It was neck and neck between Sotheby’s and Christie’s at the latest Impressionist and Modern art sales in London with Christie’s winning by a short head with £166.3m against Sotheby’s £158.7m. The two have not been so close for quite a while and the resulting combined £325m is the highest ever total in this category for a June sale in London.
The main reason for the new high was that both auctioneers had three £20m plus pictures, which was more than usual. Four of them, it has to be said, were guaranteed i.e., the owners had received a guarantee of a minimum price as a reassurance to persuade them to sell. At Sotheby’s there two very desirable Kandinskys and a desirable, but overpriced, Miro which only sold because it was guaranteed. One of the Kandinsky’s, a joyously coloured Fauvist period view of the village of Murnau, had come from the Merzbacher collection in Switzerland, shown at the Royal Academy in 2002. The more expensive (at £33m), was a very rare, seminal example of the artist’s spiritual journey into abstraction in 1913.
Max Beckmann’s Hölle der Vögel (Birds’ Hell) (1937-38) CREDIT: CHRISTIE’S
The price, however, was trumped at Christie’s which had a classic example of war time German Expressionism, Bird’s Hell, by Max Beckmann. The painting had been owned by the American Old Master dealer, Richard Feigen, since 1984 when he paid $500,000 for it. Christie’s sold it for £36m to another American dealer, Larry Gagosian, who is thought to have been bidding for American businessman, Leon Black.
The auction was dominated by strong Asian bidding (for van Gogh, Picasso and Monet), but Russia had its moment too when Modigliani’s Cariatide sold for £6.9 m. Undeclared in the catalogue, the painting belonged to former ICAP chief and Treasurer of the Tory party, Michael Spencer. In 2009, during the credit crunch, Spencer had taken a loan on it from Sotheby’s Financial Services, but it failed to sell at auction when there were no bids at £4.5m. This time round, the artist’s Russian connection and the painting’s intended inclusion in Tate’s prestigious forthcoming Modigliani show, attracted interest from specialist Russian art dealer, James Butterwick, who bought it for a UK based Russian client.
Amedeo Modigliani, Cariatide, 1913 CREDIT: CHRISTIE’S
The inter-auction contest in the contemporary art sales, though, was spoiled as Christie’s withdrew to focus on the Frieze Week sales in October. One wonders at the wisdom of that decision as Sotheby’s, Phillips and Bonhams all held successful sales mustering over £120m between them. But without Christie’s the total was the lowest for a June series of contemporary art in London since the credit crunch.
Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sweet Pungent, Executed in 1984-85 CREDIT: SOTHEBY’S
Sotheby’s was banking on American art and provided a glimpse of how the graffiti artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, had toppled the king of contemporary art, Andy Warhol, from the throne since his self-portrait sold for over £110m in May. An early Warhol self-portrait was supposed to be the top lot, but there was little bidding, and it was superseded by an unexceptional Basquiat painting at £6.5m. Later, a collaborative painting by Warhol (the master) and Basquiat (the protégé) made in 1984, provided one of the high points of the evening selling for a double estimate £4.4m. Dealer Christophe van de Weghe, who has shown both artists, said that nowadays the Basquiat component of the collaboration was the more valuable.
The other highlight was “The Girl who had Everything”, an early painting by British artist, Cecily Brown, once owned by Charles Saatchi who sold it for $1.1m in 2007 to the powerful dealer Larry Gagosian, who then represented her. Two years ago, however, artist and dealer parted company, but this has not dented Brown’s market. When the painting returned to auction last week it sold for a record £1.9m.
Cecily Brown, The Girl Who Had Everything, 1998 CREDIT: SOTHEBY’S
The week wound up first with Bonhams most successful sale yet of contemporary art in London which starred a painting by America’s representative at the Venice Biennale, Mark Bradford, that sold for £1.6m to New York’s Mnuchin Gallery. That evening, Phillips recorded its highest June sale of contemporary art sale since it was bought by the Russian Mercury Group in 2008.
The highlight of the £24.4m sale, though, was not the top lot — a Gerhard Richter abstract which had been guaranteed — but a new record price for the German born, London based photographer, Wolfgang Tillmans, subject of the recent Tate survey exhibition, which, at £605,000, not only doubled the estimate but surpassed the previous record set at Sotheby’s the day before. For the seller it was like a lottery win as they had acquired it in 2012 for £39,650. For Phillips, trailing at number three in the auction rankings, it was a triumph to be savoured.
Wolfgang Tillmans, Freischwimmer #84, 2004 CREDIT: PHILIP’S