Buoyed by Ronald Perelman’s Meditative Miró, Sotheby’s Cross-Category Hybrid Auction Netted $193 Million in London

The sale included works spanning 500 years of art history.

A look at Sotheby's auction on July 28, 2020. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Sotheby’s auction house’s cross-category evening sale in London last night rounded off the marquee summer sales with a bang, realizing £149.7 million ($192.7 million). Three records were set, and a £22.3 million ($28.7 million) Joan Miró netted the highest price for an artwork sold at auction in Europe this season.

In total, across its sales this season in Paris, Geneva, Hong Kong, and New York, Sotheby’s raked in an impressive $1.1 billion. But in times of extreme uncertainty, the auction house has taken pains to carefully orchestrate that success, and its final hurrah was no exception.

The sale’s total fell within the presale estimate of £108.2 million to £155.5 million ($139.3 million to $ 200.1 million), but only after six lots were withdrawn at the last minute, including a Francis Bacon, which had carried the second-highest estimate of the night, and a work by 19th-century German painter Gustav Bauernfeind that was quietly dropped mid-sale.

Twelve works in the auction carried a guarantee, 10 of which also had irrevocable bids placed ahead of the sale. Five lots cracked the £10 million mark with fees, but three works failed to sell, making for a 95 percent sell-through rate. (Sales results include the buyer’s premium, unless otherwise noted; presale estimates do not.)

Sotheby's Europe Chair Oliver Barker fielding bids during the "Rembrandt to Richter" sale on July 28. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Sotheby’s Europe Chair Oliver Barker fielding bids during the “Rembrandt to Richter” sale on July 28. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

A New Normal for Auctions

London’s first live evening sale since February was carried off similarly to Sotheby’s first hybrid contemporary sale in New York last month, but the results fell shy of the earlier event’s $363.2 million total.

Last night, Sotheby’s Europe chair, Oliver Barker, fielded bids from an array of screens streaming telephone banks packed with specialists in London and New York, and a select few in-person bidders, as well as online collectors. Bidders from 47 countries registered for the sale, and Sotheby’s claimed the three-and-a-half hour event was watched live by an audience of 150,000 people. 

But the sale was a testament to the new normal of auctions in more than just form. Attractively titled “Rembrandt to Richter,” it included works spanning 500 years of art history, fully embracing the emerging trend towards the collapse of auction-house categories, perhaps most famously embodied by Christie’s inclusion of Salvator Mundi in a contemporary art sale in 2017.

The cross-category feast was, of course, partly forced by the pandemic, which suspended several major sales but left many consignors unwilling to wait until the next season to cash in. On the other hand, those who could afford to hold out for better weather did so, leaving auction houses in short supply of top-tier lots.

Joan Miró, <i>Peinture (Femme au chapeau rouge)</i> (1927). Courtesy Sotheby's.

Joan Miró, Peinture (Femme au chapeau rouge) (1927). Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Safe Bets

One big story from the sale—although it was a relatively modest financial success, considering its estimate—was a Joan Miró dream painting that once hung in Alexander Calder’s bedroom.

The work, which appeared at auction for the first time since 1966, sold at the low end of its £20 million to £30 million estimate, netting £22.3 million ($28.7 million). The winning bid was scored by Sotheby’s New York head of evening sales, Julian Dawes, after a protracted 11-minute battle with Impressionist and Modern specialist Helena Newman in London (who was dressed for the occasion in a Miró blue dress).

The Miró came from the collection of billionaire Ronald Perelman, as did Henri Matisse’s Danseuse Dans Un Intérieur, Carrelage Vert et Noir, which hammered at £5.5 million, well below its £8 million low estimate. 

But the sale of the pictures (both originally acquired in the late 1980s from Swiss dealer Thomas Ammann) was a fait accomplithey were each guaranteed with irrevocable bids ahead of the sale.

Paolo Uccello, Battle on the banks of a River, probably the battle of the Metaurus (207 BCE). Courtesy Sotheby's.

Paolo Uccello, Battle on the banks of a River, probably the battle of the Metaurus (207 BCE). Courtesy Sotheby’s.

The spirit of the sale saw specialists bidding across categories, with a few giggles when contemporary specialist Alex Branczik threw his hat into the ring for recently restituted still life by the 17th-century painter Abraham Mignon.

There was bidding from specialists in every department for another recently restituted Old Master: an Italian Renaissance picture by Paolo Uccello that Helena Newman ultimately secured for a buyer for £2.4 million, against a high estimate of £800,000. (The same collector also scooped up a Henri Laurens sculpture via Newman). 

Many eyes were on a triptych by Banksy, whose contemporary intervention on found oil paintings fitted the theme of the sale well. The works were sold to raise money to build a new acute-stroke unit and to purchase children’s rehabilitation equipment for the Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation, and made £2.2 million ($2.9 million), the artist’s second-highest price at auction.

Rembrandt Marmensz van Rijn, Self-Portrait of the Artists, Half-Length, Wearing a Ruff and a Black Hat. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Rembrandt Marmensz van Rijn, Self-Portrait of the Artists, Half-Length, Wearing a Ruff and a Black Hat (1632). Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Rembrandt to Richter

The sale’s titular Rembrandt, a diminutive self-portrait of the artist that was protected by an irrevocable bid, hammered within estimate at £12.6 million after a drawn-out and dubious progression of bids wherein the price was raised at the very last minute by what Barker called a “with the hammer” bid from an iced-out Brooke Lampley in London. The work ultiamtely ended up with specialist Christopher Apostle in New York.

Bidding for the titular Richter cloud painting was more lackluster, and while the work made over £10 million with fees, it sold on a paltry single bid from specialist Lisa Dennison in New York.

Other notable lots included a maquette by Barbara Hepworth that drew bids from five collectors before it sold for more than four times its high estimate to David Schrader, the auction house’s head of private sales in New York.

Amoako Boafo, Self Portrait (2017). Courtesy Sotheby's.

Amoako Boafo, Self Portrait (2017). Courtesy Sotheby’s.

There was also a surprising result from a statue relief by Henri Laurens, which smashed its upper estimate nearly six times over and set an auction record for the artist.

Less surprisingly, a self-portrait by rising-star Ghanian painter Amoako Boafo easily soared past its upper estimate to hammer at £190,000 with a specialist bidding from the Asia desk.

Christie’s continues the cross-cateogy trend tonight with its classic art evening sale in London, which will span an even longer historical time frame, extending to antiquities. Its most expensive lot is an unsigned Rubens with a high estimate of £6 million.

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