,000 (£680,500).

Rashid Johnson, <i>The Wave</i> (2014). Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Rashid Johnson, The Wave (2014). Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Another top seller was a photo by Wolfgang Tillmans, a favorite of Tovey’s (and a previous guest on his podcast Talk Art). Titled Arms and Legs (2014), it sold for $190,000 (£138,600).

Louis Fratino, a painter whose depictions of queer life have developed a devoted fan base, saw his painting Pit Stop (2016) quadruple expectations to sell for $56,000 (£40,320).

Meanwhile, the market heat surrounding Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo has not died down: his painting of a man holding a book, Body Politics 2, made $312,485 (£226,800), well over its £90,000 high estimate.

Aboudia, <i>Untitled</i> (2013). Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Aboudia, Untitled (2013). Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Other sale highlights included two paintings by Ivorian artist Aboudia that sold for $208,000 (£151,200) and $147,000 (£107,100), both more than quintupling their high estimates. A testament to the artist’s rising popularity on the secondary market, all of his top 10 auction prices have been set this year (yes, we mean 2021).

Finally, two uniquely created blankets from the Colville “Calling All Knitters!” project sold for a combined total of $4,000 (£3,024). Proceeds will benefit CADMI, a refuge for vulnerable women and survivors of domestic violence in Milan. A further three blankets will be offered at Sotheby’s in Milan this spring.

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