Top Flops: What Crashed and Burned at the London Auctions—and Why

Here are five pieces that failed to find buyers—and what that might mean for the markets of their makers.

Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images

During the opening sequence of the late-lamented television show Wide World of Sports (1961–98), the sports journalist Jim McKay used to intone, as athletes attempted daring feats: “The thrill of victory . . . and the agony of defeat.” The man should have covered art auctions! In tony salesrooms across the globe, the reputation of an artist can soar in a matter of minutes as two bidders duel, only to be crushed on another occasion, when people decide not to raise their paddles. In the wake of the recent London auctions, the Artnet News team looked at some lots that savored the thrill of victory, dramatically overperforming expectations at day sales: the top lots. Now it is time for the agony of defeat: the top flops. Below, five pieces that foundered on the auction block during day sales earlier this month.

Oscar Murillo

Untitled (Drawings off the Wall) (2011)

Auction: Phillips London, 20th Century Contemporary Art Day Sale, March 8

Estimate: £50,000 to £70,000 ($63,300 to $88,600)

Sold for: Unsold

Large, messy paintings by the Colombian wunderkind were all the rage ten years ago, when he broke out in the art world. Collectors went gaga for similar scribbles on dirty linen, adorned with Spanish words in chunky letters—“Pollo,” “Yuka,” “Carne”—driving prices as high as $401,000. That auction record for the artist was reached in September 2013. And that’s where it remains now, despite longtime representation by David Zwirner gallery. The present work has the word “Tamales” inscribed on the lower part of the canvas in red. Why did it not take off, while another example by the artist exceeded its estimated range four days later in another Phillips auction? The market is selective these days. And flops are not unusual. In fact, of the 50 lots by Murillo offered since the pandemic, a quarter went unsold. “Maybe people just don’t like tamales,” dealer Stefan Simchowitz said.


Laugh Now (2003)

Image of a monkey wearing a sign

Banksy, Laugh Now (2003). Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Auction: Sotheby’s, Modern and contemporary day auction, March 7

Estimate: £300,000 to £400,000 ($331,000 to $509,000)

Sold for: Unsold

It’s a safe bet that no one was laughing when this pricey Banksy failed to meet its £300,000 ($381,500) low estimate and went unsold, despite having a stamp of approval—i.e., a certificate of authenticity—from Banksy’s official handling company, Pest Control.

The cheeky artist’s well-known hijinks have added value to certain works in the past, as in the 2018 stunt when his Girl With Red Balloon (2006) piece self-destructed via a shredder, right after it sold at Sotheby’s for about $1.37 million. Three years later, the resulting piece made $25.4 million on the block. There was no intervention by the artist this time.

Variations of Laugh Now have in the past sold for as much as $3.3 million, according to the Artnet Price Database. (That price was for a spray-paint on metal piece from 2006 that sold at Sotheby’s London in 2021.)

Was Banksy just having a bad week? Phillips also had a flop with the less-famous Heavy Weaponry (2003), which depicts an elephant walking with a missile strapped to its back. Estimated at £180,000 to £250,000, it failed to sell at the house’s 20th-century and contemporary art day sale in London on March 8.


Damien Hirst

Crown in Petrified Honeycomb with Two Daggers (2016)

Auction: Phillips, 20th Century and Contemporary Art Day Sale, March 8, 2024

Estimate: £150,000 to £250,000 ($190,752 to $321,254)

Sold for: Unsold

The first quarter of 2024 isn’t yet over, but it hasn’t been the smoothest sailing for Britain’s richest artist. A bizarre birthday cake that he gave his girlfriend made news headline and drew mocking comments from the public, and this week he was accused of backdating at least three of his signature formaldehyde tanks featuring preserved animals. During the most recent London sale week, two of his signature works failed to find buyers.

The first is Crown in Petrified Honeycomb with Two Daggers, which was exhibited in the 2017 show “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” at Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana in Venice. This work hitting the auction block at the Phillips sale, from an edition of three plus two artist’s proofs, was executed in 2016 and was among the “fake antiquities” from an imaginary shipwreck featured in that elaborate exhibition, which drew mixed reviews. It came from an American private collection that acquired it from White Cube.

The other work that struggled this week was Prodigal (2017), a green canvas with Hirst’s iconic butterflies laid out in a circular pattern. The work was offered at Phillips’s 20th-century and contemporary art evening sale on March 7, with presale estimates of £550,000 to £650,000 ($703,684 to $831,627), but was bought in.

Eddie Martinez

Untitled (2014)

Auction: Christie’s London, Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Sale, March 8, 2024

Estimate: £40,000 to £60,000 ($50,600 to $75,900)

Sold for: Unsold

The market for the brash and frenetic paintings of New York’s Eddie Martinez was running hot just a few years ago. His auction record was set in 2019 at Christie’s Hong Kong, when someone paid a cool $2.01 million for a 12-foot-wide picture from 2014, and all of his top 10 prices on the auction block came between 2019 and 2021, according to the Artnet Price Database. His work has continued to sell since then (a smaller picture went for about $346,000 last September at Christie’s in Shanghai), but it has not quite reached the lofty prices of the past. On the block in London this month, this 40-by-30-inch vertical painting failed to find a find a buyer. Alas, it happens. But Martinez will soon have the opportunity to pick up some fresh momentum with a solo show representing the tiny European nation of San Marino at the Venice Biennale next month.

Issy Wood

Super Luncheon (2020)

Auction: Phillips London, 20th Century and Contemporary Art Day Sale, March 8, 2024

Estimate: £100,000 to £150,000 ($127,000 to $190,000)

Sold for: Unsold

About a year-and-a-half ago, British painter Issy Wood raised eyebrows in the art market by flouting Gagosian’s offer of representation and choosing instead to work with the (by comparison) smaller Michael Werner Gallery. The news came on the heels of her auction record getting set by Phillips in London at £441,000 (about $560,000) for her work Chalet. Following that representation announcement, her paintings regularly hammered for well over their high estimates at salesrooms in Europe, the United States, and Asia. This year, however, her piece Super Luncheon, which has changed hands twice since it was sold by her longtime London rep, Carlos Ishikawa, in 2021, failed to find a buyer, passing through the auction house like a ship in the night.

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