The Back Room: London Falling?

London’s sluggish sales get a jolt, Paris+ primed to become a French fixture, a little-seen Cy Twombly heads to Christie’s, and more.

Gerhard Richter’s Abtraktes Bild (estimate £16 – 24 million), painted in 1986, goes on view as part of Sotheby’s Frieze week exhibitions of Contemporary art at Sotheby's on October 06, 2023 in London, England. Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby's.

Every Friday, Artnet News Pro members get exclusive access to the Back Room, our lively recap funneling only the week’s must-know intel into a nimble read you’ll actually enjoy.

This week in the Back Room: London’s sluggish sales get a Josefowitz jolt, Paris+ primed to become a French fixture, a little-seen Cy Twombly heads to Christie’s, and much more—all in a 6-minute read (1,687 words).


CORRECTION: A previous version of this article compared Sotheby’s and Christie’s $111.4 million hammer total over the autumn evening sales in 2023 with the $355.7 million achieved in 2017, but failed to note that the 2017 figure included auction house fees as well as the total from Phillips and the relevant day sales. The article has been amended.


Top of the Market
Sales Squeeze

Aristide Maillol, <i>Portrait de Mademoiselle Jeanne Faraill</i> (1888-1889). Courtesy of Christie's Images, Ltd.

Aristide Maillol, Portrait de Mademoiselle Jeanne Faraill (1888-1889). Courtesy of Christie’s Images, Ltd.

Tensions have been simmering in the art market since the summer as reports of gallery closures, underwhelming fair results, and global economic downturn continue. Many have been anxious to see if the s“market correction” (read: contraction) would persist, as the art world congregated in Europe, first for Frieze London last week and now for Art Basel’s Paris+. Given the U.K.’s ongoing embattled economic position—spurred by a noxious blend of Brexit, the pandemic, a falling pound sterling, and some of the highest inflation rates in the Western world—some have surmised that Paris could be poised to become the new market capital of Europe, especially with the influx of major international dealers and an Art Basel event over the last few years.

As the dust of the back-to-back fairs and London’s autumn auction season settles, it seems that the market has plateaued at a place called “soft,” where sales haven’t stopped—nor have they impressed—in either city.

The most transparent evidence we have of this comes from London’s fall sales, which were patchy at best. Between the three major auction houses—Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips—we saw a net total of $222 million over the evening sales (all prices adjusted from pounds and including buyer’s premiums). All in all, the auction houses were about on par with each other in terms of totals. At Sotheby’s, The Now sale brought in $19.9 million while their main contemporary sale yielded $37 million; Christie’s brought in $54.5 million from their 20th and 21st century evening sale.

The softening market could be seen in several key transactions—or lack thereof—at both major houses. Without question, the biggest blip of the week was Gerhard Richter’s 1986 red Abstraktes Bild, which had the highest estimate ($19 million- $29 million) of Sotheby’s evening sale and went unsold when bidding stalled at $17.5 million. Indeed, before the sale started, several lots were withdrawn due to lack of interest, among them works by typical auction “safe bets” like Peter Doig, Mark Grotjahn, Christopher Wool, and Jeff Koons. Perhaps the surprise unsold lot of the evening at Christie’s was Maria Berrio’s The Procession (2015), which had a high estimate £700,000—the highest price range yet seen for her work.

Christie’s, however, scored a major leg-up this season, clinching the single-owner sale of the eclectic Sam Josefowitz collection, which accounted for $63.2 million of Christies’ net earnings from this season, topping off the house’s net sales for fall to $117.7 million. This was a serious victory for the house, considering that single-owner collections tend to find themselves in the New York sales.

The Josefowitz sale, which spanned genres from late-19th-century symbolism to Diego Giacometti furniture and prints, was led by a portrait by Aristide Maillol titled Portrait de Mademoiselle Jeanne Faraill (1888–1889), which surpassed its estimate when it sold for $2.9 million. Many works in the collection went for over their estimates, which was rare this season. For instance, Colin Gleadell‘s auction coverage notes that at Sotheby’s contemporary sale, over half of the works sold for their lower estimate or below.

As Gleadell shrewdly points out in his write-up of the Josefowitz sale, the final leg of the $98 million collection was divided up for auction in both London and Paris (where the sale continues today), but the highest-valued lots were sold in London. Moreover, the London portion of the sale gave Christie’s the oomph it needed to surpass its competitor for the highest earnings from this season’s Frieze week events.

The Bottom Line

The Josefowitz sale’s success in London suggests that the U.K. capital remains in the driver’s seat of the European art market even as Paris pushes on the gas. While the sale boosted Christie’s total net earnings to $174.6 million, far outstripping Sotheby’s contemporary sales, these sums are hardly enough to fuel the U.K. market back up to top strength where it had been in 2017, when the London autumn auctions peaked at $355.7 million across all sales for the week.

