‘Fierce’ Demand From Collectors in Asia Propelled Sotheby’s $217 Million Sales of British and Contemporary Art in London

The night was marked by respectable, but not frothy, bidding.

Helena Newman, worldwide head of Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art department, taking the Modern and Contemporary art evening Sale, June 29 2021. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Sotheby’s back-to-back sales of British and modern and contemporary art in London today made a respectable £156.2 million ($217 million) across 83 lots, a total comfortably within the pre-sale estimate of  £119.7 million to £170.3 million ($165.7 million to $235.7 million).

The British sale accounted for £48 million ($67 million), with 30 of 34 lots sold (another work was withdrawn before the sale). That total exceeded the original high estimate of £46.8 million ($65 million), published before the lot was withdrawn. 

The marquee modern and contemporary auction, meanwhile, featured 57 lots (three others were withdrawn before the sale). In all, it pulled in £108 million ($150 million), exceeding its £96.6 (133.7 million) million low estimate. All but four of the works found buyers, for a sell-through rate by lot of 93 percent.

Altogether, the sales marked a 12 percent increase on the total for last year’s “Rembrandt to Richter” sale. (Final prices include buyer’s premium unless otherwise noted; estimates do not.)

These were neither “the auctions of the past, nor the auctions of the future that we pioneered last year,” noted Sotheby’s specialist Alex Branczik, adding that it was a “kind of top-flight auction 2.0.”

Yet bidding, while strong, was never frothy, and the sale featured more than three dozen guarantees, most of them placed by third parties as irrevocable bids.

Ten of 34 artworks in the British sale were guaranteed, three of them by the house. In the contemporary and modern auction, 34 of 57 lots—nearly 60 percent of the sale—were guaranteed, 26 of them by third parties and eight by Sotheby’s.

And for quite a few of those lots, bidding hovered under or near the low estimate before the hammer came down, suggesting that guarantors were the winners on numerous occasions.

Wassily Kandinsky Tensions calmees (1937) Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby's

Wassily Kandinsky Tensions calmees (1937) Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby’s

And Now for Tonight’s Main Event…

Still, a star was born, and it was Wassily Kandinsky Tensions calmées (1937), which sold for £21.2 million ($29.5 million) after auctioneer Helena Newman opened the lot at £16 million. After fielding bids from Sotheby’s specialists on the phone banks, Newman finally hammered the work down at £18.3 million ($25 million). 

The painting, which Sotheby’s hailed as “a powerful abstract masterpiece,” was formerly in the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum and exhibited worldwide.

In 1964, it was one of 50 Kandinskys that the museum deaccessioned; it sold at the time for £10,000 at Sotheby’s London, where it was bought by Willard Gidwitz, part of the prominent Chicago family that founded cosmetics and hair product company Helene Curtis. The painting had remained with the family ever since. 

The Gidwitz family also sold another Kandinsky that came from the Guggenheim sale at Christie’s in November 2016 for a then-record $23.3 million, according to the Artnet Price Database.

The second-highest price achieved in the main evening sale was £9.4 million ($13 million) for Picasso’s Homme et femme au bouquet (1970), which had an irrevocable bid and was won by Sotheby’s chairman of Asia, Patti Wong, whose client authorized the final hammer bid of £8 million. 

During the 1980s, the picture was in the collection of the late television producer and top collector Douglas S. Cramer, who died this month. It was sold by art dealer Christophe Van de Weghe at Frieze Masters in 2012 for a reported $8.5 million, making today’s markup, after nearly a decade, quite healthy.

Pablo Picasso Homme et femme au bouquet (1970). Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby's

Pablo Picasso Homme et femme au bouquet (1970). Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s cited “fierce competition” from collectors in Asia for many works in the sale, with collectors in the region taking home works by Chris Ofili, Richard Lin, Jadé Fadojutimi, Salman Toor, two examples by Picasso, three by Edgar Degas, and one Marc Chagall.

