Led by French-Market Stalwart Pierre Soulages, Sotheby’s Paris Contemporary Art Sales Generated a Middling $19.8 Million

Sotheby's Paris contemporary sale series failed to exceed its 2021 total, but many remain bullish about the local market.

Sotheby's Paris salesroom. Credit : Sotheby’s / Micha Patault.

Paris’s rise as an art-market hub has become a popular narrative against the backdrop of Brexit and ahead of the arrival of Art Basel in October. But last week’s contemporary art sales at Sotheby’s Paris proved that the story is more nuanced than simply “Paris is up, London is down.” 

Sotheby’s Paris contemporary art sales on June 8 and 10 generated a combined €24.1 million ($25.1 million). The evening sale on June 8 totaled €19 million ($19.8 million), just shy of the €19.4 million high estimate, while the day sale on Friday fetched €5.2 million ($5.4 million).  

The two sales saw an increasingly international buyer base converge in Paris, but failed to surpass the equivalent series last year, which achieved €26 million. That figure also remains a fraction of the nine-figure sums generated at Sotheby’s summer London sales last year. 

Nonetheless, Guillaume Mallecot, senior director and head of the contemporary art department at Sotheby’s Paris, told Artnet News that he was satisfied. “We had works by John Baldessari, Anselm Kiefer, Miquel Barceló, and Gilbert and George, which confirms the new positioning of Paris on the European scene,” he said. “Before, those works would have been offered in London or New York.”

Pierre-Soulages, Painting 263 x 181 cm, July 2, 2012 (2012). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Pierre-Soulages, Painting 263 x 181 cm, July 2, 2012 (2012). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Broadly speaking, Paris’s auction market has been on a steep incline over the past few years. In 2021, the city generated $1.1 billion in auction sales, its highest total ever and an increase of 30 percent over 2019, according to the latest Artnet News Pro Intelligence Report. Meanwhile, London’s auction revenue fell 12 percent between 2019 and 2021, to $1.9 billion. On the private market, galleries including Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner, Skarstedt, White Cube, Pace, and Mariane Ibrahim have set up shop in the city. 

“Paris is imposing itself more, thanks to new galleries opening spaces here,” ​​Mallecot said. “After the pandemic, it hasn’t been easy to get people back into the salerooms. But we saw a lot of people—other Europeans and Americans—in the exhibition. We’re waiting for the Asians to come back [once Asia’s travel restrictions are lifted].” 

In the evening sale, 43 out of 48 lots sold. The top performer was a huge black painting with horizontal stripes from 2012 by the French artist Pierre Soulages, which fetched €1.7 million, on the low end of its €1.5 million-to-€2.5 million estimate. (Final prices include auction-house fees; presale estimates do not.) Soulages’s auction record is €20.1 million for a 1961 painting sold at Sotheby’s New York last November. 

“The bidders were international, including Asians and Americans, as Soulages’s market is worldwide now,” Mallecot remarked. “His work has been achieving good results for the last two years and interest isn’t decreasing.”

Kazuo Shiraga, Untitled (T41) (1962). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Kazuo Shiraga, Untitled (T41) (1962). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Three works tied for second place with a price of €1.66 million each: a black-and-blue painting by Soulages from 1994, which sold within estimate; a red, thickly applied abstract by Japanese artist Kazuo Shiraga from 1962, which surpassed its €1.2 million high estimate; and a white canvas with multicolored folds by Simon Hantaï circa 1969–73, which brushed past its high estimate of €1.5 million.

Interest in Hantaï is on the rise against the backdrop of his monographic exhibition at Fondation Louis Vuitton, which opened last month and marks the centenary of his birth. The white canvas’s result was the strongest for any work by the artist not from his famous “Mariale” series.

Simon Hantaï, Study / Blanks (two-sided) (1969-73). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Simon Hantaï, Study / Blanks (two-sided) (1969-73). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

In Friday’s day sale, a blue-and-white study by Hantaï  from 1969 sold for €201,600, exceeding its €120,000 high estimate.

Other works to pip past the €1 million mark were Zao Wou-Ki’s mystical painting, 18.12.69, which sold for €1.5 million (estimate: €1.3 million to €1.8 million) and Lucio Fontana’s Concetto spaziale, Attesa, a slashed red canvas from 1964–65 that sold for €1.2 million against an estimate of €1.1 million to €1.8 million.

Sarah Lucas's Woman in a Tub (2000), which failed to sell. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Sarah Lucas’s Woman in a Tub (2000), which failed to sell. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Among the lots that failed to find buyers were Christo’s Brite Green Store Front, Project (1965), Takashi Murakami’s A chimney (2000), and Sarah Lucas’s sculpture Woman in a Tub (2000).

“It’s a problem of estimation,” Mallecot said about Lucas’ piece—a coat hanger with two fried eggs and a pair of tights suspended above an old bath that was estimated at  €150,000 to €200,000. He declined to comment on the other two.

Asked about how he thought the Paris market compares to that of London right now, Mallecot was measured. “We’ll see in two weeks how the sales in London go,” he said, “but I don’t think there’s a dip in the London market.”

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