Read More: Josefowitz Collection Sale
Read More: Sotheby’s The Now Sale

Paint Drippings

Here’s what made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…

Art Fairs

  • Art Basel’s Paris+ opened with seven-figure sales—and even has insiders wondering if the event will eventually eclipse the company’s flagship event in Basel in stature. (Artnet News)
  • Here’s a look at what dealers say they sold, and for how much, at the 2023 editions of Frieze London and Frieze Masters. (Artnet News)
  • Itinerant art fair Paris Internationale continues to evolve but questions linger about how the fair might be impacted by Paris+’s move to the Grand Palais next year, where it will have a larger floor plan. (Artnet News)
  • Speaking of London art week, we identified three trends at 1-54 London, the satellite fair dedicated to contemporary African art, that could challenge the market’s fondness for figuration. (Artnet News)

Auction Houses

  • Closing out the recent round of Frieze London-timed contemporary auctions, we took a closer look at some of the hottest lots from the day sales. (Artnet News)
  • The auction prices for works by Swiss artist Miriam Cahn have increased significantly after nearly all of her top 10 sales were set in the first half of this year. The total sales value of Cahn’s work in the first half of 2023 was more than $3.2 million, 5.6 times the total sales value in 2022 and 15 times the sum in 2021. (Artnet News)


  • Berlin sculptor Alicja Kwade officially joined the roster at Pace Gallery after splitting with embattled dealer Johann König earlier this year. Kwade, whose work is on view at Pace’s Paris+ booth, will also continue to work with galleries Mennour, 303 Gallery, and i8 Gallery. (Artnet News)
  • Dealer Tim Blum is rebranding his company—to simply Blum—and planning to open a new gallery in Tribeca following the split between he and longtime partner Jeff Poe in August.  (Artnet News)
  • L.A.-based gallery Anat Ebgi is planting a flag on the East Coast, unveiling its first New York outpost in Tribeca with a soft opening on November 2 followed by an official debut in January 2024. (Press release)
  • Marlborough now represents the estate of Japanese-Swiss artist Teruko Yokoi, who died in 2020. Ryan Gander has joined the stable at Mennour, which is showing his work at Paris+. (Press releases)


  • Ann Philbin will retire from her post at the Hammer Museum at UCLA on November 1, 2024, bringing to an end to her quarter-century in the post. (Artnet News)
  • The Qatar Museums have called off the opening celebrations for an exhibition of work by Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, likely due to the mounting tensions in Gaza and Israel.  (ARTnews)
  • The Dia Art Foundation has launched a $75,000 annual art award named for late artist Sam Gilliam, funded by the Sam Gilliam Estate and by Annie Gawlak, the artist’s widow. (Artforum)
  • The Kallir Research Institute has appointed Dr. Sonja Niederacher, who specializes in the history of asset accumulation in the Nazi era, as their new senior provenance specialist. She has extensive experience tracking the provenances of works by Egon Schiele and arrives from a similar role at MoMA. (Press Release)

Tech and Legal News

  • A proposed amendment to increase France‘s advantageous 5.5% sales tax on art to 20% will be reviewed in parliament in the coming week, with lobbyists fighting to prevent the change. (Artnet News)
  • An announcement by the Manhattan District Attorney‘s office disclosed criminal facillitation charges against veteran New York antiquities dealer Michael Ward for his involvement in the sale of 19 looted objects that were recently returned to Italy. (Artnet News)

“[Art] does not have any of the characteristics of good investments—it’s not liquid, the pricing process is not clear and obvious. When you buy an artwork, you are never sure that it’s not a fake copy, particularly when you are speaking about very old masters. It’s absolutely not a good investment. It’s not producing yield. We do not invest in art—ever.”

Philippe Gaboriau, executive director of the Louvre Endowment Fund, to the Financial Times

Work of the Week
Cy Twombly’s Untitled (Bacchus 1st Version II)

Cy Twombly's <i>Untitled (Bacchus 1st Version II)</i> (2004). Courtesy of Christie's Images, Ltd.

Cy Twombly’s Untitled (Bacchus 1st Version II) (2004). Courtesy of Christie’s Images, Ltd.

Date: 2004

Seller: Ramiro and Gabriela Garza

Estimate: $18 million to $25 million

Selling at: Christie’s New York

Sale date: November 7, 2023

Measuring almost 9-feet-tall and 6.5-feet-wide, the canvas depicts an amalgam of Twombly’s red, bleeding loops, crowned with the word “Psilax,” which Christie’s translated as “the Giver of Wings,” one of the attributes of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine.

The painting is part of Twombly’s Bacchus series, created between 2003 and 2008. Untitled (Bacchus 1st Version II) was completed early on and seems almost like a sketch or a study in oil on a huge scale. While other works from this period had been shown together in the “Bacchus: Psilax and Mainomenos” exhibition at Gagosian in 2005, Untitled (Bacchus 1st Version II)  was not shown until 2008 at the Red October Chocolate Factory in Moscow, just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. At the time, it was priced around $3 million to $3.5 million and did not find a buyer.

The Garzas, who spend their time between Mexico City and Aspen, bought the work in 2010. The collectors are selling it anonymously as part of a bigger consignment described as “The Elegant Eye: Works from an Exceptional International Collection” by Christie’s.

The top price for a Bacchus work belongs to the 16-foot-wide, 2005 painting that fetched $46 million at Christie’s in 2017, according to the Artnet Price Database. Last year, a similarly monumental canvas went for $41.6 million at Phillips. 

 Katya Kazakina

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