The Appraisal: 5 Reasons Why Sotheby’s Is Betting Big on René Magritte

On the heels of Sotheby's $60 million consignment, we took a peek at what's been happening in the market for the Belgian Surrealist.

Rene Magritte, L’empire des lumières (1961) . Image courtesy Sotheby's.
Rene Magritte, L’empire des lumières (1961) . Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Last week, Sotheby’s revealed a top lot for its Modern and contemporary evening sale in London on March 3: a fresh-to-market René Magritte titled L’empire des lumières (1961). The house has gone full throttle on its estimate for the work, predicting it will fetch “in excess of $60 million”—more than double the existing record for a work by the Belgian Modernist.

We jumped into the Price Database to explore what’s been cooking in the market for the giant of Surrealism of late.

The Context

Auction record: $26.8 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2018

Magritte’s Performance in 2021

Lots sold: 101
Bought in: 22
Average sale price: $938,157
Mean estimate: $803,452
Total sales: $94,753,808
Top painting price: $17.3 million
Lowest painting price: $41,597
Lowest overall price: $725 (for one of an edition of 300)

© 2022 Artnet Price Database and Artnet Analytics.

© 2022 Artnet Price Database and Artnet Analytics.

The Appraisal

  1. Pre-pandemic heat. The Magritte market was on the rise right up until the pandemic hit. The artist’s auction record of $26.8 million was set in 2018, and his total sales peaked in 2019, at $127.7 million.
  2. Steady supply. The number of Magritte works offered at auction over the past 15 years has remained fairly consistent, generally hovering between 100 and 120 annually.
  3. Not so lockdown-proof. A grand total of $94.7 million was spent on Magritte at auction around the world in 2021—around 11 percent less than in 2020, and down more than 25 percent down from the market’s 2019 peak.
  4. Solid performance. Last year, 64 percent of Magritte’s paintings sold over their high estimates; 23 percent sold less than the mean estimate. 
  5. London calling. In 2021, PDB users searched for Magritte a grand total of 6,388 times, with the most interest falling in March, around the time of the London sales.

The Bottom Line

Sotheby’s generous estimate must be banking on a return to pre-pandemic enthusiasm for the artist. The house—which also provided a financial guarantee for the work—is likely emboldened by the rarity of the piece, which has never been sold at auction (though sources say it has been shopped around a bit on the private market). The prestigious provenance also doesn’t hurt: it has remained in the hands of the Belgian Crowet Gillion collection since Magritte created it for his muse, Anne-Marie Crowet Gillion, in 1961.


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