Contemporary Sale in London

Sotheby’s Pre-Brexit Contemporary Sale at London Delivers a Solid $ 123 Million, But Suggest a Circumspect Market

The sale boasted high marks for works by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Lucian Freud, but two Richters from Marc Jacobs’s collection fell flat.

Contemporary Sale in London
Contemporary Sale in London

It was an uneven night for Sotheby’s in its final marquee contemporary art sale in London before Brexit. The auction totaled a respectable £93.3 million ($123 million including premium), down from £109.3 million generated by the equivalent sale last year.

Only one painting surpassed $10 million—a large work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Apex (1986), which sold above estimate for £8.2 million ($10.8 million). Sotheby’s trumpeted the fact that the work had cost just £16,000 in 1988, when it was first sold, but it changed hands several times since.

Contemporary Sale in London
Contemporary Sale in London

All told, the sale’s pre-sale estimate (£75.5 million–104.5 million) was down nine percent from last year, but the sale offered 10 percent more works, meaning the average lot cost significantly less this time around. Only six lots went unsold and the £93.3 million total fell comfortably within expectations. (Prices include buyer’s premium; estimates do not.)

The evening posted strong results for female British artists and artists from the African diaspora. But nearly half of the 66 lots offered sold at or below their low estimates, so at points it felt like hard work for Sotheby’s, which had clearly lowered reserves going into the sale.

An appliqué blanket by Tracey Emin sold well below estimate for £405,000, on a single bid to a late-entry third-party guarantor. A three-meter-high Jenny Saville painting of a bare female back also appeared to sell to its guarantor below-estimate for £5.4 million.

Contemporary Sale in London
Contemporary Sale in London

And three works by the market titan Gerhard Richter, including an abstract that sold for £6.9 million, saw little competition. The other two—photo paintings of an antelope and a shadow—barely recovered the price that their owner, designer Marc Jacobs, paid for them five years ago. They were among the 24 lots in the sale that were guaranteed to sell, accounting for more than 40 percent of the estimated value of the sale.

In situations where there is no guarantee and a reduced reserve, dealers can take the opportunity to buy well below estimate. And buy they did. White Cube snapped up an Antony Gormley sculpture for £300,000, while the London-based dealer Stephen Ongpin bought a portrait by David Hockney of the textile designer Celia Birtwell for £555,000. The Nahmad family hoovered up a punctured white canvas by Lucio Fontana for £447,000.

Contemporary Sale in London
Contemporary Sale in London

Somehow, the momentum of the sale carried this softness in its wake. The Saville still performed well compared to the £459,200 it made in 2009 when it sold to dealer Pilar Ordovas. It was part of a curated section at the beginning of the auction that offered seven works by female artists, who are still significantly underrepresented at evening sales.

Kind regards, Pierre

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