Francis Bacon’s $52.7 Million Portrait of Lucian Freud Was the Star of Sotheby’s Otherwise Lackluster London Sales

A night of few fireworks suggests the auction market is beginning to feel the recession downwind.

Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud (1964). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Amid rampant inflation, cratering U.S. stock markets and a cryptocurrency crash, London’s marquee auctions this week are being viewed by many as a test of the market as some observers predict an impending correction following skyrocketing spring sales in New York.

Christie’s brought in $248 million over five hours on Tuesday night, encompassing a dedicated sale of 20 works by Marc Chagall and the 20th/21st century evening auctions in London and Paris. Last night, Sotheby’s followed suit with its London saleroom bringing in a total of £149.2 million ($181.8 million) over a pair of sales of British art and Modern and contemporary fare, falling just short of the pre-sale estimate of £143 million to £201 million ($174 million to $244 million). (Final prices include auction-house fees unless otherwise noted, pre-sale estimates do not.)

In an evening that brought few fireworks, Sotheby’s opening Jubilee auction of British art totalled £72.3 million ($88.1 million) over 33 lots, against its pre-sale estimate of £73 million to £99.9 million. (One additional lot, a Leon Kossoff painting, was withdrawn ahead of the sale).

Francis Bacon’s £43.3 million portrait of Lucian Freud, the most expensive contemporary painting sold in London since 2014. Photo by Haydon Perrior, courtesy of Sotheby's

Francis Bacon’s £43.3 million portrait of Lucian Freud is the most expensive contemporary painting sold in London since 2014. Photo by Haydon Perrior, courtesy of Sotheby’s

The undisputed star of the night was Francis Bacon’s portrait of frenemy and fellow titan of British art Lucian Freud, which hammered at £37.5 million cleanly past its £35 million unpublished estimate. But despite jubilant press releases issued after the sale, it wasn’t a hugely surprising result given that the work carried an irrevocable bid—it was won after just two bids by a client with deputy chairman Mark Poltimore. Still, at £43.3 million with fees ($52.7m), it is the most expensive contemporary painting sold in London since Christie’s sold another work by Bacon, George Dyer Talking, for £42.2 million in 2014.

Two records were set: one for a rare-to-market work by the British Pop artist Pauline Boty, which hammered down at £950,000, over its £800,000 high estimate, and another for a Frank Auerbach painting previously owned by David Bowie, Head of Gerda Boehm, which sold for £4.1 million.

Six bidders duked it out through Sotheby’s specialists in Hong Kong for a 2017 painting from Flora Yukhnovich’s graduation show, inflating its hammer price to £1.9 million against a pre-sale high estimate of £300,000. Yet works by British heavyweights failed to attract depth of bidding and pieces by icons Banksy and David Hockney went unsold. The Hockney, a vista of Yorkshire’s Woldgate Woods, failed to attract a bid over its £10 million low estimate and Banksy’s portrait of Winston Churchill with a grassy mohawk was also a pass at £4 million. A painting by Hurvin Anderson, a star of the fall auctions last year, also failed to sell on an estimate of £1.2 million to £1.8 million, along with a handful of other works, all told making for a 78.8 percent sell-through rate.

So it was no wonder that when action returned to the room after a longer-than-usual pause between sales, a more serious and tense atmosphere came with it. Helena Newman came to the rostrum to lead the second half, and the lackluster bidding continued, causing the auctioneer to scold a few specialists about their modest bidding increments.

The Modern and contemporary sale totalled £76.8m ($93.5 million) over 45 lots (against a £70 million to £101 million pre-sale estimate). Works by Alberto Giacometti, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Howard Hodgkin, Paul Klee, Camille Pissarro, Eugène Boudin, and Damien Hirst also failed to find buyers, making for a 78.7 percent sellthrough rate.

The top lot was Monet’s summertime view of Vétheuil on the river Seine from 1880, which Artnet News revealed as a consignment from the £35 million collection of the British retail billionaire Malcolm Healey. He had bought it in 2002 for £5.1 million and last night it hammered for £10 million, at the low end of its estimate.

Gerhard Richter's <i>Study for Clouds</i> hammered for £9.5 million (£11.2 million including fees) after a seven-way bidding battle. Photo by Haydon Perrior, courtesy of Sotheby's

Gerhard Richter’s Study for Clouds hammered for £9.5 million (£11.2 million including fees) after a seven-way bidding battle. Photo by Haydon Perrior, courtesy of Sotheby’s

Elsewhere, Andy Warhol’s candy-pink-on-black Self-Portrait sold for £12.7 million ($15.5 million) after hammering just under its £12 million low estimate. Gerhard Richter’s Study for Clouds hammered for £9.5 million (£11.2 million including fees) following a seven-way bidding battle (three were in the room). And four bidders vied for August Strindberg’s abstract Wave V, pushing the final price up to £6.8m against a £3 million high estimate—a new record for any Swedish work of art.

Meanwhile, the frenzy for hot young artists at recent auction seasons seems to have cooled off a little, perhaps in response to the financial recession coming downwind, which may have buyers seeking to invest in more established names as a better hedge against inflation.

To wit, four bidders competed for a still life by 27-year-old rising star Anna Weyant, who recently announced representation with Gagosian. It hammered at £370,000, an impressive result compared to the £150,000 high estimate, but still far short of her $1.62 million auction record achieved last month. A work by Shara Hughes attracted bidding from Hong Kong and hammered at £450,000 to a phone buyer, well below her $2.9 million auction record. Similarly, a painting by Christina Quarles, whose work features in this year’s Venice Biennale, failed to attract the hunger of seasons past, hammering for £420,000 to Sotheby’s Asia specialist Yin Zhao; the artist’s record stands at more than $4 million.

All told, the lack of fireworks at London’s evening sales would support the theory that a looming recession is taking its toll on art-buying. With Phillips’ 20th-century and contemporary art evening sale still to come tonight, it remains to be seen whether market watchers can make an official call on the speculation that a correction is nigh.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
  • Access the data behind the headlines with the artnet Price Database.