“Across all London sales in 2021, spending by collectors in Asia has doubled year to date,” according to a post-sale statement by the house.

Meanwhile, an untitled painting by Cy Twombly from 1964 scored the third-highest price of the evening at £7.8 million ($10.8 million). The work, which was won today by Sotheby’s specialist Alina Davey, sold at Christie’s in May 2014 for $7.4 million.

Two works by Andy Warhol also sold for handsome sums, with Front and back dollar bills (1962) taking in £6.8 million ($9.4 million) and 9 Gold Marilyns (1980) coming in just under that at £6.5 million ($9 million).

A client bidding with Sotheby’s chairman Lisa Dennison bought the dollar bills, while a collector working with Branczik won the Marilyns. (Branczik, the head of contemporary art in Europe, last month agreed to take on the newly created role of chairman, modern and contemporary art in Asia, and to relocate to Hong Kong.)

An Edgar Degas pastel of a jockey on horseback in today’s sale was also on the auction block not too long ago. The cleverly titled Jockey (1881–85) fetched a final price of £474,800 ($660,000). It was last auctioned in 2018 at Sotheby’s Paris for €513,000 ($631,000), making the monetary return on investment less than remarkable.

Elsewhere in the sale, a Claude Monet seascape, Coucher de soleil sur la mer (circa 1860s) sold for £1.2 million ($1.6 million). It was last offered for sale at auction in Paris in 2018 at Millon & Associes, where it realized €1.1 million ($1.3 million).

Andy Warhol’s Front and Back Dollar Bills (1962-63) Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby's

Andy Warhol’s Front and Back Dollar Bills (1962–63). Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby’s

Fireworks at the Opener

Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s chairman of Europe, served as auctioneer for the British art sale that preceded the main event—and there were some fireworks there too.

Barker started bidding on the opening lot, Lucian Freud’s 2002 portrait of David Hockney, at £7 million, goading four Sotheby’s specialists into a battle that rocketed the hammer price to £12.8 million ($17.7 million). With premium, the final price was £14.9 million ($20.7 million). (The picture also carried an irrevocable bid, meaning the guarantor will get a handsome paycheck from the house for backing the artwork.)

The sale also featured two paintings by former market darling Peter Doig, and bidding was relatively subdued as compared with former auction-room battles for his work. Bomb Island (1991) had an irrevocable bid and a low estimate of £3 million; it sold to a client of specialist Bernie Lagrange’s for £3.6 million ($5 million) hammer (or £4.3 million [$6 million] with fees). 

Meanwhile, Blue Mountain (1996) was also backed by a third-party bid and had a low estimate of £5 million ($6.9 million). It hammered to Sotheby’s executive vice president Amy Cappellazzo for £4.2 million ($5.8 million)—and presumably to the buyer who placed the irrevocable bid. (This marked Cappellazzo’s final auction at Sotheby’s, as she prepares to depart in July.)

Jadé Fadojutimi, I'm pirouetting the night away (2019) Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Jadé Fadojutimi, I’m pirouetting the night away (2019) Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Odds and Ends

Works by Jadé Fadojutimi have been on a streak at auction lately, and today was no different.

I’m pirouetting the night away (2019) sold for £402,000 ($558,000), more than triple the high £120,000 estimate. Noting robust competition from online bidders and from Asia, Sotheby’s noted that her top three auction prices have all been set this month. (The current record of $730,679 was set at a Phillips Hong Kong sale earlier this month.)

Works by Banksy also performed well. The final lot of the British art sale was a 2003 stencil of one of his most famous images, Girl With Balloon. It sold for just over £2 million ($2.9 million) with premium.

Another work by the artist, Laugh Now, a unique example from 2006 in the main sale, fetched a total of £2.4 million ($3.4 million), falling just under the £2.5 million to £3.5 million estimate.

—Additional reporting by Katya Kazakina

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