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Sotheby’s Wins the Twentieth Century Battle as Brexit Uncertainty Strikes Christie’s

Updated: Jul 2, 2019

Francis Bacon's 1975 'Self Portrait' sold at Sotheby's for £16.5 million

June’s ‘Twentieth Century Week’ – as Christie’s has coined it – marks the end of the big modern and contemporary auctions for another season. Coming so soon after the New York sales, and with collectors fatigued by, and still caught up in, the final stretch of art fairs (Venice Biennale, Art Basel, Masterpiece et al), it is often a bit of an anti-climax. And unfortunately, this season seemed to be even slimmer than usual, as British sales and acquisitions all but halted, and international buyers seemed more limited amid Brexit uncertainty. It’s not all bad though, and as usual there were a few standout artists – see my blog on Hepworth and Frink, and watch this space for my in-depth discussion on Frank Bowling. For the first time in a while, certainly the first since its recent acquisition, it was Sotheby’s that won the week, with Christie’s falling short of their pre-sale estimates in both the Impressionist and Modern and Post-War and Contemporary Sales.

Jean Dubuffet's 'Cérémonie' topped the Christie's Contemporary Sale at £8.7 million

Post-War and Contemporary

Just a month ago in New York, Christie’s had a whopper of a Post-War and Contemporary Evening sale, with Jeff Koons’ ‘Rabbit’ breaking world records at £71.8 million, in a sale totalling £425 million. This week’s London Evening sale, however, only amounted to £45,179,450, and when combined with its rather dreary day sale, still fell short of £58 million. In the evening sale, 94% of lots sold, which goes to show that the quality and value were simply not there as British collectors decide to hold onto pieces, presumably until the political landscape is more stable. The sale was led by Jean Dubuffet’s ‘Cérémonie’ which sold for £8.7 million – the very low end of its estimate – followed Basquiat’s ‘Sabado por la Noche’ at £8.3, and Francis Bacon’s ‘Man at a Washbasin’ at £5.1 million.

Thanks to a £16.5 million Francis Bacon portrait, Sotheby’s Post-War and Contemporary Evening Sale finished within the pre-sale estimate, hitting £69,143,300, and together with its day sale exceeded £83 million – not dissimilar to last June’s sale, and up on 2016 & 2017. Even the Bacon, though, sold just below estimate, to a third party guarantor. But there were two new artist records for the second and third highest sales that buoyed the night: Albert Oehlen’s 'Self Portrait with Empty Hands’ at £6 million, and Wols’ ‘Green Stripe Black Red’ at £4.5 million, absolutely smashing its pre-sale estimate of £400,000 - £600,000.

Fernand Leger's 'Femme dans un fauteuil' (1913), estimated in excess of £25m, failed to sell at Christie's

Impressionist and Modern

Last week’s Impressionist and Modern Evening auction at Christie’s was a rather lifeless affair, only reaching half the low estimate at £36.4 million (compared to £128 million the same time last year). A number of the big ticket items failed to sell, including Fernand Léger’s Femme dans un fauteuil (1913), estimated in excess of £25m – at one third of the pre-sale estimate total. Even the ones that did sell limped up towards their estimates, with Picasso’s ‘Homme et femme nus’, estimated at £10-15 million hammered down at just £10.2 million (£12.4 million with fees). And while Christie’s quote that 77% sold, I can’t help but feel a few withdrawals at the final hour may have bumped up these figures slightly.

Sotheby’s had a much more impressive sale again the following night, with yet more stand-out pieces making considerable sums of money. Monet’s ‘Nymphéas’ sold for £23.7 million in its auction debut, while Modigliani’s ‘Jeune homme assis, les mains croisées sur les genoux’ brought in £18.4 million, and a stunning Miro oil on canvas was acquired for £12 million. However, none of these pieces exceeded their lowest pre-sale estimate by much, but compared to Christie’s, at least they sold!

Monet's 'Nympheas' made a very respectable £23.7 million at Sotheby's


The biggest positive for Christie’s was the auction house’s two strong Modern British sales, compared to Sotheby’s slim lone sale. When you add this £23.3 million on Christie’s total becomes a little more respectable, but this £73.8 million was still only one third of the total sales across both auction houses in the ten days, with Sotheby’s clearly winning the battle, bringing in £123.7 million.

So what does this mean for the state of the UK art market? And are Christie’s in trouble? One thing to mention is that this is the first time Christie’s have had a Post-War and Contemporary summer sale in the last three years, after dropping it from its calendar in 2017 and 2018. But one would hope that knowing it was to take place, Christie’s may have saved some key lots up their sleeve, or at least set more reasonable estimates. It was Sotheby’s that seemed to have the best pieces, and at the right prices, so bravo to them for pitching just right for the current climate. One can’t help but think that the uncertainty around Brexit has had a huge effect, both on those willing to consign works, and collectors willing to bid big. And although there were a few international collectors bidding high this season (notably Middle Eastern), we need a few more to come in for the autumn sales to put a smile on the face of the London art market. Fingers crossed Masterpiece has greater success...

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