A $21 Million Francis Bacon Portrait and a Bevy of Middle Eastern Bidding Fuel Sotheby’s $88.4 Million Postwar London Sale

New records were set this evening for Pascale Marthine Tayou and Toyin Ojih Odutola, but the overall results were moderate.

Francis Bacon, Self Portrait (1975). Courtesy of Sotheby's.
Francis Bacon, Self Portrait (1975). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

This evening’s contemporary art sale at Sotheby’s London was a workmanlike, but not frenzied, affair. A Francis Bacon portrait, pieces by a diverse range of rising stars, plus a German surprise helped the 43-lot sale generate £69.6 million ($88.4 million), solidly within the pre-sale estimate of £57.4 million to £82.1 million ($72.9 million to $104.2 million). But it is difficult to read any consistent trend into the evening, whose low estimate was down 28 percent from last June’s 44-lot auction but up from the previous two seasons’ similarly sized sales.

Four lots went unsold, while nine surpassed their estimates, 17 sold within expectations, and 12 failed to hit their low estimates. Five auction records were broken, with particularly strong performances for work by Cameroon-born Pascale Marthine Tayou and Nigerian-born American painter Toyin Ojih Odutola

The sale kicked off positively with Cluster (2015) by Charline von Heyl, the mid-career German abstract artist whose major survey recently closed at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC. Sotheby’s must have had several disappointed bidders lined up who were unable to land a work by von Heyl in New York, where her auction record has been broken twice in the past 18 months. Tonight, White Cube gallery was outpaced by a German buyer, who snagged the work for £150,000 ($190,791), triple the low estimate. (Final prices include the buyer’s premium; pre-sale estimates do not.)

Self-Portraits on Top

Self-portraits topped the bill. The top lot of the night, by far, was a small-scale self-portrait by Francis Bacon from 1975, which was guaranteed to sell and estimated at £15 million–£20 million. Last time it sold, just four years ago, it fetched £15.3 million ($24 million), near the top for a small-scale head by Bacon. Tonight, it sold below estimate for £16.5 million ($20.95 million), presumably to the third-party guarantor.

Albert Oehlen, Selbstportrait mit leeren handen (Self Portrait with Empty Hands) (1998). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Albert Oehlen, Selbstportrait mit leeren handen (Self-Portrait with Empty Hands) (1998). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

There was a bit more action on a 1998 self-portrait by Albert Oehlen from the extensive collection assembled by the writer and art theory professor Harald Falckenberg, which carried a £4 million–£6 million estimate. The previous Oehlen record was £3.6 million set last October, when the artist’s two representatives, Gagosian and Max Hetzler, slugged it out over a large 1984 painting of a cow with a hole in it. Sotheby’s confidence in guaranteeing the self-portrait in-house was duly justified when bidding between different rival dealers, Per Skarstedt and David Zwirner, raised the artist’s record to £6.2 million ($7.87 million) after a winning bid from Skarstedt. (This figure also exceeds the list price on the 1988 Albert Oehlen sold with great fanfare via Gagosian’s online viewing room in March.)

With the Oehlen market seemingly ripe, two other examples were also sent for sale. One, a splashy 2006 abstract from the collection of the late radio and cable investor James Rich, attracted bidding from a Middle Eastern phone bidder as well as Turkish collector Halit Cingillioglu before selling to a Swiss bidder for £1.8 million ($2.29 million), well above the £800,000 high estimate.

Rising Records

Middle Eastern bidding was more evident than usual, and resulted in two record prices. Pascale Marthine Tayou has been moving up the ranks in Sotheby’s African art sales, with a new record of £75,000 set last October. Promoted now in an evening international contemporary sale with a large sculpture made from crystal, found objects, and colorful textiles, his Poupées Pascale, Les Sauveteurs (2007) carried a £250,000–£350,000 estimate and sold to a Middle Eastern phone bidder for a new record of £312,500 ($396,685).

Pascale Marthine Tayou, Poupées Pascale, Les Sauveteurs (2007). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Pascale Marthine Tayou, Poupées Pascale, Les Sauveteurs (2007). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

A notable shooting star of the sale was 34-year-old Toyin Ojih Odutola, whose auction record of £250,000 was set in March. Tonight, Sotheby’s had another example, Compound Leaf (2017), purchased from Jack Shainman Gallery the year it was made, which carried an estimate of £100,000–£150,000. It attracted early bidding from New York dealer David Benrimon and strong competition from Japan before selling to another Middle Eastern phone bidder for a record £471,000 ($597,840).

Toyin Ojih Odutola, Compound Leaf (2017). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, Compound Leaf (2017). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The big surprise of the evening was a rare 1946 abstract on canvas by the influential German artist Otto Wols, the likes of which had not been on the market for a while—hence the timid £400,000 to £600,000 estimate. In fact, this painting, Green Stripe Black Red, had come to auction back in 1984, when it sold for what was then a record of £132,000. Tonight’s work was pursued by Berlin dealer Heinrich zu Hohenlohe and a tenacious Japanese bidder before selling to a German phone bidder for £4.5 million ($5.71 million), shattering the artist’s 11-year-old auction record of £2.6 million.

Wols, Vert Strié Noir Rouge (Green Stripe Black Red), (1946-47). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Wols, Vert Strié Noir Rouge (Green Stripe Black Red), (1946-47). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The Underperformers

The eminent Greek collector Dakis Joannou was among the night’s anonymous sellers, but he met with mixed fortunes. A Mark Grotjahn butterfly work on paper he bought from Anton Kern the year it was made in 2006 sold within estimate for £555,000 ($704,586), but no one wanted his 1992 Christopher Wool word painting that spelled, “I WANT TO BE YOUR DOG.” Bought in May 2000 before the Wool craze took off for $92,750, it was estimated to make a 4,000 percent return at £3 million to £5 million—but didn’t sell. A later Wool, from his smudged abstract series, did better, selling to Gagosian for a mid-estimate £4.2 million ($5.33 million).

Among these sales, however, there were casualties. A Rudolf Stingel carpet pattern painting that sold in Hong Kong in 2017 for £2.3 million to a European buyer (don’t believe that all that Western art selling in Hong Kong sales is being bought by Asians) now sold at a loss for £1.3 million ($1.48 million). A 1984 Basquiat, Big Snow, also passed at £2.8 million. The best return of the evening might have been on a small slashed red Lucio Fontana canvas that cost £10,000 in 1983 and now sold for £795,000 ($1 million).

Not many Jenny Savilles come up for auction, but when they do, it is the works from the ’90s (the earlier and bigger, the better) that dominate, selling for as much as £9.5 million. This evening’s offering, Shadow Heads, was a relatively late work, dating from 2007–13, with a £3 million to £5 million estimate. No later work had sold at auction for over £1 million until this evening, when dealer Timothy Taylor won the painting on behalf of a collector for £4.5 million ($5.71 million).

Several eyes were on a colored stripe painting, Bright Shade (1985) by Bridget Riley, whose market is moving slowly but inexorably upward. This work last sold eight years ago for £253,000 and was underbid tonight by Ivor Braka before selling above estimate for £1.1 million ($1.4 million).

After the sale, Sotheby’s Amy Cappellazzo confirmed that uncertainty over Brexit had not made it any easier gathering works for the London sale, though around one third of the lots had come from the US. Asked if she thought the sale could have gone better, she replied: “It could have gone worse.”

One senses the London market is looking forward to more settled times.

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