Sotheby’s Landed $297.2 Million at Its Modern and Contemporary Sales in London, Powered by a Record-Breaking Magritte

So far the art market doesn't seem too disturbed by the unfolding geopolitical crisis.

Sotheby's Helena Newman with René Magritte, L'empire des lumières (1961). Courtesy Sotheby's

While it is hard for many of us to concentrate on anything other than the unfolding geopolitical crisis in Ukraine, London’s spring auction season has so far proved that the uncertainty relating to the Russian Federation’s war on its neighbor has yet to noticeably unsettle the art market.

Christie’s kicked off London auction week yesterday with a $334 million trio of sales, and Sotheby’s continued the festivities tonight with the London debut of its 20-lot ultra-contemporary sale called the Now, before segueing into its 53-lot marquee Modern and contemporary evening sale, which—as is now common given the strength of the buying power from Asian time zones—started at 4 p.m. 

With a sell-through rate of 88 percent, the sales totaled a combined £221.4 million ($297.2 million), safely within their combined presale estimate of £170.4 million–£223.3 million ($227.9 million–$299.7 million). The total is lower than that which its rival achieved last night, but Sotheby’s has yet to stage its own Surrealist auction, which it is taking to Paris later this month. (Unless otherwise noted, final prices include auction-house fees; presale estimates do not.)

The undeniable star of the buzzing sale room this evening was René Magritte’s paradoxical day-and-night painting L’empire des lumières, which hammered after seven minutes of competitive bidding between buyers on the phone with Asia, London, and Dubai-based specialists for £51.5 million, exceeding its unpublished presale estimate of “in excess of £45 million” ($60 million). The price was boosted to £59.4 million ($79.8 million) when fees are accounted for, and the work ended up landing with a bidder on the phone with specialist Alex Branczik, the chairmain of Modern and contemporary art in Asia.

The work was guaranteed by the house, a bet that paid off big time given that the result nearly tripled the artist’s previous auction record, achieved in 2018, and landed a round of applause from the room.

Sotheby's Oliver Barker with Shara Hughes, Naked Lady (2019). Courtesy Sotheby's

Sotheby’s Oliver Barker with Shara Hughes, Naked Lady (2019). Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Deep bidding from Asia drove the ultra-contemporary portion of the sale, the Now, which was conducted by auctioneer Oliver Barker. There was fierce competition for still wet paint from young stars with an average of more than five bidders per lot. Some 50 percent of the works attracted Asian bidding, and 36 percent of buyers in the sale were under the age of 40.

Two lots were withdrawn ahead of the sale, including singer Robbie Williams’s Banksy work, Kissing Coppers, which had been expected to fetch up to £3.5 million. Williams’s other two Banksys sold, including a vandalized oil painting featuring stenciled choppers, which went for £4.4 million ($5.9 million) to a bidder on the phone to New York contemporary specialist Charlotte Van Dercook. Just one lot, George Condo’s Mental States 7, failed to find a buyer.

No one was surprised to see a 2020 work by Flora Yukhnovitch—who just opened an exhibition at Victoria Miro this week, and is arguably the hottest market star of the moment—hammer for £2.2 million, 11 times her £200,000 presale upper estimate. The price achieved—which came to £2.7 million ($3.6 million) with fees—for the Boucher-inspired abstraction, titled Warm, Wet ‘N’ Wild, set a new record for the artist. 

Competition from specialists on the phone with the Asia desk bid up Robert Nava’s Frozen Bark to more than four times its high estimate (although it ended up selling to an online bidder) and set a new record for the artist at auction. A new record was also set for another post-lockdown favorite, Hilary Pecis.

Another coveted young painter, Rachel Jones, saw her auction debut with the sale, and a painting of teeth from 2020 hammered at £490,000 (buoyed to £617,400 ($828,613) with fees), seven times its high estimate, to a bidder going through specialist Brooke Lampley. 

There was fierce competition for Shara Hughes’s Naked Lady, which hammered for nearly six times its high estimate, selling to a bidder in the room for £2 million ($2.7 million) with fees, nearly double the artist’s previous record, after a 10-minute bidding war.

Cecily Brown, Faeriefeller (2019). Courtesy Sotheby's.

Cecily Brown, Faeriefeller (2019). Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Keen industry observers were also watching the performance of Cecily Brown’s much-gossiped about Faeriefeller, after its inelegant flip (or three) caused a scandal in the monde de l’art. Some lackluster bidding brought it to hammer within its presale estimate at £2.4 million, or £2.9 million ($3.9 million) with fees, to specialist Hugo Cobb (and certainly someone had a vested interest in its performance, placing an irrevocable bid ahead of the sale). 

The house’s Europe chairman Helena Newman, wearing a striking orange dress, was passed the baton for the Modern and contemporary portion of the evening. Three lots were withdrawn ahead of the second sale, and eight works failed to find a buyer.

The earlier part of the sale saw another 10-minute tussle, this time over David Hockney’s oddly-shaped Yorkshire landscape Garrowby Hill, which hammered above estimate and fetched £14 million ($18.9 million) with fees to a woman bidding from the room. (It carried both an in-house guarantee and an irrevocable bid.)

Meanwhile, Picasso’s black-and-white portrait of Marie-Thèrese sold for £12 million ($16.1 million), although it also benefited from the double insurance of an in-house guarantee and an irrevocable bid.

Five works sold for more than £10 million, and one of the heavily marketed aspects of the sale was its plethora of Monets. The artist’s gorgeous Nymphéas, consigned from a Japanese private collection, sold for its upper estimate of £23.2 million ($31.2 million). But the five offerings reportedly from Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder performed worse than expected. The house took a loss on Glaçons, environs de Bennecourt, which was guaranteed but failed to attract a buyer. Meanwhile, Les Demoiselles de Giverny was pulled from the sale at the 11th hour and will be offered instead at the house’s New York sale in May. The other three Monets sold unspectacularly, all carrying both irrevocable bids and in-house guarantees.

Overall, the results were the highest the house has seen in a single day, according to Newman.

“Everyone is dealing with [the Ukraine news] in their own way. Some people didn’t participate this season, but as you saw there were plenty of people who did,” she said after the sale. “There is resilience in the market because we have a very global geographical spread of bidders and we have a very deep diversity of demography; all sorts of backgrounds, age groups, and everything, so that came through despite it.”

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